British foreign policy between 1970 and 1995 experienced a large number of twists and turns, most of them unexpected or unintentional. During the 1970s the Conservatives aimed to expand Britain's conventional defences, only to be forced into further contracting them. Labour, normally committed to defence cuts, went in the opposite direction until 1979. The first part of this chapter seeks to explain this anomaly.
The second part deals with the 1980s. These opened with a Conservative decision to upgrade Britain's nuclear defences, which was strongly contested by Labour. Rationalising defence expenditure meant, however, another reduction in the conventional sector, with the navy taking the brunt. This probably precipitated the Falklands War of 1982. Although the conflict was unwelcome and unexpected, victory revived the fortunes of a flagging government and enabled Mrs Thatcher to project a much stronger image on the world scene. She was assisted in this by a close relationship with the United States and a shared antipathy towards Communism.
By the time of her resignation in 1990, however, the revival of British prestige had worn off. Her successor, John Major, was confronted with the need to make further defence cuts and with the difficulty of coming to terms with the end of the Cold War. By 1995 the way ahead was thoroughly obscured by uncertainties over the former Soviet bloc, the European Union and the United States. This is the theme of the third part.
There is a paradox about British foreign and defence policies in the 1970s. The Conservatives came to power in 1970 committed to expanding Britain's role; instead, they further contracted it. Labour