Margaret Thatcher was a deeply divisive figure as Britain’s longest serving Prime Minister, with her pro-industry, anti-people policies. By JOHN CHERIAN
THE death of the longest-serving British Prime Minister in the 20th century and the first woman to hold the post, Margaret Thatcher, has led to an outpouring of tributes from various capitals. Heads of state and titans of industry were magnanimous in their tributes to the lady whom they credited for arresting Britain’s post-imperial decline and breaking the back of the working-class movement. She was also extolled for her co-starring role with the U.S. President Ronald Reagan in hastening the demise of the Soviet Union and the collapse of the socialist bloc.
In fact, the name “Iron Lady” was bestowed on her by the Soviet Union’s army newspaper “Red Star” in the 1980s to highlight her uncompromising and rigid ideological posturing. She, however, got along well with Mikhail Gorbachev, the man who presided over the dissolution of the Soviet Union. “I like Gorbachev. I can do business with him,” she had said.
“The West won the Cold War without firing a shot,” she would say later. Alongside Reagan, she was responsible for the escalation of the Cold War. Both had threatened to introduce more nuclear weapons to prepare better for a possible “theatre nuclear war”. She had put Cruise nuclear-capable missiles on British soil disregarding widespread protests. “A world without nuclear weapons would be less stable and more dangerous for all of us,” she had once said.
But, besides the praise, her demise has stirred negative emotions in Britain as well as in other countries that suffered as a consequence of her actions. Many Labour Members of Parliament have refused to re assemble in Parliament to pay formal tributes to Margaret Thatcher despite summons from their leader, Ed Milliband, to do so. The British government had a change of heart about calling it a state funeral. The last British Premier to receive a state funeral was Winston Churchill. In London and Glasgow, many people took to the streets to celebrate, toasting her death with champagne and cider. One Briton left a bottle of milk at the doorstep of the Thatcher residence. As Education Minister, Margaret Thatcher had scrapped the provision of free milk for schoolchildren. “Maggie Thatcher, Milk Snatcher” was a favourite refrain of protesters during her years in power. For many schoolchildren coming from a poor background, a glass of milk was equivalent to their morning breakfast. When Thatcher came to power, one in seven of Britain’s children lived in poverty. By the time she completed her reforms, the number had risen to one in three.
Margaret Thatcher, while undermining domestic British industry and deregulating the country’s financial sector, made tens of thousands of ordinary Britons jobless. She had first come to power with only 40 per cent of the vote. Her handling of the miners’ strike (1984-85), the defining event of her tenure, was particularly brutal. Mathew Parris, a former aide to her, has said that the miners’ strike will be her abiding legacy. “It did seem as if half of Britain was taking up arms against another half of Britain. She would say that it was a necessary battle,” Parris said.
The National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) had an entirely opposite view. “Margaret Hilda Thatcher is gone but the damage caused by her fatally flawed policies sadly lingers on. Good Riddance,” NUM said on its website after the announcement of her demise. George Galloway, MP, noted that Margaret Thatcher destroyed “more than a third of Britain’s manufacturing capacity, significantly more than Hitler’s Luftwaffe ever achieved”. The Labour Party, rechristened “New Labour” in the early 1990s, adopted similar policies, abandoning its roots in the labour movement. Britain instead became a haven for oligarchs and trade union-busting media magnates like Rupert Murdoch. The city of London is now completely “free” of “any meaningful anti-monopoly regulations”. Many Britons have said that Margaret Thatcher’s “true legacy” was Tony Blair, who matched her propensity for neo-liberalism, commitment to Washington and war.
The Malvinas War
Margaret Thatcher considered her suppression of the trade unions an even more important victory than the one she scored over the Argentine army two years earlier. She had successfully ordered the British army to expel the Argentine army which had re-established the country’s sovereignty over the Malvinas. The islands, which the British had named “the Falklands”, continue to be under the imperial stranglehold of the British though they are situated thousands of miles away from England. She had drawn comparisons between the miners’ struggles and the war with Argentina, saying that the victory over the miners was more important. “We had to fight the enemy without in the Falklands. We have always to be aware of the enemy within, which is much more difficult to fight and more dangerous to liberty,” the former Prime Minister had observed.
Ken Loach, the iconic British film-maker, described Margaret Thatcher as “the most divisive and destructive Prime Minister of modern times”. He said that she left behind a legacy “of mass unemployment, factory closures and destroyed communities”. Loach, maker of many international award-winning films, said that the right way to honour Thatcher was to “privatise” her funeral. “Put it out on competitive tender and accept the cheapest bid. It’s what she would have wanted,” Loach said.
