New York Times London Bureau Chief John Burns Remembers Margaret Thatcher
HH: I’m so pleased on this day that we mark the passing of Margaret Thatcher, Baroness Thatcher, that we are joined by John Burns, two time Pulitzer award-winning New York Times Bureau Chief in London. John Burns, welcome back to the Hugh Hewitt Show. Tell me what your thoughts were when you heard this morning that Margaret Thatcher had died.
JB: Well, I think they were, I’m a native born Brit, and I think my feelings were very much the same as millions of other people in this country, which was we feel the loss quite deeply. And I think that extends to people who were opposed politically to her in the 1980s, many of whom today surfaced, saying on radio and television that was they opposed her policies then, they acknowledge she did have a transformative and ultimately beneficial, even highly beneficial effect on this country. This country was, I won’t say it was a goner in the 1970s, but it was a country in a deep slump. I grew up in that country. I grew up in a place where we got used to losing at everything. And in fact, we made an export of it in our humor. The Monty Python show, That Was The Week That Was, things that many of your listeners will be familiar with, where we mocked ourselves, and we congratulated ourselves for being so candid about accepting our own decline. I remember a tennis game with George Bush the elder, who was my tennis partner at the time when he was American ambassador in China. And we twice running, two years running, we lost the Peking Diplomatic tennis championship to a very wily couple of Italians. And George Bush is a very generous man, and he took in good faith. He was a very good tennis player, very good tennis player. And he turned to me after our second defeat, and he said you know what it is about you Brits? He said you don’t care to win.
JB: And it was true. We didn’t care to win. As a matter of fact, we thought it was terrific to lose as long as you lost with good faith. Well, Mrs. Thatcher came in and said be damned with that, we are going to make something of this country again, and we’re going to believe in ourselves again. And she, in very large measures, succeeded.
HH: John Burns, it’s hard to get into the way back machine and go back to when she assumed power, but if you can, what did you expect from her when she first became prime minister? Did you expect one and done, a rapid exit, a collapse? What did you think she would do?
JB: You have to remember that she was a real radical. First of all, nobody expected that this grocer’s daughter from the provinces could gain the leadership of the Conservative Party, the establishment party, the party of what are known in this country as the toffs, that is to say the wealthy, the upper-middle class, the well-to-do. She did in 1975. Having done that, nobody expected that she would come into office as she did five years later, four years later in 1979, with this radical agenda. Most of her fellow party leaders were deeply opposed to that radicalism to the privatization and deregulation, the legitimization of wealth and of accredited entrepreneurial passions. This was in a country which had become deeply, deeply statist after the Second World War. And her fellow Conservative leaders attempted with every means to stop her. And she prevailed. The lady’s not for turning, she said, and she wasn’t for turning. And we emerged from the 1980s with a much, much healthier economy, with a thriving private sector. Now much of this has come of course full circle in the last few years as a result of the banking crisis and the recession. But there are very many millions of Britons, many of them, I have to say, who were struggling when she came into office, people who were working class, who found in Mrs. Thatcher a pathway to personal prosperity. I was at the Grand National race, horserace on the weekend, which is held outside Liverpool, a place where Mrs. Thatcher’s name in 1979-1980 was mud. I was on the terraces with tens of thousands of the sorts of people who have benefitted from Thatcherism, as it’s called, the small entrepreneurial class. And those sorts of people became fervent supporters in the name of Mrs. Thatcher. That’s not to say that everybody was. Some of the working class, coal miners, people who worked in the state-owned industries at the time, took a different view. But now with the longer view, that thirty or more years have given us, I think that there is a broad feeling in this country that she was a huge force for the good in Britain, and beyond Britain’s shores where Thatcherism, as it became to be known, influenced the policies of governments far and wide.
HH: If you ask any number of different people, John Burns, some will bring up her confrontation with the unions, some will bring up the bombing and her refusal to bend in the face of terrorism. Others will talk about the Falklands or the regeneration of the economy. With me, she’s inextricably linked up with John Paul II and Ronald Reagan in the defeat of the Soviet Union. In your view, having covered her from abroad and at home all these years, what do you think her greatest accomplishment and legacy is?
JB: Well, certainly that would have to be on the short lists, the role that she and Ronald Reagan played in bringing the Cold War to a close, and to a successful close for the Western world without a shot being fired. I think the Soviet Union, and I lived there during those years as a correspondent for the New York Times, I think it was doomed. We didn’t know it at the time, but I think it was doomed already. What they did was they hastened that doom, and they helped Mikhail Gorbachev to make sure that the collapse of the Soviet Union was accomplished with minimal violence at home and with no external aggression. And that was a huge, huge accomplishment. And then, of course, we go on beyond that to the domestic economic changes that I just described. She’s a formidable person to deal with, personally.
HH: And in a last question, did you like her? Did you like her?
JB: I admired her. I wouldn’t say I liked her. She gave me a terrific whack on the backside when, it was the first time I met her. It was during her visit to China to Beijing to sign the agreement that ultimately returned Hong Kong, a British colony, to Chinese sovereignty. And I had the temerity over a drink at the British ambassador’s residence a few hours after she signed that agreement to say to her that I knew that among the six million people of Hong Kong, there were many who felt that they had been, and it’s an unfortunate phrase I now regret, I said sold down the river. They hadn’t been consulted about their future, and they had been cast by this champion of human liberty, Mrs. Thatcher, into bondage with communist China. And she looked, peered at me in the ambassador’s residence, and then looked to the ambassador, the British ambassador, and she said did you say this man is English? Now most of the reporters present were Brits, and he said yes, ma’am, John is a British citizen, but he’s the correspondent, the bureau chief for the New York Times. And she said well, she said, young man, I wasn’t exactly a young man at the time. I must have been, by that time, in my early 40s. She said obviously, you’ve been a long time gone from England. You know nothing about me. And if you knew anything at all, she said, you would understand that I do not answer questions based on a false premise. It was the first time I’d heard that word pronounced that way. And I sunk into my chair and decided to say nothing, and was somewhat encouraged afterwards by a very senior official at Downing Street, who said, he said don’t take it too badly, very senior official. He said don’t take it too badly. We put up with that every single day.
HH: And with a minute left, John Burns, did the Conservative Party make a mistake when they overthrew her when they did?
JB: Very hard to know. She had become, in some ways, rather intolerable with her no, no, no’s, and her editing every submission from the cabinet minister like a schoolmarm saying this will not do and so forth. I think it was inevitable that they would run out of patience with this, and inevitable, by the way, that the country would run out of patience with Thatcherism, too, as they did when they elected Blair by a landslide in 1997. I think history worked out as it had to, and that history will accord her a very, very significant chapter in the story of this island. And we’ll see, probably next week when the funeral occurs, I think you’ll see an outpouring of tremendous feeling for her in the streets of London.
HH: And in the United States, and certainly in this audience. John Burns, thanks for spending some time with us to remember the Iron Lady, one of the great, great citizens of the world, and of course, of the United Kingdom over the last century. John Burns from London, thank you.
End of interview.