. What Thatcher Did | Ceasefire Magazine

What Thatcher Did Analysis

As debate intensifies around reactions to Margaret Thatcher's death, Ceasefire's Elliot Murphy presents a damning portrait of her political record at home and abroad.

Ideas, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Wednesday, April 10, 2013 0:00 - 2 Comments


Margaret Thatcher in 1982.

“We need to ensure that military superiority – particularly technological superiority – remains with nations, above all the United States, that can be trusted with it. We must never leave the sanction of force to those who have no scruples about its use”[1] – Margaret Thatcher (1925-2013).

After suffering a stroke at the age of 87, Margaret Thatcher died on the morning of April 8th. The funeral ceremony of the woman who ‘inspired passion,’ for Nick Robinson, will take place at St Paul’s Cathedral, with full military honours. Prime Minister Cameron believed that Thatcher, like Jesus of Nazareth, ‘saved’ us with her ‘humanity and generosity of spirit.’

Of course, this is merely another instalment in the Thatcherite mythology, with figures like Cameron and Johnson claiming – as Tom Mills recently explained in a New Left Project essay – ‘that the Conservatives introduced economic reforms which though painful and unpopular in the short term restored Britain to prosperity after years of Labour mismanagement of the economy.’ In reality, though, ‘Labour had been fairly successful in stabilising the economy.  It brought down the high levels of inflation it had inherited from the Heath Government through a combination of spending cuts and wage restraints – attempting effectively to resolve the economic crisis by driving down the living standards of its own supporters.’[2]

As writers like Mills and Sunny Hundal have pointed out, the real tragedy is not one of personal grief, but of the death of a welfare system which permits the disabled to live a decent and dignified life – a death accelerated under Thatcher’s heirs Cameron and Osborne – along with the rapid decline of the NHS. These privatisation measures also had repercussions for Britain’s schools and universities, with a UNICEF study on child neglect, conducted by the American economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett, demonstrating that the Anglo-American education model launched by Reagan and Thatcher has been disastrous for children and families.

At Home

Naomi Klein, in her extensive study of neoliberalism, The Shock Doctrine, explains that the ‘disorder and nationalist excitement’ resulting from the Falklands War permitted Thatcher to ‘use tremendous force to crush the striking coal miners and to launch the first privatization frenzy in a Western democracy. The NATO attack on Belgrade in 1999 created the conditions for rapid privatizations in the former Yugoslavia – a goal that predated the war. Economics was by no means the soul motivator for these wars, but in each case a major collective shock was exploited to prepare the ground for economic shock therapy.'[3]

Writing at the height of this privatisation frenzy, John MacInnes wrote in his 1987 study Thatcherism at Work that, contrary to the Hayekian dogmas of the Thatcherites, and ‘given the imperfections of markets, there is no necessary connection between individual effort and rewards. Some enjoy windfall gains for little effort, others work earnestly only to find that their efforts turn out not to prove valuable in the market.'[4] But this didn’t stop Thatcher claiming that under Labour and its IMF loans (during the Wilson and Callaghan administrations of 1974-1979) Britain had been ‘a strife-torn, strike-ridden, divided society.’

Her policies, she claimed, instead ‘cut down over-mighty trade union bosses, reduced inflation and transformed the economy into Europe’s success story'[5]. Believing, like Thomas Cassidy, in the free market and ‘its infinite but mysterious wisdom,’ Thatcher managed to lower the quality of benefits and living standards. Thatcherism, MacInnes concluded, ‘proposed to separate economics and politics once more, by abandoning the commitment to full employment, abandoning any attempt by the state to modernise domestic industry, and instead rely on the fortunes of those sections of industry able to survive in a laissez-faire environment, on the profits of industry’s international activities, and the City[6].’

Like Nixon and Reagan in the US, Thatcher abolished controls on prices and wages and government control on foreign exchange. Paul Channo, Secretary of State at the Department of Trade and Industry declared in 1986 that ‘we want the government to get off the backs of industry – that is the only policy that works.[7] The Thatcher administration ensured ‘the curbing of union power through restricting the circumstances under which unions had immunity from prosecution in undertaking industrial action, limiting the extent of the closed shop and determining how unions should organise themselves internally[8].’

