Archie Brown


On his book The Human Factor: Gorbachev, Reagan, and Thatcher, and the End of the Cold War (The first four questions)

Cover Interview of March 31, 2021

Four of Eight:
I’d like to ask you to expand on what you have just said about your personal encounters with Margaret Thatcher and Mikhail Gorbachev and what could be called your indirect communication with Ronald Reagan. First of all, on the Chequers seminar in 1983. That must have been an impressive event. What was Thatcher’s reaction when you spoke about Gorbachev? Do you write about this in the book?

I do write about that 8 September 1983 seminar in the book. It was one of three meetings on developments in the Soviet Union, chaired by Margaret Thatcher, in which I took part, and it was the most important of them. That was because, as I mentioned in my previous answer, it led to a change of policy—well documented in the now declassified government papers and attributed there to that seminar—to much greater contact, including political dialogue, with the Soviet Union and Communist Europe. When we (the eight ‘outside experts’, of whom I was one) were asked by the prime minister for policy recommendations, we said, “the more contacts the better, and at all levels—from dissidents to general secretaries”.

My paper for the seminar was about how the Soviet political system worked, so what I said about Gorbachev was just a part of it. However, the very much longer paper from the Foreign Office did not mention Gorbachev or any other possible future Soviet leaders at all. Thatcher, Howe, and the small group of senior ministers and officials who participated in the seminar read the eight papers from the academics in advance of that meeting (which lasted from 9 o’clock in the morning until 3 p.m. and continued with just the Prime Minister, Foreign Secretary, Defence Secretary, and key officials present after we, the outside specialists, departed). In my paper I wrote that Gorbachev was a likely future Soviet leader and that he was not only the youngest but also “the best-educated member of the Politburo and probably the most open-minded”. I added that he “might well be the most hopeful choice from the point of view both of Soviet citizens and the outside world”.

After I had elaborated on those written remarks in a 10-minute oral presentation at the seminar, Mrs Thatcher turned to the Foreign Secretary Geoffrey Howe and said, “Should we not invite Mr Gorbachev to Britain?”. That was a fleeting remark which did not get into the official note of the seminar. In fact, it would have been premature to invite Gorbachev and might have done him more harm than good. He was not yet number two in the Soviet system. That was Konstantin Chernenko. Yuri Andropov was still general secretary and Andrei Gromyko was Foreign Minister. However, the seminar helped to lodge Gorbachev in Thatcher’s mind. Later that month (still September 1983) she asked Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau about him. Gorbachev, in his capacity as the Secretary of the Central Committee responsible for agriculture, had visited Canada earlier that year and had met with Trudeau.

After the death of Andropov in early 1984 and the choice of Chernenko to succeed him as Soviet leader, Gorbachev duly became number two in the Soviet hierarchy, although some in the old guard tried to prevent this. One largely formal role which went along with the position of second Secretary of the Central Committee was that of Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Supreme Soviet (the rubber-stamp Soviet legislature). The British government was able to invite Gorbachev, in the latter capacity, to lead an ‘inter-parliamentary delegation’ to the UK. The invitation was sent in June 1984 and (as I mentioned earlier), Gorbachev came with his wife in December of that year. The group he led included Alexander Yakovlev, an influential adviser and ally, whom Gorbachev promoted at great speed once he became general secretary.