If hagiography is the norm after the death of a public figure, Thatcher’s has been no exception. True, it has not gone uncontested: the “folk hatred” of poor and post-industrial Britain has fuelled an unprecedented upsurge of rage among her opponents. At times the media struggled to cope – the Telegraph’s editor shutting its comment threads and objecting that its email address for tributes was “filled with abuse”. The Sun reported that Thatcher would receive a public funeral “like Diana”, but as death parties broke out around the country and her death was celebrated in the pop charts, this was clearly not going to cut it: instead, papers that could barely contain their glee after the extrajudicial execution of an unarmed criminal erupted with fury at revellers’ lack of “taste and decency”. Progressives raised some reasonable objections to the misogyny, misdirection and lack of compassion of these events. But predictably, those systematically stripped of their power have not hit back in a “civilised” fashion, spiteful disrespect for the dead one of their few remaining weapons. These counter-tributes had a decisive impact: Thatcher will not be “sainted” as easily as Ronald Reagan.
The media that loved her in life nevertheless hold most of the cards, and have largely proceeded with the canonisation. “World Leaders Celebrate Thatcher as Champion of Democracy”, Bloomberg reported. Elsewhere she was “a champion of liberty … with an absolute opposition to aggression” who “fortified peace and freedom in our world”; a “champion of freedom for workers, nations and the world”, “driven by a love of law [and] liberty”; “you could not disrespect … her contribution to Britain’s national life”; we can “greatly respect her political achievements”; she played “an enormously important part in the history of freedom in the western world”; hers was “a life devoted to public service”. “She bestrode the political world like a colossus.” And so on.
Beneath the tide of stirring political rhetoric, it is worth taking a careful look at the woman’s true record in and out of office. What follows is an attempt to shed light on several key areas of that record.
The Falklands War
The Falklands war is usually depicted as a successful defence of democracy, international law and the rights of the Falkland islanders against the aggression of an intransigent Argentine tyranny in British sovereign territory. This account relies on the excision of various key facts.
In public, Thatcher’s Foreign Secretary John Pym proclaimed “We’re not in any doubt about our title to the Falklands and we never have been”. Privately, British officials had long conceded that “[w]e cannot easily make out a good claim and we have wisely done everything to avoid discussing the subject”; and that “it is not easy to explain our possession of the islands without showing ourselves up as international bandits.” (The editor of the Sunday Times suppressed this information during the war, stating “I don’t want it so surface at the moment”.) (1)
Professions of high principle concealed material motives. In early April 1982, the US National Security Council noted that it was the “growing economic potential of the island area” that had “heightened diplomatic tensions in the mid-1970s”:
In 1974 a geological survey determined that the Falklands could be the center of a vast pool of oil – perhaps nine times the size of the North Sea fields. Offshore marine resources – fish, krill … and kelp also promise substantial profits.
The war began after Britain rebuffed Argentina’s demands for “a permanent negotiating commission to replace the less regularized structure” over the status of the Falklands at the UN. The islanders’ basic freedoms were not threatened, Professor of International Relations Fred Halliday points out, and the total number of casualties (649 Argentinians dead, 1,068 wounded; 258 British dead, 777 wounded) roughly equals their number. Thatcher’s initially uncompromising response to Argentina’s escalation softened in response to US pressure, but early efforts by US Secretary of State Alexander Haig to reach a negotiated settlement broke down. Later, however, her government deliberately chose bloodshed over peace: the war cabinet’s decision to sink the unthreatening Belgrano and subsequent naval escalation sabotaged Peruvian peace efforts; Thatcher rebuffed Reagan’s calls for a negotiated settlement; and near the end of the war, Britain and the US vetoed a call for a ceasefire at the UN. Thatcher’s unpopular Government capitalised on its victory, making major political gains. The war helped bring down the Argentinian military junta, but Thatcher’s claim that it would deter aggression proved false; in fact it inspired the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and was used by Menachem Begin to legitimise Israel’s assault on Lebanon.(2)
Thatcher is much lauded for her commitment to freedom and democracy. “The freedom of the individual was at the centre of her beliefs”, claims Angela Merkel. The Economist hails her “willingness to stand up to tyranny”; Obama calls her “one of the great champions of freedom and liberty”; Spain’s Prime Minister praises her “unerring commitment to freedom, democracy and the rule of law”. In reality, as Mehdi Hasan documents, Thatcher was a committed supporter of some of the world’s worst dictators. Indonesia’s genocidal General Suharto, whose rule the New York Times dubbed “one of the most brutal and corrupt of the 20th century” Thatcher called “one of our very best and most valuable friends”. She helped prop up Pakistan’s military dictator, praising his “courage and skill”.
“I am a great admirer of Saudi Arabia”, Thatcher said in 1993, calling the brutal fundamentalist autocracy “a strong force for moderation and stability”. She was “closely involved” in the Al Yamamah arms deal with the corrupt Saudi regime, which the FT called Britain’s “biggest sale ever of anything to anyone”.