The solidarity of the labour movement soon gave way to ‘enterprise consciousness,’ with workforces being encouraged to become interested  solely in the fortunes of their own firm, rather than in the struggles of workers elsewhere. Along with the rise of the ‘imperial CEO’ across the US, British ‘management could take advantage of the mood of “new realism” encouraged by high unemployment to marginalise or sack militants, and establish new forms of communication and involvement with their workforces to educate them in “the realities of business.”[9].

New firms often found it unnecessary to their development to apply workers’ rights and recognise unions, as an enterprise culture emerged to sideline the collectivist goals of the labour movement. Revised philosophies of rugged individualism spread through the mainstream media and universities, inspired by the ideologies first proposed by the rural gentry in the wealthier parts of England, ‘a superbly successful and self-confident capitalist class,’ in the words of E. P. Thompson.[10].

The subsequent prominence of Thatcherite ideology has been interpreted by MacInnes as a reflection of ‘the material absence in Britain of any institutions powerful enough to direct the course of economic development at a local, industrial or national level. … The emphasis on the rights of private property, sovereignty on the market and the perils of state interference with market forces meant that neither the state nor individual employers pursued any active social policy towards the emerging proletariat.[11] With the background of a successful public relations campaign favouring ‘family values,’ Richard Seymour follows this up:

‘Still, even if high unemployment became a permanent fixture of the social setting, poverty rose from 1% of the population to almost a quarter, and homelessness re-emerged as a major social problem, there was a layer of the population that would feel wealthy enough to vote for Margaret Thatcher, and that did not have to be a majority [thanks to first-past-the-post]. … This entailed a cultural war to persuade people – not the majority, but a sufficient minority, and particularly the middle classes who would have managerial or supervisorial roles – that what they wanted above all was not the safety nets and security of the post-war era, but the flexibility, risk and protean adventure of free market competition.'[12]

The 1982 Employment Act, drafted under Secretary of State Norman Tebbitt, also enlarged the amounts of compensation payable for dismissal due to a closed shop to up to £250,000 for the largest unions. Closed shops now needed periodic ballots to validate them. It carefully limited the definition of a trade dispute to one between workers and their employers ‘wholly or mainly’ concerning terms and conditions of employment.

MacInnes summarises how it also ‘outlawed industrial action against non-union companies, and clauses in contracts requiring the use of union labour. Employers could also selectively dismiss strikers without notice, without this being unfair. The Act opened up unions liable to large fines for being in contempt of court, as well as sequestration of their assets. By 1986 unions had been fined over £1 million for various ‘contempts’.[13]

According to the Conservative Campaign Guide 1983, certain sections of the Trade Union and Labour Relations Act of 1974 ‘which the Courts had interpreted as giving immunity to those who “sit-in” or “occupy” their workplaces were repealed’ since, as the Spanish, Hungarian and Polish workers had shown in previous decades, an occupation was only one step away from the workers running the shop themselves, eliminating the need for management.[14]

As Tom Burns observed in 1966: ‘I am more than ever impressed with the extraordinary gap that exists between the perceptiveness, intellectual grasp, and technical competence of the people who work in industrial concerns, and the cumbrous, primitive and belittling nature of the administrative structures by which they direct their efforts, and of the constraints they see fit to impose on their thinking and liberty of action.[15]

But the administrations’ support of artificial entities and corporate personhood is of little surprise considering ‘that so many of the ‘driest’ of Mrs Thatcher’s economic ministers and the Prime Minister herself, have had a background in the legal profession, where the concept and definition of individual rights takes its strongest form.[16] Chomsky’s conclusions about this grim chapter in British history follow those of MacInnes:

‘Thatcherite programs reversed the trend to improved child health and led to an upswing of childhood diseases that had been controlled, while public funds are used for such purposes as illegal projects in Turkey and Malaysia to foster arms sales by state-subsidized industry. In accord with “really existing free market doctrine,” public spending after 17 years of Thatcherite gospel is the same 42 1/4% of GDP that it was when she took over.’[17]

In his ‘Anatomy’ of the Tories, Richard Seymour points out that Keith Joseph (‘the power behind the throne’ of Thatcherism) and Thatcher herself ‘articulated the critique of the post-war settlement that had long been propagated by the middle class right, and in think-tanks such as the Institute for Economic Affairs. They also set out to create new vectors for ideological dissemination, creating the Centre for Policy Studies to provide an alternative source of policy to that of the Conservative Research Department.[18] Aside from adopting the occasional philosophy of an Austrian economist or World Bank official, the Conservative party lacks consistent principles, adapting to promote certain institutions they despised not to so long ago ‘because they have become familiar.[19]


