Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Thatcher didn’t promote freedom, nor was she a success at anything except getting re-elected

Thatcherism failed as anything but an electoral project based on mindless nationalist demagoguery – it’s no longer even any use for getting re-elected

There have been many paeans to Maggie on the thirtieth anniversary of her election as British Prime Minister in 1979. Some, like Mark Smith’s in the Herald, claim that she was a ‘freedom fighter’ on the grounds that she said she was. Note to political analysts – politicians often lie.

Among all of the rose-tinted eulogies Bruce Anderson’s piece in the Independent stands out for actually praising her for having no knowledge of history, as if that was a virtue. Bruce seems to have little knowledge of even the small part of history which he’s writing about – Thatcher’s period as Prime Minister of the UK.

It’s worth recounting the actual history of 1979 to 1991. Useful sources include ‘Dancing with Dogma’, a book by one of Thatcher’s opponents in the Conservative party, Ian Gilmour MP, who Anderson castigates for only knowing the “history of failure”. Since Thatcher as Prime Minister failed at everything except getting re-elected (and only succeeded in that due to an electoral system which allows parties with a minority of the vote to get a majority of seats in parliament) I’m happy to accept Gilmour as one authority on the period.

Thatcher came into office promising to reduce unemployment – then increased it to an unprecedented figure of over 3 million by a party political manoeuvre, destroying the country’s coal, steel and ship-building industries in order to destroy the trade unions their employees were in, in order to weaken the Labour party. The lie that these industries were going anyway was highlighted by massive imports of coal and steel from abroad.

Nor did she replace them with investment in new industries – like wind, wave, solar or tidal power. Instead we got nuclear, which provides almost no jobs but plenty of costly, dangerous waste to dispose of and plenty of deaths from leukaemia.

Gilmour in his book ‘Dancing with Dogma’ points out that Thatcher only increased the efficiency of Britain’s manufacturing firms by destroying 95% of them, with only the most efficient 5% surviving. Gilmour also showed that average annual economic growth rates from 1979-1990 in the UK, at 1.8%, were actually lower than those from 1968-1979, at 2.2%. So even on Thatcher’s own narrow, blinkered standard of ‘success’ - economic growth and efficiency - she failed (1).

Before the Falklands war the promise of reduced unemployment versus the reality of a massive increase in it had made Thatcher the least popular British Prime Minister since polling began (2). Both Thatcher and the equally unpopular Argentine military junta saw a ‘patriotic’ war over the Falklands or ‘Malvinas’ as a way to restore their popularity.

A couple of years earlier under Callaghan then foreign secretary David Owen had responded to Argentinian sabre rattling over the islands by sending more British warships to the South Atlantic to deter any Argentinian attack (3), (4).

Thatcher in 1982 responded to a similar situation by withdrawing the last Royal Navy patrol ship from the area – a clear signal to the junta that Britain wasn’t prepared to fight for the islands – and a trap. Thatcher and the junta both got their pointless, unnecessary patriotic war and hundreds of people on both sides died so these vain manipulators could gamble on staying in power. Thatcher’s gamble paid off for her. She won the 1983 election at the cost of hundreds of easily avoidable deaths.

Thatcher, like Reagan is also often praised for promoting ‘freedom’ worldwide. In fact Thatcher’s government backed Pinochet’s dictatorship in Chile as it tortured and ‘disappeared’ thousands, South African apartheid as it did the same to black South Africans and white dissidents - and Saddam Hussein as he massacred the kurds in the Anfal campaign, right up to Halabja. The Saudi monarchy - corrupt torturing dictators involved in promoting religious fundamentalist terrorism - were another favourite due to lucrative arms for oil deals complete with bribes for the politicians and company executives involved. To be fair they have been a favourite of all British governments for the same reasons.

Reagan’s regime did the same, also backing the terrorism of the Contras and other right-wing terrorists and military dictatorships in South and Central America as they murdered and raped their own people along with American nuns. The Reagan administration did nothing to avenge their deaths.

‘Freedom’ for Thatcher and Reagan meant the same as it meant for Bush junior – freedom for big companies and billionaires – meaning supporting any government that had a free market economic policy no matter how undemocratic and murderous, while condemning and attacking any dictatorship or democracy that tried to run their country primarily in the interests of the majority of their own population – like for instance the Sandinistas in Nicaragua.

Then in 1991 US President George W. Bush, who, like Thatcher before him, was sinking in the polls due to unemployment, decided to set a trap for his ally Saddam like Thatcher’s earlier trap for Galtieri. The US ambassador to Iraq was directed to tell Saddam that “We have no opinion on your Arab-Arab conflicts, such as your dispute with Kuwait”. Six days before the invasion US State Department Official John Kelly told congress that "the US has no intention of defending Kuwait if it is attacked by Iraq". Then, when Saddam thought he had the green light to invade Kuwait the way he’d invaded Iran with the backing of world powers, the trap was sprung. President George H W Bush rejected any possibility of negotiations with his former ally on an Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait. Thousands of retreating Iraqi forced conscripts were massacred in the Coalition air strikes along with tens of thousands of civilians inside Iraq. Thatcher, on her last political legs after the poll tax and perhaps hoping for another last minute political reprieve through mindless militarism, committed British troops to the Coalition and urged Bush to continue – ‘don’t go wobbly on me now George’. (5), (6), (7), (8), (9), (10)

The Thatcher government, like its Labour predecessor, also approved the use of diplock courts – i.e trial without jury – and torture by the British military in Northern Ireland, with methods like beating, sensory deprivation and the use of dogs which surfaced again in Iraq from 2003. John McGuffin’s book ‘The Guineau Pigs’ is a disturbing eye-opener on this.

