Not for Turning: Margaret Thatcher and Croatia/Bosnia

By Brian Gallagher

With the recent death of Margaret Thatcher,  a couple of biographies of her have been published. One is ‘Not for Turning’ by Robin Harris. Harris, of course, was one of her top advisers and thus uniquely placed to discuss her life. Further, he is an expert in his own right on Croatia and Bosnia, being the author of an acclaimed history of Dubrovnik.

It is no surprise then that a number of pages in the biography are given over to Margaret Thatcher’s support for Croatia and Bosnia. Indeed, Harris identifies it as one of her last campaigns.

He relates how her involvement would have surprised any; she had no experience of the former Yugoslavia and had some anti-German prejudices. However, she saw Belgrade’s Greater Serbia policy as a mix of Nazism and Communism, and firmly believed the Slovenes, Croats and Bosnian had the right to defend themselves. She believed that if she and Reagan were still in power, Milosevic would have been stopped.

Harris relates that initially pressure was placed upon her to keep silent in public; she expressed her views forcefully in private to then foreign secretary Douglas Hurd. It was the horrors of Vukovar that made her go public.

Although she was out of power, it is clear that her views had great influence. This is demonstrated by the response of the Foreign Office when they got wind of her preparing to go public. They got Charles Powell, her former foreign policy aide, out of bed at 4AM in Macau to call her to dissuade her. He failed.

Her interest in the issue was considerable. Harris singles out Chris Cviic and Noel Malcolm as the two most important figures of the many experts she spoke to.  She trusted Croatia’s representative in the UK, Drago Stambuk, who gave her regular briefings.  On the Bosnian side, General Jovan Divjak impressed her. As an ethnic Serb, he helped temper her view on the Serbian people. She took advice from US military analyst Norman Cigar and British General Sir Anthony Farrar-Hockley gave her an assessment. She became very well versed in the issue, becoming, as Harris puts it, “a know-all”.

She did not warm to either Franjo Tudjman or Alija Izetbegovic. It won’t surprise many to find out that Tudjman’s droning about history etc rather than liberty and justice was less than effective amongst Westerners.  Croatian Foreign Minister Mate Granic, however, “commanded her confidence”. On the Bosnian Muslim side, Bosnian Vice-President Ejup Ganic was her favourite.

Fascinatingly, it transpires during the counter-productive Muslim-Croat civil war, the Bosnian Muslims suggested that she mediate between the two sides. Rightly, Harris considers it wise that she turned this down  – only the Americans could sort that out –  but the fact that the suggestion was made demonstrates the respect she was held in.

Harris relates how she wrote a piece in the New York Times and broadcast on US TV in order to pressure the Bush administration into action. However, it was only later under the Clinton administration that action took place.

She contacted many people over Bosnia, including German Chancellor Helmut Kohl.  She wanted him to support Bishop Franjo Komaric in Banja Luka, whose flock were under attack. It also transpires that when Tony Blair was in power, she had many contacts with him over Kosovo, which had to be kept quiet due to sensitivities in Blair’s Labour party.

She faced however, much opposition from her own party,  a number of whom publicly attacked her, including defence secretary Malcolm Rifkind. In relation to the Dayton agreement, which at least brought peace, Harris says: “Margaret Thatcher had been proved right and her Conservative Party critics wrong. It was something else for which they could not forgive her.”

As mentioned above, it was the Americans who finally intervened to end the war, with their crucial support for Croatia’s Operation Storm and NATO air strikes. Public pressure was instrumental in the American change of policy. Without Margaret Thatcher’s voice, that pressure would have certainly been less – perhaps with calamitous results.

Harris’s book is important and worthwhile reading in its own right. For those interested in British policy towards Croatia and Bosnia during those dark days, it is an important source.

Not for Turning by Robin Harris is published by Bantam Press and easily available via outlets such as Amazon.

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