For anyone born during or after the mid 80s it’s hard to know what to think of Margaret Thatcher. She was either the woman who made the country great again or the witch who divided a nation. All we saw after her death were videos of unbelievable ‘ecky thump’ salt of the earth northeners versus seemingly fictional Norman Tebbit type figures straight out of House of Cards.
Blair was given the dubious accolade of bringing in the age of spin, but for those who didn’t experience the Thatcher years that’s hard to believe. It seems everyone over 30 has been brainwashed by tribal political operations into polar views. Nobody has anything sensible to say.
Growing up in Liverpool I wanted to hate Thatcher but this view was so ubiquitous that it felt too much like jumping on the bandwagon (similar logic stopped me listening to The Beatles till after uni…the building of ‘John Lennon Airport’ delayed the process a further couple of years).
Today though the National Archive has released official documents from 1984 and this has finally decisively shed some light on what went on during the 80s.
First the docs reveal the miners’ worst fears. Thatcher had every small detail planned out for closing the mines and taking on the miners. She was ready to bring in the military and contrary to what was claimed had marked out 75 mines to be closed. Though this was all denied at the time everyone pretty much believed this to be the case.
The really revealing and scary part though is her view of the police. In her own words she said:
Violence will not succeed for the police and courts will not bow to it. They are the servants not of government but of the law itself.
But the documents reveal she was treating them as her own political instruments, not as unbiased law enforcers. In March 1984 the Home Secretary was being pressed to get the police to take up a “more vigorous interpretation of their duties”. In June, Thatcher herself pressured Chief Constables to stiffen up.
There was clearly pressure on the police to take an approach that everyone knew would lead to conflict.
Some are saying the Thatcher government was simply more honest than future governments in its note taking, but to propose the government was naive about the impact of the notes being taken and wouldn’t play down the language used is fanciful. Despite her controversy nobody says Thatcher was not a canny political operator who wanted a long term legacy. During the Falklands conflict she made lots of references to documents coming out in the end. It is far more likely that phrases such as “vigourous interpretation of their duties” are hiding a lot of sins and this is the most acceptable way they could be translated for the record.
For those not around at the time we see endless retrospective clips of miners fighting with the police. This instinctively makes the miners seem in the wrong. As it turns out the Government was effectively forcing the police to take a hard line in sensitive situations that would inevitably lead to violence.
Secondly there’s her treatment of Mandela. Charles Moore, unofficial cheerleader for Thatcher since her death, said she was pressing constantly behind the scenes for Mandela to be released:
the release of Mandela was the strongest and most specific of all her demands
This is just not backed up by the evidence. In a 4 hour conversation with South African President PW Botha on 2 June 1984 at Chequers she made no reference to Mandela at all. There is some hearsay evidence that she did raise it in a private conversation before the minutes were taken, but that the topic was batted away quite easily.
More revealing for my generation than the release of these documents though is the viral video of her making homophobic comments that surfaced just before her funeral.
I had been told Thatcher was all about individual liberty. She existed to stop the big state interfering in people’s lives. The video shows this only stretched as far as economic affairs, an area in which ‘her people’, as she used to call them (which roughly translates to the white, affluent, christian, middle England), generally benefitted from not having state involvement. When it came to social issues she was quite happy for people to be restricted if their conduct was frowned upon by her party faithful. Her economic and social philosophies don’t match up and ultimately expose her.
The picture that finally emerges is of a woman who hid behind an ideology of personal freedom to stop the state from interfering when that benefited Tory supporters. When it didn’t suit her interests however she was willing to speak against personal freedom and to marshall the police as an instrument of a big state. This was not a principled Government. The only compliment I can give Thatcher is that it took me so long to figure this out.