Mass-murdering dictator General Pinochet, whose “specialty was torturing people in front of their families”, overthrew Chile’s democracy in a 1973 coup; Thatcher enjoyed “a very close relationship” with him, “expressed her support” and “recognised … the benefits of the military government”, the Chilean army’s former vice-commander comments. Thatcher condemned Pinochet’s 1999 arrest as “unjust and callous”, accusing the UK of acting like “a police state” applying “international lynch law”. She thanked the General for “bringing democracy to Chile”.
Thatcher played a cruel role in Iraqi history. She secured “political and major commercial benefits” by subsidising British arms sales to Saddam Hussein to the tune of £1bn. When the dictator deployed chemical weapons against the Kurds at Halabja, she played down the atrocity and maintained the flow of Export Credits. Later she was to advise George Bush senior against a peaceful solution to the Gulf crisis of the early 1990s, and supported the neoconservative war without end: “it is best that the United States, as the only global military superpower, deploy its energies militarily rather than on social work”, she advised in 2002, calling for action against Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Syria and Sudan, as well as in Africa and South-East Asia.
Thatcher offered de facto support to apartheid South Africa, vetoing sanctions and thwarting international efforts to isolate the regime; Britain remained its biggest foreign investor and principal trading partner. She invited the South African premier to Downing Street but refused to speak with the “violent” leader of the ANC, which she disparaged as a “typical terrorist organization”. Meanwhile, in supporting Afghanistan’s mujahideen, Thatcher was herself a major sponsor of violent terror.
Poverty and inequality
Ian Gilmour, Thatcher’s Lord Privy Seal between 1979 and 1981, concluded that her “treatment of the poor was unforgiveable.” Among her proposals were the wholesale abandonment of Liverpool and dismantling of the welfare state. IFS figures show that the poverty rate almost doubled under Thatcher, with almost one in ten forced into poverty. Among pensioners it rose by a third, as an extra one in ten were pushed below the poverty line. Child poverty roughly doubled, with an extra one in five children pushed into poverty. Homelessness more than doubled in ten years, with three million homeless over the decade, but official figures likely understated the scale of the problem. In London in 1989, the Salvation Army found “a shanty town as large as might be expected in any Latin American city, but it is hidden”.(3)
Inequality skyrocketed. As Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett point out, the 1980s saw “much the most dramatic widening of income differences on record”, as “the gulf between the top and bottom 20% widened by a full 60%”. The nexus of social problems captured in the phrase “Broken Britain” and economic instability – both consequences of inequality – are thus both major components of Thatcher’s legacy.
The media generally associate the rise of PR and “spin” with New Labour, revering Thatcher as a “conviction politician”. But as Nick Davies points out, the real boom in state propaganda took place under Thatcher. Her Government boosted funding to the Central Office of Information by more than 500% in under ten years, and spent more on external PR consultants such as Lowe Beck and Shandwick; between 1979 and 1997, the number of Government press officers doubled from 628 to 1,163. Thatcher’s press secretary Bernard Ingham was given a “wide licence to leak” confidential documents and boasted of flouting the Official Secrets Act. The ““news” was being managed and massaged for the benefit of the Prime Minister.”
In Gilmour’s words, Thatcher’s government was “spurred on by a right-wing popular press which could scarcely have been more fawning if it had been state-controlled.” Murdoch and the government advanced in lockstep: as former Sunday Times editor Andrew Neil put it, “Thatcher’s battles were our battles.” Murdoch’s papers reinforced the Government line during the miners’ strike, and he intervened personally to protect her threatened leadership in 1990. There was the usual horse-trading: Thatcher allowed Murdoch to acquire the Times and Sunday Times without a referral to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission; in return, he reined in his papers during the Westland affair, which threatened to end her career. In 1986, on Murdoch’s recommendation, Thatcher appointed a former Chief Executive at Times Newspapers Director-General of the BBC.(4)
Thatcher is widely regarded as having “saved the economy”. Yet the 2.4% average growth rate in the 1980s equaled that of the 1970s, and fell short of the 1960s; and since 1980 the long-term growth rate has declined from 3% to 2%. There is no good reason to make a fetish of economic growth – but simply counting the numbers, this is an uninspiring record.
More importantly, Thatcher’s economic policy had a very large sting in the tale. As John Lanchester points out, “the thing which changed under Mrs Thatcher was that for the first time the City now had unquestioned supremacy. It wasn’t a debate any more: what the City wanted, the City got.” This included “the biggest act of deregulation the financial sector had ever seen”: the separation of different arms of banking was abolished, as were exchange controls. As a result, “what had once been a more or less balanced economy, with manufacturing and service sectors of comparable importance, now became one in which the financial sector was paramount.” And, as one pair of economists aptly put it in 1997, “financial liberalisation efforts seem to lead unerringly to financial crises.”
