Why would anyone have it in for Thatcher? Why indeed. I have recently examined several aspects of her record, demonstrating that her reputation as an unpolished defender of freedom, democracy, economic sense and the rule of law is an absurdist whitewash. In reality, she was a belligerent supporter of horrific dictatorships who restricted civil liberties, redistributed wealth to the rich, implemented insane economic reforms and undermined democracy.
In what follows, I revisit her record on civil liberties, and tackle two further myths: of Thatcher as environmentalist and of her popular mandate. I also tackle her terrible record on unemployment, on race and in Northern Ireland.
The idea that Thatcher commanded an overwhelming popular mandate is a myth that will not die. That she led the Tories into government at all was largely the result of a historical accident, and given that “polls suggested that the Party would have fared better under Ted Heath”, the Tories “won more despite than because of her”. Her policies did not reflect the “careful compromises enshrined in the manifesto” of 1979, and she subsequently complained of the public’s “limited understanding of what we were trying to do”.(1)
“In advance of every significant privatisation”, her Chancellor Nigel Lawson admitted, “public opinion was invariably hostile to the idea, and there was no way it could be won round except by the Government going ahead and doing it.” Yet, as her former Lord Privy Seal Ian Gilmour points out:
“While Mrs Thatcher was shifting national policy and the Conservative party far to the right, public opinion did not follow her. If anything, indeed, public opinion moved to the left”.(2)
Thatcher’s general election victories were an artefact of Britain’s warped electoral system, in which crushing majorities in Parliament can be secured with a minority of the popular vote, and an even smaller share of the total electorate. In fact, the mainstream left-leaning parties took a decisive majority of the popular vote at every election Thatcher contested; if anything their share inched up while the Tories’ inched down. Thus Labour, the Liberals and SDP between them gained 51% of the vote in 1979 (against the Tories’ 43.9%); 53% in 1983 (Tories 42.4%); and around 53.5% in 1987 (Tories 42.3%).(3)
Given the prevailing extremes of hostility towards environmentalism on the political right, environmentalists and environmentally-minded conservatives tend to be excited by (and somewhat nostalgic for) Thatcher’s high-profile speeches on the environment. Bush’s former speechwriter David Frum calls Thatcher “one of the first world leaders to sound the alarm on climate change”; Conservative MP Angie Bray notes that she was “one of the first world leaders to spell out the need to protect our environment for future generations”; according to British environmental grandee Jonathan Porritt, Thatcher “did more than anyone in the last 60 years to put green issues on the national agenda”.
This is true and significant, but incomplete. In the European elections of June 1989, the Green Party took over 2 million votes – 15% of the total, and their best performance ever. The “party did so well … the Prime Minister was scared into making some concerned noises about the environment.” Thatcher also credits establishment environmentalist Crispin Tickell with persuading her to speak out on climate change. Her show of environmental concern, then, was a pragmatic response to the growing influence of the environmental movement. If her 1988 “turnaround” on ozone depletion reflected scientific advice and “a surge in domestic environmental concern”, however, it also reflected the material interests of key actors: chemicals giant DuPont (then developing alternatives to CFCs) and consequently the trading interests of the US Government and EC.(4)
Action and rhetoric frequently diverged. As the BBC’s Roger Harrabin writes,
“When I spoke to her at length about the environment two years after her UN speech, she appeared not to have spent much time grappling with the political challenges provoked by her own scientific analysis.”
Two days before Thatcher’s speech to the UN, Britain had blocked a call for a 20% reduction in carbon emissions at a conference in the Netherlands. She defended the deregulation of planning against the “romantics and cranks” of the environmental lobby. Proclaiming “nothing can stop the great car economy”, she plotted the “biggest road-building programme since the Romans”: £23bn on 500 roads and 150 bypasses, 2,700 miles in total, to facilitate a 142% growth in traffic by 2025. As an extensive report by the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution concluded in 1994, “We do not regard this cycle of continual road building facilitating continual growth of road traffic as environmentally sustainable”. “Rarely, if ever, can a ministry have emerged so badly from an official report”, wrote the editors of New Scientist: the Department for Transport had “received its sternest warning yet that its unflagging support for the car is seriously at odds with its own green principles”. After the 1987 privatization of water and sewerage, “most companies were heavily fined for pollution incidents”, and the economic model Thatcher promoted has helped degrade environmental conditions across the poor world.(5)
After what Porritt calls her “short-lived green period” came a long silence on environmental issues in retirement, finally broken in an eruption of climate denial: she called the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change “alarmist”, climate science a “dogma” and climate change itself “a marvellous excuse for worldwide, supra-national socialism”. All this casts an ironic light on some of the grand claims made on her behalf: her “role as a pioneer in the global fight against climate change” was one of her “many historic achievements”, according to James Murray of BusinessGreen; on ABC, John Dee calls her a precursor to Al Gore (in reality she singled him out for condemnation); her rhetoric, claims the Independent’s Tom Bawden, proved she was “something of an eco-warrior” whose “dedication to protecting the environment is clear”; in her later denial “it is not clear whether Mrs Thatcher was merely employing a healthy dose of scepticism”.
