How Reagan-Thatcher shaped British Defence Policy

This year marks the centenary of the birth of Ronald Wilson Reagan, the 40th President of the United States. Around the world special events have celebrated the life of a man who, as many would argue, ended the struggle with the Soviet Union. Last week it was the turn of Britain to show its gratitude to the late President with the unveiling of a 10ft bronzed statue outside the US Embassy in London. Speeches by both British Conservative and US Republican dignitaries stressed how the statue represented the ‘special relationship’ between the US and Britain. William Hague told the assembled crowd that Britain admired Reagan for the ‘warmth and loyalty’ he brought to the relationship. But the main reason behind this relationship and the legacy it has created has not been fully addressed either by politicians or the media.

Ronald Reagan statue head

Ronald Reagan fundamentally altered the direction of UK Defence. Photograph:BBC

Indeed, the ‘special relationship’ is one of the most important aspects of the Reagan era for Britain, and has been a vital foreign policy concern since 1945. But good relations with the US have never been an end in itself. The heart of US-UK relations and the real end is cooperation on defence and foreign policy. This is what defined the Thatcher – Reagan era more than anything else and the decisions and policies made during that era still have an effect on Britain to this day.

Over the last six decades, the US-UK relationship has seen years of close cooperation as well as disengagement. During the 1970s, before Mr. Reagan and Mrs. Thatcher were elected, politicians on both sides of the Atlantic began to think that the relationship was not as special as had once been thought. The end of the east of Suez role and consequently the decline of the UK’s strategic influence from 1967 had reduced its diplomatic weight which made it less attractive for the US. The election of Edward Heath in 1970 would further strain the relationship between the two countries. Mr. Heath was critical of the special relationship and led Britain in the other direction towards closer integration with Europe. In 1973 the UK finally joined the European Community and developed closer defence partnerships with EC member states.

It would be the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979 and Ronald Reagan in 1981 that would again change the tide in Atlantic relations. Both were close ideological partners committed to the values of the free-market, individual freedom and democracy. This translated into closer defence ties between the two countries most notably in military nuclear technology, intelligence and capability parity. The first test of this cooperation was to be the war in the South-Atlantic Falkland Islands. This conflict was to show both the effectiveness and shortfalls of the renewed Anglo-US relationship. It has been estimated that 98% of intelligence that Britain received about the Argentine forces on the Islands came from the US National Security Agency (NSA). This dependency on US intelligence was hindered by those in the Reagan administration who supported anti-Communist regimes (including Argentina under General Galtieri).

In the same year as the Falklands campaign the Thatcher and Reagan governments gave a green light for the upgrade of the Polaris nuclear deterrent system. The original system was acquired under the 1962 Nassau agreement and was now being upgraded to the incoming US Trident system. The acquisition of Trident would give Britain a nuclear deterrent at a fraction of the cost of a fully independent system. But this nuclear relationship had unstated qualifications. The defence of Britain through deterrence would rely heavily on the US, and that continues to this day. British defence and foreign policy is ultimately constrained by what is acceptable to the US, essentially to avoid any provocation.

Throughout the 1980s British defence thinking overall was transforming to reflect the closer relationship between Reagan and Thatcher. Both countries increased defence spending and began ramping up the pressure on the Soviet Union. Britain, as the acquisition of Trident had demonstrated, wanted to emulate the US defence model and maintain parity with its command and control structures and operational capabilities. Those who supported US emulation in the Ministry of Defence were certain that this would have the effect of strengthening Britain’s ability to influence key decisions made by the US. This was on display in 1991 when then Prime Minister, John Major, committed an entire armoured division to the first Gulf War campaign, more than any other European country.

The issues that came to prominence in the 1980s, mainly the nuclear deterrent, intelligence gathering and the transformation in defence thinking, are the same issues that plague the Ministry of Defence today. Many of the problems in the department can be attributed to the way Mrs. Thatcher tried to curry favour with Mr. Reagan in the 1980s and how successive Prime Ministers sought to do the same. The Strategic Defence Review in 1998 under Tony Blair’s government continued to stress the importance of capability parity with American forces. Many of the procurement decisions agreed in this period were made to ensure Britain possessed a full spectrum of capabilities while also being interoperable with US assets. Keeping up with the Americans was easier said than done especially as the US began procuring new technologies that were simply unaffordable for our own defence budget. To put this in perspective the defence overspend in 1980 was around £400 million, in 2009 that figure was estimated to be around £36 billion.

This is an unknown legacy of Ronald Reagan’s special relationship with Margaret Thatcher and it is continuing to rot the UK’s defence apparatus two decades on. It is said that there is now a ‘psychology of dependency’ in the Ministry of Defence; issues remain taboo especially in the three areas of deterrence, intelligence and strategic thinking. The decision to renew Trident has been put off until 2015, most certainly to keep Liberal Democrat critics quiet. The US bases on British soil used for intelligence gathering (RAF Menwith Hill and RAF Molesworth) are not debated as well as the strategic questions regarding Britain’s capabilities and its global role. These issues give a grounding for wider discussions of US-UK relations that have been levelled at successive governments in other areas of policy. Had the Reagan-Thatcher special relationship not existed then the health of our defence policy today would be vastly different.


Posted on July 15, 2011, in Coalition Government, Foreign Affairs, General, US Politics and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. What or who is “America’s Poodle” I hear you ask!

    Why its the United Kingdom of coarse. 😉

    A once proud and mighty empire, suffering from delusions of grandeur.

    But now the 51st state of the U.S.A – The unfortunate runt of its litter,

    But then beggers can’t be choosers can they.

    For the latest satirical tweets about the “Great and the not so Good”

    of the U.K, feel free to follow Americas_Poodle on Twitter.

    Brought to you by England’s most distinguished noble men,

    The Rt Hon, Lord Muck, O.B.E – D.S.O – M.B.E – K.G

    An old friend and adviser to the Royal Family, who taught Prince Charles

    The ways of this murky and disgusting world 😉

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