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On hagiographies and Thatcher’s foreign policy

Very little has been said about Thatcher's dealings with General Pinochet, apartheid South Africa, the Khmer Rouge, the House of Saud and Saddam Hussein (issues we raised within hours). Let's be clear on exactly what we are being told to "pay tribute" to.

Christopher Barrie
12 April 2013

On Wednesday 10 April, on the occasion of a motion regarding the matter of tributes to the late Baroness Thatcher, Conservative MP Sir Tony Baldry, attempted a Point of Order after Glenda Jackson dared criticise the former PM’s legacy. The Point of Order was, quite correctly, dismissed by Speaker John Bercow for nothing ‘unparliamentary’ had occurred.

However, given the din of drawled approval that Baldry’s intervention received, it was quite clear that he had the backing of the benches behind him. What is most alarming in such an intervention is the not-so-tacit implication that, after a public figure’s passing, we may only, as the MP for Banbury put it, be permitted to ‘pay tribute’.

The dangers of such injunctions to collective amnesia are well attested to by the reporting on Thatcher’s bosom friend Ronald Reagan following his own death in 2004. Criticism of Reagan was at best begrudging. Cast, in a similar mould to Baroness Thatcher, as a figure both “divisive” and “controversial” yet popular, the former US President was roundly praised for his bold handling of the economy and resoluteness in adversity. In a piece for The Nation, Dave Zirin perceptively noted these parallels and also cautioned against the mythologizing of public figures when they die. Noting in particular Thatcher’s support for Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, Zirin warns that “if we gloss over her history of supporting tyrants, we are doomed to repeat them.”

And yet a brief survey of major news media in the UK suggests that a sizeable portion of Thatcher’s legacy abroad has gone largely unreported. Mehdi Hasan has done well to document the serial misuse of the words ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’ when relating Thatcher’s time in government. Yet we should also take note of the glaring omissions in the obituaries granted the former PM.

A survey of obituaries in The Guardian, The Telegraph, The Times, The Independent and BBC News shows not one mention of her dealings with Chile, Cambodia, East Timor or Saudi Arabia. Only The Independent makes any mention of her policy towards South Africa. Of course, this could be down to the domestic bias of British newspapers. However, other foreign adventures are documented – most notably the Falklands War and her advice to President Bush “not to go wobbly” in his dealings with Iraq following Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. 

We may all have cause to disagree with Thatcher’s economic record. Indeed, every indicator suggests that her monetarist dogma, dismantling of unions and regressive taxation policy led to some of the highest levels of inequality and poverty ever seen in the UK. However, as with Reagan, there will always be those willing to defend this legacy either as a pragmatic politics of necessity or a successful war on entrenched labour rights, no matter the misery that it might have caused.

Harder to justify is the policy of a Prime Minister in a supposedly liberal country dedicated to the dictates of democracy, staunchly to defend, nay befriend, brutal dictators. Yet when surveying mainstream responses to Thatcher’s premiership these details – those incidentally most liable to unite people in opposition – seem also to be those most conspicuous by their absence.

In a brilliant piece for The Guardian, Jacqueline Rose writes of Thatcher that “She rejoiced – her word – in military victory, as if, like Shakespeare's Coriolanus, she were only too aware that violent patriotism was the best way of making an unjust ruler secure.” This is true, and it is also the very means she employed to justify her continued support for tyrants across the globe. On the occasion of Spain’s request for Chilean dictator Gustavo Pinochet to be extradited, Thatcher, in a letter to The Times noted that “Chile, led [during her premiership] by General Pinochet, was a good friend to this country during the Falklands War. By his actions the war was shortened and many British lives were saved.”

Let it not be forgotten, Thatcher was not just a supporter but a close friend of the late South-American dictator. Pinochet was a man who came to power following the CIA-backed coup to oust and kill the democratically elected socialist president Salvador Allende in 1973. Following the coup, Pinochet’s men would round up and summarily execute large numbers in the national stadium of Santiago. In total it is estimated that his regime was responsible for the deaths of 3,000-15,000 people and a great number more whose disappearance has gone unaccounted. On coming to power, Thatcher was quick to lift the arms embargo imposed on the Pinochet regime. From then on, the pair would enjoy a close relationship bolstered, in no small part, by their shared commitment to neoliberal doctrine. The forced privatization of national industry and the opening up of the Chilean economy to unregulated foreign exploitation would provide a model for both Reagan and Thatcher in their own countries. While still alive, Thatcher would never veer from her belief that Pinochet “brought democracy” to his country.

But it was not just Pinochet who received the support of the Iron Lady. In a bid to ensure effective opposition to Soviet-backed Vietnam, Thatcher provided technical assistance to the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. As John Pilger outlined on the anniversary of Year Zero (when upwards of two million people died in Cambodia), Thatcher’s government repeatedly lied about British involvement in training Khmer Rouge factions before finally admitting, in 1991, that the SAS had been training the resistance; something a later report would deem both ‘cynical’ and ‘criminally irresponsible’.