Thatcher’s views on Ireland seem to have been as crude as they were racist. Peter Mandelson recalls that she called the Irish untrustworthy liars; according to her adviser David Goodall, she suggested Northern Irish republicans simply move across the border, recalling the precedent of “a big movement of population in Ireland” under Cromwell. To make it easier to defend, her private secretary Charles Powell recalls, she proposed redrawing the Northern Irish border as a straight line.
Thatcher helped undermine her Northern Ireland Secretary’s plan for devolved Assembly by rallying unionist opposition in Parliament; her Government would later censor representatives of Sinn Fein on British television. In 1981, IRA prisoners in the Long Kesh prison began a hunger strike, demanding recognition as political prisoners; ten died. As Timothy Lavin comments on Bloomberg:
“the story goes that Thatcher “faced down” Irish Republican Army hunger strikers, as the BBC put it. By “faced down” they mean “let them starve to death.””(6)
When Bobby Sands died, Thatcher denounced him in Parliament as “a criminal” who “chose to take his own life”. Sands had been elected a Member of the House a few months previously, Thatcher’s intransigence fostering an upsurge in popular Republican sympathies as well as IRA terrorism. Widespread unrest in nationalist areas was met with violent repression by the RUC and British Army: 7 of the 12 killed by “rubber” and “plastic” bullets during Thatcher’s term in office died in 1981. Northern Ireland’s draconian “emergency” anti-terror laws were constantly renewed by Thatcher’s government year on year, the security forces among those committing “persistent and chronic” abuses of human rights, Human Rights Watch notes, the RUC guilty of systematic harassment, intimidation and abuse. In 1985, an international lawyers’ inquiry concluded that
“Undercover units of the British Army and the RUC are trained to shoot to kill even where killing is not legally justifiable and where alternative tactics could and should be used.”
Specialist counter-insurgency units killed over 150 civilians between 1981 and 1994, a major study concludes, the security forces also carrying out murders in collusion with loyalist paramilitaries.
IRA terror in turn helped prompt the negotiations that led to the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985. Pursued by Britain largely in response to the terrorist campaign, its limited concrete measures provided useful rhetorical cover for the British government, but are widely regarded as ineffective. As Alan Morton of the University of Limerick concludes,
“In terms of reconciling the communities of Northern Ireland, the Anglo-Irish Agreement can only be judged as a failure … as the framework to create a lasting political settlement [it] has been sidelined.”
Even this, however, was too much for Thatcher, who regretted ever having signed it. She concluded in 1998 that the opposition of Enoch Powell – who accused her of “treachery” – had been justified.(7)
As Ian Gilmour and Mark Garett point out in their history of the post-war Conservative Party,
“In 1976 Mrs Thatcher had declared that the Conservatives would have been “drummed out of ofice if we’d had this level of unemployment”. At that time the level in question was 1.3 million; after she had been in power for four years, about the same number had been out of work for more than a year.”(8)
The formal unemployment figures show a rise across the seventies that became an explosion under Thatcher: unemployment stabilised above 3 million between 1982 and 1987. This massive rate dipped only at the end of the decade – as easy credit, asset price inflation, North Sea oil and state sell-offs helped create a “crazy boom” – but to a level considerably higher than in the 1970s, before rising sharply again under Major. Having peaked at around 1.5 million in the 1970s, it shot to over 2 million in 1980; it would only fall back below this level in 1997, and below 1.5 million in 2001. What pushed it there was the government’s disastrous experiment with monetarist economics, a dogma “totally divorced from reality” in the words of former Tory Chancellor Reginald Maudling, but which handed Thatcher’s clique an excuse to wage its desired class war.(9)
The Tories changed the way unemployment was officially measured 30 times; once to increase the figure, a further 29 times to suppress it. Having thrown millions out of work, Thatcher punished them further: unemployment benefit, tied to prices instead of wages, was cut by a quarter and made harder to access.(10)
Thatcher claimed that Thatcherism was shaped by Powellism, the racist ideology of Enoch Powell, which, as an important study by Paul Gilroy documents, portrayed racial minorities as a menacing and subversive “alien wedge” in the British nation, linked with violent criminality. In an infamous 1978 television interview, she portrayed immigrants as an overwhelming threat to “the British character”, identified with democracy and lawfulness:
