Skip to main content

Prime Minister Brian Mulroney welcomes British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to the Economic Summit at Toronto City Hall in this June 19, 1988 file photo.FRED CHARTRAND/The Canadian Press

In a friendship that extended over 30 years, I argued passionately with Margaret Thatcher, I fought with her, and I won and lost battles with her.

But at the same time, I loved Margaret Thatcher.

If you admired strength and vision, if you respected a political colleague who could endure the most powerful blows and never flinch, if you respected a leader who stood on principle no matter how politically painful was its defence – you had to love Margaret Thatcher.

I remember most vividly the end of her time in office. We were together at a high-level summit in Paris, in November of 1990, on the very weekend of the caucus revolt that removed her from office. I was stunned that after winning three strong majorities she could be turfed out in such a manner – and indeed, so was she. She would not have come to the meeting if she had understood how serious was the conspiracy against her.

Margaret and I had a complicated friendship. I admired her position on most issues, and we supported each other at international meetings on issues as diverse as bringing Mikhail Gorbachev into the circle of the G7, on free trade and on expanding NATO to broaden and deepen the boundaries of democratic Europe. But on one issue we clashed, repeatedly.

Mrs. Thatcher could not see the importance, the inevitability even, of the end of a system as patently cruel as apartheid. We had our most difficult conversations about it for more than five years, including an especially intense one-on-one at Mirabel Airport. The photo of the two of us makes clear how wrenching was our exchange. Margaret left office before the astonishing transformation that was Nelson Mandela's arrival on the world stage, and I avoided renewing our debates on the subject after that. She certainly wasn't for the turning, as she said, but we remained friends. I know she suspected me of being what she would call "a wet" – not sufficiently hardline by her standards.

She came to visit in her retirement years, spending one glorious weekend with my family and me at the prime minister's residence at Harrington Lake. We talked and laughed and shared memories of the grand battles we had fought and won together until well into the evening. We had other fine holidays together in South Hampton in New York and in Palm Beach in her retirement years.

Margaret was careful not to interfere in other countries' domestic politics, sensitive to how difficult such meddling would be for a fellow leader – most of the time. ... However, when she came to Ottawa in the midst of our free-trade debate, to my amusement and the horror of many colleagues, critics and reporters, she used part of her speech to the House of Commons to laud not only the free-trade agreement and but our government for having attempted it. She gave me an "aren't I wicked?" smile as she sat down.

It was only two years later though that she was attempting to maintain the same confident zeal in a tough negotiation. We were together at the then-new Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. Margaret drove her security policy views backed by her usual intensely detailed homework. In all my public life, I only met one other leader who prepared so meticulously for important meetings – Peter Lougheed.

During the discussions, she maintained her confident, even jaunty air, but late that night before a formal dinner at Versailles she turned to me and said, "Brian, I need a friend to talk to. As I said in my diary note later, "I was overwhelmed by the sadness in her eyes and by her loneliness..." I shared with her the story of John Diefenbaker and his similarly painful defeat. We chatted about the vagaries of political life. Then Mila and I escorted her into the room.

This was a side of Margaret I had never seen, and that she did not permit the world to see, then or later. Margaret Thatcher was never going to go quietly – and she did not. Setting up a large foundation devoted to her political values, writing a two-volume memoir and offering advice to leaders in private – and sometimes with her typically razor-sharp acuity – in public.

I was pleased to have a chance to share memories with her and then share them with those gathered at the memorial for Ronald Reagan in 2004. Our last time together was over lunch at Claridge's in London. Margaret was almost as sharp in her judgments of people and events as the first time I met her 30 years earlier.

It is always tempting for one generation to regard the leaders of the generations that follow with some condescension. But I believe I am safe in saying that at a crucial chapter in her country's history, without Margaret Thatcher's resolute leadership, the United Kingdom would have suffered far more deeply.

And I am confident in saying that, at an equally crucial moment in global history – the collapse of communism and the reunification of Europe – the world was blessed to have had leaders of the stature of Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, the first George Bush and Helmut Kohl, to lead us through that fateful transition. I feel blessed to have known and worked many late nights with each of them – and most blessed of all to have had that privilege with Margaret Thatcher, an Iron Lady indeed.

Brian Mulroney was Prime Minister of Canada from 1984 to1993.