The dogmas of Thatcher’s state religion also influenced Britain’s foreign policy. John Pilger expands on  the scope of the ‘humanity and generosity of spirit’ Cameron spoke of:

‘In the aftermath of the US war in Vietnam, which I reported, the policy in Washington was revenge, a word frequently used in private but never publicly. A medieval embargo was imposed on Vietnam and Cambodia; the Thatcher government cut off supplies of milk to the children of Vietnam. This assault on the very fabric of life in two of the world’s most stricken societies was rarely reported; the consequence was mass suffering.'[20]

The dictator Augusto Pinochet’s regime (installed by MI6 and the CIA in a 1973 brutal coup) was also described by Trade Minister Peter Rees in 1982 as a ‘moderate and stabilising force’ – moderate because he only killed his own people, not ours. The majority of Chile’s navy was supplied by Britain’s heavily subsidised arms firms, which provided ‘around a dozen warships, including frigates, destroyers and submarines’ according to Mark Curtis in Unpeople.[21]

According to an Amnesty International report from July 1980: ‘There has been a steady increase in the abuse of human rights in Chile. This year alone 2,000 people have been arrested in a series of systematic house raids and many are said to have been tortured. … There is concern that people will again start ‘disappearing’ as they did before 1978 and that the increase in cases of torture reported to Amnesty International in recent months marks a return to brutal torture’.[22]

The Observer reported in 1997 that, ‘during the period of maximum pressure to make arms sales to Turkey’, Thatcher ‘personally intervened to ensure a payment of 22 million pounds was made out of Britain’s overseas aid budget, to help build a metro in the Turkish capital of Ankara. The project was uneconomical, and in 1995 it was admitted’ to be ‘unlawful’ by Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd.[23]

In Iraq, after the genocidal gassing of 5,000 Kurds in Halabja under Saddam in March 1988, London extended its already strong military support. The Thatcher government ‘expressed its outrage over the use of chemical weapons by doubling export credits for Baghdad, which rose from £175 million in 1987 to £340 million in 1988,’ writes Curtis.[24] More generally, London ‘has always opposed full self-determination or statehood for the Kurds for fear of destabilising its allies in the region, principally Turkey and Iraq’.[25]

Thatcher was also pleased with Pinochet’s violent actions against students and human rights activists, meeting with the exiled dictator in 1999 to drink tea and thank him for helping Britain during the Falklands War. She told him: ‘We are very much aware that it was you who brought democracy to Chile.’[26] Pinochet in return thanked the prime minister for her ‘kindness.’[27] The Falklands War also ‘ran alongside covert British operations to assist the US wars in Nicaragua and Cambodia, where London provided secret military training to guerrilla forces allied to Pol Pot’s genocidal Khmer Rouge.’[28]

Within a year of Thatcher’s election in 1979, the Conservatives, Curtis adds in The Ambiguities of Power, ‘had lifted the arms embargo against Chile imposed by the previous Labour government, resumed full diplomatic relations, and restored the full cover of the Export Credit Guarantee Department for trading with Chile.’[29] This coincided with a rise in human rights abuses, including ‘arbitrary arrest, interrogation with torture, the recent finding of a mass grave containing 3,000 bodies and an economic policy leading to widespread malnutrition’, according to Sheila Cassidy, a British missionary whose torture had initially caused Britain to sever diplomatic relations with Chile, before a new Age of Reason helped the Conservatives see the democratic potential in Pinochet’s violence.

Like Pinochet, General Suharto of Indonesia was also ‘One of our very best and most valuable friends,’ for Thatcher. John Pilger recounted in 2008 the following revealing vignette:

‘Shortly before the death of Alan Clark, who under Thatcher was the minister responsible for supplying Suharto with most of his weapons, I interviewed him, and asked: “Did it bother you personally that you were causing such mayhem and human suffering?” “No, not in the slightest,” he replied. “It never entered my head.” “I ask the question because I read you are a vegetarian and are seriously concerned with the way animals are killed.” “Yeah?” “Doesn’t that concern extend to humans?” “Curiously not.”’[30]

Thatcher was also intrepid enough in January 1984 to announce that ‘We support the United States’ aim to promote peaceful change, democracy and economic development’ in Central America, during the US’s illegal and devastating terrorist wars in El Salvador and Nicaragua against the threat of independent development.[31] The British security company KMS gladly trained some of the contra terrorists used by the US. KMS were also involved in the training of Afghan forces in the 1980s in their fight against the Soviets. In 1987, the Observer reported a secret proposal from KMS to the CIA to send SAS instructors to Afghanistan to train rebels in ‘demolition, sabotage, reconnaissance and para-medicine.’[32]

Reagan and Thatcher were not distracted in their efforts by the World Court’s condemnation of US attacks and the destruction of economic livelihoods, with Britain even abstaining in November 1983 from a UN resolution condemning US human rights violations by its favourite brutal regime in El Salvador.