“By the late 1980s,” the economics editors of the Guardian and Mail noted in 2007, “the unregulated personal-debt market that we know today was more or less in place.” And, as Lanchester comments, “financial deregulation has been a primary culprit in the current crisis”. Thatcher’s economic programme must take a large share of the blame.(5)
Thatcher is widely praised as a champion of liberty. “In reality”, Bristol Law Professor Richard A. Edwards concludes, “Margaret Thatcher was a traditional Conservative who believed in a strong state and had an aversion to any constitutional reform that might limit it.” As historian Tony Judt notes, Thatcher, like Bush and Blair, “never hesitated to augment the repressive and information-gathering arms of central government.” Her Government oversaw massive violence and repression against the National Union of Miners and its supporters. At the battle of Orgreave, strikers were charged by 8,000 mounted police; national television covered the charge as a defensive action against rioters. As Liberty put it: “There was a riot. But it was a police riot.”(6)
The 1979 Conservative manifesto promised a British Bill of Rights, but the Party never delivered in government. It autocratically banned trade union members from GCHQ. As Nick Taylor of Leeds’ Centre for Criminal Justice Studies notes, Thatcher’s government also passed loophole-laden legislation designed to facilitate state wiretapping.
The Public Order Act of 1986, Liberty note, “has been used all too often to stifle peaceful protest and legitimate debate”. It forced protestors to notify the police six days in advance of any demonstration, its time and place, and the name and address of one or more organisers. By criminalising “disorderly behaviour” along with anything “abusive” and “insulting” that could cause “harassment, alarm or distress”, Liberty write, its provisions “potentially criminalise an expanse of activities” including “legitimate forms of peaceful protest”.
The legacy of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act of 1984 is contested. Legal blogger David Allen Green calls it “in practical terms, the most important civil liberties statute of modern times” since “it is PACE which on an everyday basis limits the excesses of police power”. Yet a cautious review by Stephanie Benz of the University of Central Lancashire concludes that the Act is weighted towards licensing police powers, its “ineffective control mechanisms and lack of sanctions for non-compliance” allowing widespread abuses. As Britain’s Equalities and Human Rights Commission has repeatedly documented, these have disproportionately affected ethnic minorities. When it was passed, “human rights activists … considered the powers granted to the police to be unnecessarily extensive”, objecting that “PACE did not prevent the infringement of civil liberties, but legitimized it.”
Thatcher promised to create a genuine “market democracy” through privatisation. She cut the state-owned sector of the economy by 60%: the biggest change in ownership, according to historian Keith Middlemas, “since the dissolution of the monasteries or the plunder of the Royalist estates after the civil war.” The wave of privatisations she began, historian Tony Judt concludes, effected “the steady shift of public responsibility onto the private sector to no discernible collective advantage.” As loss-making public utilities were sold off cheap to attract buyers, the public provided a huge subsidy to stockholders and investors, while the banks overseeing the transactions – “led by Rothschilds which had close links with the Tory government” – collected “unprecendented fees”. This massive redistribution of wealth to the rich amounted to £17bn, roughly the annual GDP of Paraguay or Bosnia-Herzegovina, but achieved only a modest increase in economic growth. “The outcome”, Judt concludes, “has been the worst sort of ‘mixed economy’: individual enterprise indefinitely underwritten by public funds.” Far from exempifying free-market competition, Anthony Sampson notes,
[m]ost of the privatized companies, like BAE … inherited their power from the state, and still depend on their British connections. They need politicians, civil servants and diplomats to grant them favours and protect their interests abroad – like the East India Company and other chartered companies in the eighteenth century.
Thatcher’s heralded “popular capitalism” or “share-owning democracy” proved a façade. A third of council houses sold off under the “right to buy” scheme ended up in the hands of private landlords. Privatization was unpopular. (The “reforms of the NHS”, Thatcher privately conceded, “were too sensitive a topic to expose to the electorate”.) “Commercial confidentiality” obliterated transparency, and “both sides could evade accountability” as government and business “pass[ed] the buck to and fro.” In reality, a “relatively small group of individuals … acquired a sudden opportunity to extend their influence and wealth”.(7)
This overview can provide only snapshots of Thatcher’s legacy. Yet it is already abundantly clear that significant portions of the media record have inverted reality. Far from an unpolished “conviction politician”, Thatcher carefully manipulated the media. Far from upholding freedom, she defended autocracy. Far from deterring aggression, she licensed and encouraged it. Far from upholding democracy, she restricted basic freedoms and handed further control to the powerful. Far from saving the economy, she helped wreck it. Far from serving her country, she served the rich. Those who suffered as a result will not miss her.
1. Nick Davies, Flat Earth News, Vintage, 2009.
2. Glasgow University Media Group, War and Peace News, Open University Press, 1985.
3. Ian Gilmour, Dancing With Dogma: Britain Under Thatcherism.
4. Nick Davies, ibid.; Gilmour, ibid.; Anthony Sampson, Who Runs This Place? The anatomy of Britain in the 21st Century, John Murray, 2005.
5. John Lanchester, Whoops! Why everybody owes everybody and no one can pay, Penguin, 2010. 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.
6. Tony Judt, Ill Fares The Land, Penguin, 2010. Seumas Milne, “The Secret War Against The Miners”, in John Pilger, Tell Me No Lies: Investigative Journalism And Its Triumphs, Jonathan Cape, 2004. Greg Philo, Seeing And Believing: The Influence of Television, Routledge, 1990.
7. Anthony Sampson, ibid.; Tony Judt, ibid.; Ian Gilmour, ibid.; Aeron Davis, Public Relations Democracy, Machester University Press, 2002.