Opinion: Liz Truss, and the British are here in Estonia

Liz Truss at Chevening House in Kent, England on October 11 2021, while she was foreign secretary, together with then-Estonian Foreign Minister Eva-Maria Liimets, and the foreign ministers of Latvia and Lithuania.
Liz Truss at Chevening House in Kent, England on October 11 2021, while she was foreign secretary, together with then-Estonian Foreign Minister Eva-Maria Liimets, and the foreign ministers of Latvia and Lithuania. Source: FCO.

Last week, Dr. Martin Brown, penned a piece on the legacy of Britain's Margaret Thatcher, prime minister through the 1980s and in the years leading up to Estonian independence, likening it to the sight of new leader Liz Truss riding atop a Challenger tank, while on an official visit her last winter.

While I am no more a fan of Thatcher than Martin appears to be, and no doubt the photo op intentionally evoked the latter-day Boudica with this year's troubles for the outgoing Boris Johnson, and the ensuing vacancy in mind, I'm not a fan for quite different reasons than the piece cites – so please read this as an supplement, and definitely not a rebuttal.

Estonia these days is a very changed place on when I first came here 13 years ago. The security situation has of course changed, not for the better, but to hear most people it seems a case of either "it's the Yanks" or, "the Russians are coming". Whereas in fact it's much more a case of – the Brits are already here.

I personally would have preferred Rishi Sunak as new British prime minister, in that I think he would have left Estonia alone more, but there it is.

I don't see so much of the reverence of Thatcher that Martin refers to, but I understand what he was talking about if one expands that to the Central and Eastern Europe region as a whole, and to the past three decades', not one decade, time-frame.

However, even if it were the case – that Thatcher, Churchill, Johnson, Blair, Truss, all of them, were lionized on a semi-daily basis, replete with toasts and out-of-context quotes, this would not merely be a case of "naive" Estonians who can never understand what it was like to grow up in Thatcher's Britain.

In conversations here about politics, as in so many other things, many people fail to bridge the culture gap and end up talking past each other.

This, I think, is because Estonia's frames of reference are quite different from those of the average Brit or person from any of the "five eyes" countries, and no, I'm not talking about the posited Overton Window, or referring solely the differing experiences of the past century – it runs much, much more profoundly deeply than that.

Perhaps a German, a Pole, a Ukrainian – if you want to go down that route, a Russian too – would find much more common ground, these peoples from the vast (by European standards), land-based, idealistic, un-religious (but not necessarily irreligious), technocratic nations – the Eurasian plain, if you will.

But someone from Britain, the US, Australia – as well as from France, Spain, Portugal, Latin America – those seafaring, mercantilist, individualistic, and, hesitate to say it, but sometimes bullying nations, the world looks very different.

Once, a major political figure in Estonia, who will have to go unnamed, intimated to me that, since I'm not in the UK now, as such I don't get to overtly criticize politicians publicly.

In other words, for an Estonian (or a German, or a Pole, or a Ukrainian, or a Lithuanian), laying into a former head of government, particularly one of such stature as Thatcher's, is something you simply don't do, because, after all, they're the leader and you're not.

In "our" countries, that is essentially what political leaders are "for."

Let's turn to Thatcher's record; Martin rolled out several old standbys for those who grew up under the supposed horror of her time in office – the NHS, Section 28, and the Miners' Strike among them.

Again, critiques of Thatcher's handling of these phenomena get bogged down in a mire.

Yes, it's true the NHS has been chronically underfunded – but this is not peculiar to Thatcher; Tony Blair if anything stepped up the pace.

That it seems to be the case throughout the NHS' existence, not to eradicate it by any stretch, but to keep it tagging along, on a life-support machine, if you'll forgive the conceit.

The 1984-85 miners' strike and Section 28 can be dealt with together, no matter how unrelated they seem to be.

The strike, Margaret Thatcher's breaking of it, and the wider curbing of Trade Union powers starting from when she entered office in 1979, was all about centralized control over the localities, and not about ideology.

A rival seat of power even in specific regions and pertaining to particular demographics, simply did not fit with having everything concentrated in London, and more specifically the City of London – the world's financial epicenter.

This was the same with local government – in fact, Thatcher's predecessor as Conservative leader, Ted Heath (who they now think may have been a pedophile) began a process, in the early 1970s, which continued into one of the other Tory prime ministers of recent times, David Cameron, with his abolition of many local governments and setting up of more and more unitary authorities in their stead.

Section 28 needs to be seen in this light too. But what is Section 28? This was Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988 (there are many local government acts in force in Britain, see my point above), which, however inconceivable it may seem in today's world, was a "Prohibition on promoting homosexuality by teaching or by publishing material [which] ... (a)intentionally promote[s] homosexuality or publish[ing] material with the intention of promoting homosexuality; (b) promot[ing] the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship."

The social aspect of what was being done here is beyond the scope of this piece (though David Cameron in fact issued an apology), but one can see how it was singled out from the mass of the whole downgrading of local democracy and magnified manifold (Sinéad O'Connor berating Kenny Everett on "The Late, Late Show" anyone?).

In short, the UK was being centralized on the city, along with its interface with the Commonwealth, other overseas territories, and anywhere Britain has foreign interests – which is a lot of places -  now do you understand why Britain left the EU to as great an extent as it possibly could.

This was happening before, during and after 1979-1990, with Labour and Conservative administrations alike, and singling out Thatcher as the main wrongdoer in all of this is not telling the full story.

But what of Estonia?

I mentioned the EU briefly, and one way in which Britain has not, will not leave Europe as such, is in defense and security – in the full formation of a NATO/European armed force.

Which is what we're seeing with Tapa, with the enhanced Forward Presence (eFP) and its associated formations, the proposed divisional structure here, the Air Policing Mission at Ämari, the British-led maritime Joint Expeditionary Force (JEF) and many other classified activities.

The number of British personnel at Tapa has roughly tripled since the start of the year, in the face of the renewed Russian invasion of Ukraine, and tens of millions of pounds sterling will have been spent on the facilities there even prior to February 24.

They're going to want some bang for their buck, surely – something in return, and Truss' dynamic career so far suggests she might be the person to spearhead the optics side of that.

In late 1918, when the modern history of Britain's involvement in Estonia really begins, the prime minister of the provisionally-independent Estonia, Konstantin Päts, later president, appealed to the Lloyd George and the UK leadership to make Estonia a British protectorate early on in the war of independence;1 while this was declined, military assistance provided at sea, on the land and in terms of supplies, is generally referred to as crucial in Estonia's defense against the fledgling Soviet Russian state.

The incoming Liz Truss needs to be viewed with this snippet of history borne in mind, too, regardless of how Margaret Thatcher may or may not be viewed in Estonia.

1. Kinvig, Clifford, Churchill's Crusade: The British Invasion of Russia 1918–1920, London 2006  p. 138


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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