The current coalition government has also used Thatcher’s tenure as a model for diplomacy and morality. In late March, while the UK was supporting an arms treaty at the UN, coalition ministers were also promoting the nation’s arms trade to Libya aboard a British warship, advancing more weapons sales to a socially and politically dislocated country filled with rival armed factions. Thatcher’s legacy will certainly live on, then, in new and surprising ways – but only, as is often the case, if we allow it to.

[1] Cited in Walden Bello, Dark Victory: The United States, Structural Adjustment and Global Poverty (London: Pluto Press, 1994), p. 105.
[2] Tom Mills, ‘The Death of a Class Warrior – Margaret Thatcher (1925-2013),’ New Left Project, 8 April 2013.
[3] Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine (London: Penguin, 2008), p. 10
[4] John MacInnes, Thatcherism at Work: Industrial Relations and Economic Change (Open University Press, 1989), p. 165.
[5] Financial Times, 10 June 1987.
[6] MacInnes, Thatcherism at Work, p. 25 (emphasis his).
[7] The Guardian, 9 October 1986.
[8] MacInnes, Thatcherism at Work, p. 54.
[9] Ibid., p. 3.
[10] E. P. Thompson, ‘The Peculiarities of the English,’ Socialist Register, 1965, cited in MacInnes, Thatcherism at Work, p. 8.
[11] MacInnes, Thatcherism at Work, pp. 8-9.
[12] Richard Seymour, The Meaning of David Cameron (Zero Books, 2010),, p. 38.
[13] MacInnes, Thatcherism at Work, p. 55.
[14] Conservative Campaign Guide 1983, p. 111, www.margaretthatcher.org/document/CA0B1DF2EC494228BB66A9C59F82BE46.pdf.
[15] Tom Burns and George Macpherson Stalker, The Management of Innovation (Oxford University Press, 3rd revised edition 1994), p. xxxv.
[16] MacInnes, Thatcherism at Work, p. 162.
[17] Noam Chomsky, ‘The United States and the “Challenge of Relativity”’, in Tony Evans (ed.), Human Rights Fifty Years On: A Reappraisal (Manchester University Press, 1998).
[18] Richard Seymour, ‘The Tories: An Anatomy,’ International Socialism, issue 131, Summer 2011, p. 51.
[19] R. Seymour, The Meaning of David Cameron, p. 63.
[20] John Pilger, ‘The real first casualty of war,’ New Statesman, 24 April 2006.
[21] Mark Curtis, Unpeople (London: Vintage, 2004), p. 275.
[22] Caroline Mooreland, ‘Amnesty and unions deplore lifting of Chile arms embargo,’ The Times, 27 July 1980.
[23] Cited in Noam Chomsky, ‘The Passion For Free Markets,’ Z Magazine, May 1997.
[24] Mark Curtis, Web of Deceit: Britain’s Real Role in the World (London: Vintage, 2003), p. 36.
[25] Ibid., p. 33.
[26] Amelia Gentleman, ‘Thatcher takes elevenses with old ally,’ The Guardian, 27 March 1999.
[27] BBC News, 26 March 1999, ‘Thatcher stands by Pinochet,’ http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/304516.stm.
[28] Mark Curtis, Secret Affairs: Britain’s Collusion with Radical Islam (London: Serpent’s Tail, 2010), p. 150.
[29] Mark Curtis, The Ambiguities of Power: British Foreign Policy Since 1945 (London: Zed Books, 1995), p. 131.
[30] John Pilger, ‘Our model dictator,’ The Guardian, 28 January 2008.
[31] Cited in Edwards and Cromwell, Guardians of Power, p. 143.[32] Cited in Curtis, Secret Affairs, p. 143.
Elliot Murphy

Elliot Murphy is a writer and activist based in the UK. He is the author of 'Unmaking Merlin: Anarchist Tendencies in English Literature', to be published in November 2014 by Zero Books.


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