Friday, 12 September 2008

What Maggie did for us

As Maggie Thatcher fades into a sad slow decline, with Alzheimer's accelerating and having lost in her husband Denis the most loyal support she ever had and now more than ever needs, there's a tendency for people to feel sorrow for her (as I do) or renewed admiration for her toughness, her determination, her courage (as I most decidedly do not).

In the light of all that, I thought it was worth looking again at three key moments of her career as Prime Minister.

No such thing as society

In an interview on 23 September 1987, Thatcher replied to a question about ‘people constantly requesting government intervention’ that:

‘They are casting their problems at society. And, you know, there's no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look after themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then, also, to look after our neighbours.’

For 3000 years we've been building increasingly complex societies, with their ideologies, their shared cultures, their state organs, their institutions of belief, of education, of mutual support (or lack of it). Today the problem isn't even that the nation has taken over from the local community, it's that through globalisation a world-wide society dictates how wealthy we are, how well, how free, how safe.

But in the last decades of the twentieth century Thatcher believed it all came down to individuals and their families.

The terrorist Mandela

There's an urban myth that Thatcher once said ‘The ANC is a typical terrorist organisation . . . Anyone who thinks it is going to run the government in South Africa is living in cloud-cuckoo land’.

What she actually said, at a press conference on 17 October 1987 during the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Vancouver, was ‘the ANC says that they will target British companies. This shows what a typical terrorist organisation it is. I fought terrorism all my life and if more people fought it, and we were all more successful, we should not have it and I hope that everyone in this hall will think it is right to go on fighting terrorism. They will if they believe in democracy.’ A little later she added ‘I will have nothing to do with any organisation that practices violence. I have never seen anyone from ANC or the PLO or the IRA and would not do so. Nor will we have any truck with any of the organisations; we never negotiate with hostage taking or anything like that.’

See the verbatim account of the conference by the Margaret Thatcher Foundation at:

The Foundation explains how the supposed ‘quotation’ came into circulation. At the same Vancouver conference, a Canadian journalist apparently suggested that the ANC might overthrow the South African regime. Margaret Thatcher’s press spokesman, Bernard Ingham, responded that ‘It is cloud cuckooland for anyone to believe that could be done.’ His comment was quoted by the Washington Post on 17 October 1987. According to the Thatcher Foundation, Hugo Young in the Guardian of 26 April 1994, claimed that Thatcher had said in Vancouver ‘Anyone who thinks that the ANC is going to run the government in South Africa is living in cloud-cuckoo land’ and this was the source of the belief that Thatcher had made the statement.


Ingham was a member of the closest circle of Thatcher's advisers. What comes out of what she said as well as his comments is that the Thatcher circle regarded Mandela’s ANC as terrorists in 1987.

Mandela was released from jail on 11 February 1990. He became the first freely-elected president of South Africa on 10 May 1994. That's less than seven years from Thatcher’s and Ingham’s comments.

Thatcher mentioned the PLO and the IRA as well as the ANC, as organisations with which she would have no contact.

The only good chance there has been in decades of an end to turmoil in Israel and Palestine was as a result of the negotiations between Yitzhak Rabin as Israeli prime minister and Yasser Arafat of the PLO. The hopes were eventually dashed as a result of the limitations of Arafat (no Mandela he) and, of course, the murder of Rabin at the hands of a fundamentalist, but what hope there was came from dialogue.

On Good Friday 1998, the main campaigns of terrorism in Northern Ireland came to an end. That extraordinary achievement was brought about by direct negotiations between the British and Irish governments on the one hand and people who were undoubtedly or avowedly senior figures in the IRA, such as Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, on the other. One of the more shameful though comical expressions of Thatcher’s loss of control over herself in her latter years was the ban on hearing Adams in the media: it was intended to implement her policy of denying terrorists the oxygen of publicity. We still heard his words, just not spoken by him: an actor would read them aloud from a transcript. It was pointless and petty. It’s amazing how many people who lived through the period and would like to think well of her have forgotten that she bourght in this laughable measure.

South Africa, the Middle East, Northern Ireland. Progress towards resolving these intractable problems only came from overcoming the likes of Thatcher. Her attitudes had nothing positive to contribute.

A last assault on gays

At least I hope it will prove to have been the last.

On 24 May 1988, the Thatcher government secured the enactment of amendments to legislation concerning local government that among other things introduced a new Section 28. Among its provisions were that a local authority ‘shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality' or 'promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship’.

As it happens no prosecutions were ever brought under this provision. However, its mere presence led to many local authority employees and in particular teachers being careful what they said or taught, or the texts they proposed to students, in case they might be seen to be encouraging homosexuality. It contributed to dividing society (but then there is no such thing as society) and breeding a general sense of oppression of freedom. The section was repealed in 2001 in Scotland and in 2003 in the rest of the UK: it took a Labour government to get rid of it, though it took even that government more than long enough...

Michael Howard, then leader of the Conservative Party, told the gay magazine Attitude during the 2005 general election, that Section 28 ‘was brought in to deal with what was seen to be a specific problem at the time. The problem was the kind of literature that was being used in some schools and distributed to very young children that was seen to promote homosexuality. .... I thought, rightly or wrongly, that there was a problem in those days. That problem simply doesn’t exist now. Nobody’s fussed about those issues any more. It’s not a problem, so the law shouldn’t be hanging around on the statute book.’

It's great that on Mandela and on Section 28 the Tories' second thoughts were better than their first. But why did we have to put up with their first thoughts at all?

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