In Northern Ireland, her uncompromising policies led to unnecessary additional suffering. She withdrew the status of “political prisoners” for incarcerated Republican fighters and starved 10 of them to death when they demanded the restoration of their fundamental rights. Gerry Adams, the public spokesman for the Irish Republican Army (IRA) for three decades and the current leader of the Sinn Fein (Northern Ireland’s second biggest Party), said that Margaret Thatcher’s Irish policy had failed miserably. “Her espousal of old draconian militaristic policies prolonged the war and caused great suffering,” Adams said in a statement following her demise.
There were demands that Margaret Thatcher should be tried for “war crimes” committed during the war with Argentina in 1982. The charges mainly relate to the sinking of the Argentine naval cruiser “General Belgrano” by the British navy. A British submarine targeted the ship as it was sailing away from the conflict zone. Three hundred and twenty-three Argentine sailors, most of them young cadets, died in the operation. When the Belgrano was sunk, it was well outside the 320-km exclusion zone that the British army had unilaterally declared around the disputed islands. The territorial dispute is now on the front burner, with Argentina mobilising international opinion to regain sovereignty over the Malvinas. Even Washington is urging London to find a negotiated settlement to the dispute that resulted from what American officials have described as “the de facto” occupation of the islands.
Giving a helping hand to Margaret Thatcher in the war against Argentina was her good friend, the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. Chile, which shares a long border with Argentina, provided Britain with a great deal of military intelligence during the war. Using its long-range radar tracking facilities, the Chilean army was able to warn the British of impending Argentine air attacks. After his ouster from power in 1990, Pinochet was an annual visitor to London, where he was regularly hosted by Margaret Thatcher. When Pinochet was arrested in London in 1998, she made a strong plea for his immediate release and visited him when he was under house arrest in 1999. She openly said at the time that Britain owed a debt to the fallen dictator for all the help he had provided during the Falklands war. Thousands of people in Chile were tortured and killed during the 17-year Pinochet era.
Margaret Thatcher, however, could not militarily arm-twist China on the Hong Kong issue. Beijing refused to budge on the issue of sovereignty. Margaret Thatcher had to reluctantly hand over Hong Kong to the mainland. In 1984, Britain and China signed an agreement for the transfer of Hong Kong’s sovereignty in 1997. Britain duly adhered to the deadline. The Iron Lady had more than met her match in the Chinese leader, Deng Xiaoping. Margaret Thatcher had taken a tough stance initially during the two-hour-long meeting she had with the Chinese leader to resolve the future of the British colony but was forced to accept the inevitable when Deng showed absolutely no signs of compromising.
Support to apartheid
The former British Premier’s cosy relationship with the apartheid regime in South Africa has been well documented. When the rest of the world was calling for the release of Nelson Mandela and urging a speedy end to apartheid, Margaret Thatcher threw in her support behind the racist regime and its bid to stem the inevitable. She went to the extent of describing Mandela as a “terrorist” and the ANC as “a typical terrorist organisation”. She described those predicting the demise of apartheid as living in “cloud cuckoo land”. Margaret Thatcher, along with Reagan, provided financial aid and succour to rebel groups allied to the apartheid regime in Southern Africa like the UNITA in Angola and the Renamo in Mozambique. The civil wars in these two countries alone led to the deaths of more than a million people.
Margaret Thatcher also was a supporter of the Khmer Rouge and its leader, Pol Pot, in the 1980s despite strong evidence emerging about the massacres of Cambodian citizens. A Vietnamese-led invasion force ousted Pol Pot from the capital in 1979 but the West continued to recognise him as the legal head of the Cambodian state until the late 1980s. The new, moderate Communist government was seen in the West as being too close to Moscow and that was anathema when the Cold War was at its height. Margaret Thatcher was also a great admirer of the Indonesian dictator General Suharto, who she described as “one of our best and most valuable friends”. Suharto had played a key role in the bloody purges in Indonesia in 1965-66 in which more than 5,00,000 Indonesian Communists and sympathisers were killed.
Even after being pushed out of power, Margaret Thatcher continued to exert her influence over world politics. Two months after leaving office, she was credited with influencing President George Bush the senior to start the first Gulf War after having a long meeting with him in Aspen, Colorado. Before that as Prime Minister, she had encouraged Saddam Hussein’s ill-advised invasion of Iran in 1980. Secret files, recently revealed, show that Britain was trying to sell Hawk jet fighters to Iraq in 1981.
Margaret Thatcher, along with Reagan, was effusive in her welcome of the Afghan mujahideen, the precursors of the Taliban and the Al Qaeda, hailing them as “freedom fighters”. Through the good offices of another strongman, General Zia ul-Haq of Pakistan, the mujahideen and Arab fighters were lavishly funded and trained. It is another story that British troops are now bleeding in Afghanistan fighting the Taliban militia, many of whom were once closely linked to British Intelligence agencies.