“If we went on as we are then by the end of the century there would be four million people of the new Commonwealth or Pakistan here. Now, that is an awful lot and I think it means that people are really rather afraid that this country might be rather swamped by people with a different culture. The British character has done so much for democracy, for law and done so much throughout the world that if there is any fear that it might be swamped, people are going to react and be rather hostile to those coming in.”(11)
She “went on to agree that the Conservatives would welcome defectors from the National Front”, enraging home affairs spokesman Willie Whitelaw, whose “careful bridge-building with immigrant communities had been wrecked.” Thatcher was thus “reintroducing a racist discourse to mainstream politics that had been confined to the far-right fringe for a decade”, giving “a fillip to racial violence which was, in the 1970s, along with racist policing, the principal problem of the inner-city.” Domestic racism prompted de facto support for apartheid South Africa and new anti-immigration laws, including the 1981 British Nationality Act, which restricted immigration from former Commonwealth countries in Asia and Africa. “Her government”, writes Daniel Trilling,
“did little or nothing to improve race relations. The Tories’ hard line on immigration policy extended even to refugees, giving rise to the modern stereotype of the “bogus asylum-seeker”; institutional racism within the police went unchallenged”.(12)
As party leader, Thatcher tried to impose a whipped vote against Labour’s Race Relations Bill, and opposed involvement in a Joint Committee Against Racialism; later, aided by right-wing think tanks and the media, her government led a drive to sustain racial inequalities in education and public policy. Economic exclusion and police racism played a major role in inciting severe riots across the country, as Lord Scarman’s 1981 Report concluded, but in 1999 the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry found Scarman’s recommendations had been ignored. Instead, “the main response to the 1981 riots was to give [police] forces better equipment and more powerful weapons.”(13)
As LSE legal expert Conor Gearty, co-author of Freedom Under Thatcher: Civil Liberties in Modern Britain, writes:
“The Conservatives have a long record of deploying state power to crush dissent to which their attacks on the poor and on organised labour have invariably given rise. It has been Tory administrations that have unleashed the police against the miners, the print unions and eventually (with the poll tax) the community at large.
“The common law powers that serve as the state’s residual line of resistance against dissent have never been challenged by any Conservative administration, though they have always seized every opportunity to add to them. It has been at the direction of the party as well that a succession of illiberal laws have been enacted [including] Margaret Thatcher’s Public Order Act in 1986 and her attack on gay people with section 28 (to pick two examples among many) …
“The party has opposed every single progressive measure aimed at countering this drift into deep illiberalism”.
The Official Secrets Act of 1989, for instance, created what Liberty called a “far too restrictive” secrecy regime that “encourage[s] abuse”: the Government would not “have to prove a real need for restriction”, while whisteblowers could be prosecuted regardless of any harm caused or public interest served. The Police and Criminal Evidence Act of 1984, legal scholars Andrew Sanders and Richard Young conclude, “made matters worse”: its “very few clear legal standards” created “a legal wilderness where judges apparently fear to tread”, licensing “increased levels of coercive detention and questioning”, “oppressiveness, unfairness and inducements” which, a 1994 internal inquiry concluded, became “common police practice”.
(1) Ian Gilmour and Mark Garnett, Whatever Happened to the Tories? The Conservatives since 1945, Fourth Estate, 1998.
(2) Ian Gilmour, Dancing With Dogma: Britain under Thatcherism, Simon & Schuster, 1992.
(3) A. H. Halsley and Jospehine Webb (eds.), Twentieth-Century British Social Trends, Macmillan Press, 2000.
(4) Gilmour and Garnett, ibid.; John Dryzek, The Politics of the Earth, Oxford University Press, 2005.
(5) David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism, Oxford University Press, 2005.
(6) Hugo Young, One of Us: A biography of Margaret Thatcher, Macmillan, 1989; Richard Vinen, Thatcher’s Britain: The Politics and Social Upheaval of the 1980s, Simon & Schuster, 2009.
(7) Young, ibid.; Vinen, ibid.; Senia Paseta, Modern Ireland: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press, 2003.
(8) Gilmour and Garnett, ibid.
(10) Larry Elliott and Dan Atkinson, Fantasy Island: Waking up to the incredible economic, political and social illusions of the Blair legacy, Constable and Robinson, 2007; Will Hutton, The State We’re In, Jonathan Cape, 1995.
(11) Paul Gilroy, There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack: The Cultural Politics of Race and Nation, Routledge, 2002.
(12) Gilmour and Garnett, ibid.; Gilmour, ibid.
(13) Gilmour and Garnett, ibid.