Amnesty International reports are among the many sources detailing how British military intelligence and the RUC police force in Northern Ireland also colluded with ‘Loyalist’ or Unionist terrorist groups like the UVF and LVF, handing them hit lists of suspected terrorists along with suspected ‘sympathisers’ and lawyers who had represented suspected IRA members – and also colluding in sectarian murders of entirely innocent parties like lawyer Patrick Finucane, murdered by loyalist terrorists directed to him by British military intelligence in 1989, Catholic man Robert Hamill, kicked to death by ‘loyalist’ thugs – and his family’s lawyer Rosemary Nelson, killed in a car bombing in 1999. Thatcher’s governments renewed the 1974 ‘Prevention of Terrorism Act’ which allowed indefinite detention without fair trial. The IRA and its political wing Sinn Feinn gained increasing support as a result of these injustices and the Thatcher and Major governments refusal to negotiate with them, despite their own atrocities against civilians. This began before Thatcher became Prime Minister and continued afterwards, but once again makes any claim that Thatcher promoted ‘freedom’ in Britain hard to back up with evidence.

Thatcher shared an ignorance of history with Tony Blair, who also dragged his country into a totally un-necessary war which caused many needless deaths. Blair at least had the sense to realise the Northern Ireland conflict could only be solved by negotiation and compromise, even if he was blind to applying the same principle internationally.

I remember seeing a Tibetan Buddhist tapestry on TV showing Thatcher in one of the inner circles of hell. Given her actions it seemed appropriate.

Thatcher is often lauded for having given Britain it’s ‘greatness’ back in the sense of national pride; so a false sense of the ‘greatness’ and importance of their nation over ‘lesser’ ones combined with unthinking prejudice against people of other nationalities of the kind peddled by demagogues from Napoleon and Hitler to Mladic, Karadzic, Tudjman, Chirac and Dubya.

Margaret Thatcher’s legacy is one of cynical manipulation of false ‘patriotism’, destroying livelihoods and losing lives for purely selfish ends. Even at the height of her popularity though she never even had the support of the majority of British voters. She achieved massive parliamentary majorities on the support of around 40% of voters and about a third of the total electorate (11). Yet, like Tony Blair, she behaved as though the vast majority of the electorate had voted for her; as though this gave her a blank cheque to carry out policies that weren’t even in her party’s election manifesto; and as though the interests, views and beliefs of her critics and opponents were of no consequence. Other people were not there to be persuaded or negotiated with or debated with but to be forced to submit to her beliefs and interests. Some ‘freedom’.

Since then her policies have lost even more supporters. So why do so many politicians still adopt the failed rhetoric and failed policies of Thatcherism when they’re not even vote winners any more? The majority of the public rejected it long ago as the confidence trick it always was. It seems the leaders of the major parties are living in the past, relying on the political equivalent of an actual ‘sunset industry’ which didn’t even work when it was a ‘sunrise’ one. As long as they do that they don’t deserve our votes.

(1) = Gilmour, Ian (1992) ‘Dancing with Dogma’ – Britain under Thatcherism , Simon & Schuster , London , 1992 , p72

(2) = Lenman, B. P. (1992) The Eclipse of Parliament: Appearance and Reality in British Politics since 1914 (London: Edward Arnold)

(3) = Freedman, Lawrence (2005) ‘Official History of the Falklands Campaign Volume 1’,
Routledge, 2005, chapters 8 – 9

(4) = Sunday Times 27 Mar 2005 ‘Comment: David Owen: We all benefited from Jim's honesty and generosity’,

(5) = Bennis , Phyllis & Moushabeck , Michael (Editors) (1992) ‘Beyond the Storm’ ; Cannongate Press , London , 1992, pages 326-355, 391-396

(6) = Aburish , Said K (1997) ‘A Brutal Friendship’ Indigo , London , 1997 & 1998

(7) = Aburish , Said K (2000) ‘Saddam Hussein - The Politics of Revenge’ Bloomsbury , London , 2000 & 2001

(8) = Chomsky, Noam (1994) ‘World Orders , Old and New’ Pluto Press , London , 1994

(9) = Pilger , John (1998) ‘Hidden Agendas’ Vintage , London , 1998, pages 29-30, 49-53 ,614

(10) = Blum , William (1995) ‘Killing Hope’ Common Courage Press , Monroe , Maine , 1995, pages 334-338

(11) = Butler, David (1989) ‘British General elections since 1945’,Blackwell, Oxford and NY 1989

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