Then there was Suharto. During the Indonesian occupation of East Timor, Thatcher was resolute in her support for the genocidal general. Once again, it was the anti-Communist (anti-Soviet) stance of Suharto that won him her support. Thatcher would visit General Suharto in 1985 and, praising him for the “agricultural and industrial development” in his country, remained wholly silent on human rights abuses. “We are clearly the best of friends”, Thatcher commented, and indeed they were, for one of the main suppliers of arms and military aircraft to Suharto, whose vicious campaign claimed the lives of over 200,000, was Britain.

Nor were these the only lamentable arms deals signed by the Thatcher administration. The infamous al-Yamamah deal signed with Saudi Arabia was blighted by allegations of corruption and serious questions as to the ethical defensibility of supplying fighter jets to the heavy-handed monarchic regime of the House of Saud. Furthermore, as tributes pour in for Maggie’s iron resolve in her response to Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait, we should not forget how in the preceding years her government was responsible for sale of “non-lethal equipment” (including tank and aircraft parts) to the Iraqi regime.

To this day, the only foreign policy decision by Margaret Thatcher to occasion a public apology has been her designation of Nelson Mandela’s ANC as a “terrorist organisation”. Since her death the only major intervention by a public official making reference to Thatcher’s foreign policy has been that of Gerry Adams, who noted her support for Pinochet and the Khmer Rouge as well as her “draconian militarism”, “authoriz[ing] the killing of citizens both in overt and covert operations” and “opposition to sanctions against apartheid South Africa”.

However, an overview of the Hansard record of Wednesday 10 April reveals just one mention of Pinochet (by David Winnick MP). Neither of Cambodia nor East Timor get a mention. David Cameron makes allusion to her role in rescuing Kuwait from ‘Saddam’s jackboot’ and Ed Miliband remarks only that she was ‘right to defend the Falkands and bravely reach out to… the Soviet Union’ before quickly moving on to her pioneering role in warning of climate change ‘long before anyone thought of hugging a husky’. Saudi Arabia was mentioned once, by Sir Gerald Howarth MP who, with no seeming sense of compunction, commented on the huge financial worth of the al-Yamamah deal, before recalling Thatcher’s sartorial sensitivity when visiting the country; in “a long dress, long sleeves and a scarf” she would only have to “[flash] her eyes at King Fahd” and “it was all a done deal”, he remarked.

This Chatham House report on Thatcher’s Foreign Policy legacy, published on the day of her death, while noting how wrong Thatcher was to believe an Anglo-American special relationship could ‘solve most of the world’s problems’, fails to mention any of Chile, East Timor, Cambodia, South Africa or Saudi Arabia. Richard Haass, in a piece for the Financial Times dedicated specifically to Thatcher’s foreign policy, writes that “Thatcher had little tolerance for aggression. Hers was a highly principled foreign policy, one that rejected Argentine belligerence in the Falklands and, a decade later, Saddam Hussein’s in Kuwait.” In much the same manner, Andrew Roberts writes in The Week that Margaret’s was a ‘towering political honesty’ which managed to change the then predominant ‘attitude of appeasement and post-imperial guilt’. Choosing, like Haass, to focus solely on the Falklands and Kuwait, Roberts too manages to ignore all of the more contemptible aspects of her premiership detailed above.

Nevertheless, we should insist on recalling these more insidious episodes, which marked not the strong hand of an unflinching stateswoman but the cynical manoeuvrings of a leader engaged in the sullied world of late-Cold War intrigue. Thatcher’s foreign policy was one built upon a staunch anti-Communism. But for her, a commitment to free-markets and opposition to leftism in all its nefarious forms were often sufficient for her wilfully to overlook the wretched excesses of her allies abroad. Indeed, on Tuesday, Juan Gabriel Valdes, a former minister in the Chilean government, remarked of Thatcher that “She was never overly pre-occupied with the issue of human rights, but rather by what she perceived as the defence of freedom, which was basically a free market.” Moreover, her ironclad conviction when it came to supporting Pinochet came across as at best wilful denial and at worst utter self-delusion. 

In a 1999 speech at the International Free Enterprise Dinner, Thatcher would attack Pinochet’s detractors before going on to say:

“The qualities that made Britain what she is haven't changed. Decency, fair play, honest dealing, respect for the rights of others - even the rights of people you dislike, especially the rights of people who are vulnerable - these are the things that made us the most remarkable nation on earth.” 

Hers was an intractable belief in an ever-lasting Britishness that was tradition-bound to set itself firmly against the dogmatic dictates of socialism which she understood to represent the antithesis of such ‘honest dealing’. However, it is hard to square her words with the evidence outlined above. Such evocations of Anglo-Saxon even-handedness, we now know, hid a murky undercurrent of sordid Cold War machination. No matter the scale of petty-nationalist pomp on show next Wednesday, we have a responsibility not to forget this legacy.  

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