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The 'Patriot' Prime Minister

It is time to disassociate Thatcher from liberty. Look at her era of repressing dissent, protest and freedom of expression. She must not go down in history as a 'champion of freedom and democracy'. 

Mike Small
15 April 2013

Margaret Thatcher: symbol of liberty and strength. Changed Britain and the world for the better. May she rest in peace Rupert Murdoch @rupertmurdoch

In the run up to the state funeral in all but name and the mobilisation of the armed forces in memory of Margaret Thatcher, I want to reflect on how, in both the media and society, her period normalised state violence and coarsened language and thought, making hatred acceptable.  

Her response to the hunger strikes in Northern Ireland and her use of paramilitary police violence during the miner’s strike encouraged brutal demagoguery. We need to challenge the resurrection and deification of her as a ‘saviour’ figure, therefore, and resist the continuity and legitimation of her brutal and now failing approach. 

Bizarrely attempting to align Thatcher with Princess Di, Prime Minister David Cameron came out with a wonderfully stupid epithet as he sought to become her chief hagiographer: she was the "Patriot Prime Minister". But even the great white-wash of remembrance can't splash over the way her apogee of British patriotism may hasten the break up of Britain, as her tenure did more to create division than anyone seeking self-determination. If in the immediate aftermath of Diana’s death we in Scotland voted for devolution, we might take the next step in the aftermath of Thatcher’s.

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Media Maggie 

The long, long 1980s we’ve experienced includes the transformation of news and popular culture, the tabloidisation of much of social information. As we reflect on the media transformations – accelerated under the Wapping Dispute which are usually heralded as a boost for popular democracy – it’s worth also remembering Thatcher's attacks on free speech from Zircon to D Notices and more. In 1981, indeed, Thatcher’s government considered arresting journalists covering riots in Britain as it blamed the media for fomenting violence in inner-city areas, according to previously secret Cabinet papers. The incredible violence of the era mustn’t be forgotten in the mist of apologia and propaganda. The regular reports of police repression of dissent and protest came again and again from Orgreave to Wapping, from the inner cities to the Poll tax protests, from Greenham Common to the Battle of the Beanfield. But the physical violence that the confrontations created were being matched by the psychological violence of a new tabloid media in which shameless greed was dressed up as ‘liberty’, and selfishness dressed up as individualism.

What are we to make of the tributes that include Nancy Reagan claiming “The world has lost a true champion of freedom and democracy” or Virginia Bottomley arguing: “She believed in the power of liberty, individual freedom and the rule of law”, Radoslaw Sikorski, calling Thatcher a “fearless champion of liberty” or the Economist magazine which hailed the late Tory leader’s “willingness to stand up to tyranny” and “bet on freedom”? How do we square this with the police raid on the BBC in Glasgow over Zircon?  The British Government's shoot to kill policy or the framing of John Stalker? The reality is that much of the authoritarian attacks on civil liberties and rise in power and influence of crucial allies in the press can be charted to the Thatcher era. 

How can we possibly link the Thatcher era with liberty when she supported the apartheid regime from popular protest (worth reminding Michael Forysth and others who refer to her as being on the ‘right side of history’) as well as General Zia ul Haq’s military dictatorship in Pakistan and General Suharto of Indonesia, whose 32-year dictatorship was rightly described by the New York Times as “one of the most brutal and corrupt of the 20th century”? 

All of this is conveniently forgotten by those focusing on how she supposedly ‘ended the Cold War’. Should we start with the mass unemployment, ‘a price worth paying’ or naming striking workers defending their communities as the ‘enemy within’? The strongest memory I have – and it’s probably why, decades on, people still feel such anger – is the remorseless nature of the change she inflicted. This ‘amoral’ policy context is worth remembering: it’s a dehumanising process. Craig Murray writes: “As you drown in a sea of praise for Thatcher, remember this. She was prepared to promote lung cancer, for cash” (see article here).

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Patriotism and Quietism

It’s vital that we do not allow a media consensus to shut-down dissent and proper analysis in the aftermath of her death . As Spinwatch have it: 

“This demand for respectful silence in the wake of a public figure’s death is not just misguided but dangerous. That one should not speak ill of the dead is arguably appropriate when a private person dies, but it is wildly inappropriate for the death of a controversial public figure, particularly one who wielded significant influence and political power. “Respecting the grief” of Thatcher’s family members is appropriate if one is friends with them or attends a wake they organize, but the protocols are fundamentally different when it comes to public discourse about the person’s life and political acts.

But the key point is this: those who admire the deceased public figure (and their politics) aren’t silent at all. They are aggressively exploiting the emotions generated by the person’s death to create hagiography.” 

There is something extraordinary about the efforts to contain people’s shared anger about the Thatcher era. Where to begin to account for the human misery she caused, and reveled in? 

So where’s the continuity?

Wikispooks has helpfully reported that:

“Margaret Thatcher and the rising star in Conservative Research Department, David Cameron, visited apartheid South Africa.The past and future British Prime Ministers made a point of visiting the Rössing Uranium Mine in Namibia (illegally occupied by apartheid South Africa in defiance of UN Security Council Resolution 435). In 1989, the Rössing mine was jointly owned by Rio Tinto Group and the Iranian Government, and was supplying uranium to develop Iran’s nuclear programme. Mrs Thatcher was so impressed with the Rössing Uranium Mine that she declared it made her “proud to be British”, a sentiment echoed by David Cameron.” It has recently been reported that Margaret Thatcher and David Cameron even concluded a secret nuclear deal with the apartheid regime during their visit in 1989

It is time to disassociate Thatcher from liberty.

Owen Jones put it best saying: “Thatcherism was a national catastrophe, and we remain trapped by its consequences. As her former Chancellor Geoffrey Howe put it: “Her real triumph was to have transformed not just one party but two, so that when Labour did eventually return, the great bulk of Thatcherism was accepted as irreversible.” " 

Hers was cold power, pure interest, naked avarice. At the time all of this was shocking. What’s depressing is that has now been internalised and normalised. This is a great opportunity to re-examine the values she fostered and to reject them and the failed economic ideology she created and push back against the apologists for the society she produced. Above all, the vehicles trumpeting her supposed patriotism and uniting the country are the divisive, polarising, bombastic and macho-sexist tabloids. 

But the key point is this: those who admire the deceased public figure (and their politics) aren’t silent at all. They are aggressively exploiting the emotions generated by the person’s death to create hagiography. This demand for respectful silence in the wake of a public figure’s death is not just misguided but dangerous. That one should not speak ill of the dead is arguably appropriate when a private person dies, but it is wildly inappropriate for the death of a controversial public figure, particularly one who wielded significant influence and political power. “Respecting the grief” of Thatcher’s family members is appropriate if one is friends with them or attends a wake they organize, but the protocols are fundamentally different when it comes to public discourse about the person’s life and political acts.

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