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Thatcher may be gone, but remember – her cruel influence lives on in the Labour Party

When Ed Miliband paid tribute to Thatcher as a “brave” feminist hero whose achievements he personally “honoured”, you knew she hadn't died at all.

In the wake of Margaret Thatcher’s departure, I remember her victims. Patrick Warby’s daughter Marie was one of them. Marie, aged five, suffered from a bowel deformity and needed a special diet. Without it, the pain was excruciating. Her father was a Durham miner and had used all his savings. It was winter 1985, the Great Strike was almost a year old and the family was destitute. Although Marie’s eligibility was not disputed, she was denied help by the Department of Health and Social Security. Later, I obtained government records of the case that showed Marie had been turned down because her father was “affected by a Trade dispute”.

The corruption and inhumanity under Thatcher knew no borders. When she came to power in 1979, she demanded a ban on exports of milk to Vietnam. The American invasion had left a third of Vietnamese children malnourished.

I witnessed many distressing sights, including infants going blind from a lack of vitamins. “I cannot tolerate this,” said an anguished doctor at a paediatric hospital in Saigon, as we looked at a dying boy. Oxfam and Save the Children had made clear to the British government the gravity of the emergency. An embargo led by the US had forced up the local price of a kilo of milk powder to ten times that of a kilo of meat. Many children could have been restored with milk. Thatcher’s ban held.

In neighbouring Cambodia, Thatcher left a trail of blood, secretly. In 1980, she demanded that the defunct Pol Pot regime – which killed 1.7 million people – retain its “right” to represent its victims at the UN. Her policy was vengeance on Cambodia’s liberator, Vietnam. The British representative was instructed to vote with Pol Pot at the World Health Organisation, thereby preventing it from providing help to where it was needed more than anywhere else on earth.

To conceal this outrage, the US, Britain and China, Pol Pot’s main backer, invented a “resistance coalition”, dominated by Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge forces and supplied by the CIA at bases along the Thai border. There was a hitch. Following the Irangate arms-for-hostages debacle, the US Congress had banned clandestine foreign adventures. “In one of those deals the two of them liked to make,” a senior Whitehall official told the Sunday Telegraph, “President Reagan put it to Thatcher that the SAS should take over the Cambodia show. She readily agreed.”

In 1983, Thatcher sent the SAS to train the “coalition” in its own distinctive brand of terrorism. Seven-man SAS teams arrived from Hong Kong and British soldiers set about training “resistance fighters” in laying minefields in a country devastated by genocide and the world’s highest rate of death and injury as a result of landmines.

I reported this at the time, and more than 16,000 people wrote to Thatcher in protest. “I confirm,” she replied to the opposition leader Neil Kinnock, “that there is no British government involvement of any kind in training, equipping or co-operating with the Khmer Rouge or those allied to them.” The lie was breathtaking. In 1991, the government of John Major admitted to parliament that the SAS had indeed trained the “coalition”. “We liked the British,” a Khmer Rouge fighter later told me. “They were very good at teaching us to set booby traps. Unsuspecting people, like children in paddy fields, were the main victims.”

When the journalists and producers of Thames Television’s landmark documentary Death on the Rock revealed how the British SAS had run Thatcher’s other death squads in Ireland and Gibraltar, they were hounded by Rupert Murdoch’s “journalists”, then cowering behind the razor wire at Wapping. Although exonerated, Thames TV ultimately lost its ITV franchise.

In 1982, the Argentinian cruiser General Belgrano was steaming outside the Falklands exclusion zone. The ship offered no threat, yet Thatcher gave orders for it to be sunk. Her victims were 323 sailors, including teenage conscripts. The crime had a certain logic. Among Thatcher’s closest allies were mass murderers – Augusto Pinochet in Chile, Suharto in Indonesia, responsible for “many more than one million” deaths (Amnesty International). Although the British state had long armed the world’s leading tyrannies, it was Thatcher who brought a crusading zeal to the deals, talking up the finer points of fighter aircraft engines, hard-bargaining with bribe-demanding Saudi princes. I filmed her at an arms fair, stroking a gleaming missile. “I’ll have one of those!” she said.

In his arms-to-Iraq inquiry, Lord (Richard) Scott heard evidence that an entire tier of the Thatcher government, from senior civil servants to ministers, had lied and broken the law in selling weapons to Saddam Hussein. Thumb through old copies of the Baghdad Observer, and there are pictures of her obsequious “boys” on the front page – cabinet ministers – sitting with Saddam on his famous white couch. There is a grinning David Mellor around the time his host was gassing 5,000 Kurds.

Perhaps it is too easy to dance on her grave. Her funeral was a propaganda stunt, fit for a dictator: an absurd show of militarism, as if a coup had taken place. And it has. As another of her boys, Geoffrey Howe, a Thatcher minister between 1979 and 1989, said, “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.”

In 1997, Thatcher was the first former prime minister to visit Tony Blair after he entered Downing Street. There is a photo of them, joined in rictus – the budding war criminal with his mentor.

When Ed Miliband, in his unctuous “tribute”, caricatured Thatcher as a “brave” feminist hero whose achievements he personally “honoured”, you knew that she had not died at all.

John Pilger, renowned investigative journalist and documentary film-maker, is one of only two to have twice won British journalism's top award; his documentaries have won academy awards in both the UK and the US. In a New Statesman survey of the 50 heroes of our time, Pilger came fourth behind Aung San Suu Kyi and Nelson Mandela. "John Pilger," wrote Harold Pinter, "unearths, with steely attention facts, the filthy truth. I salute him."

This article first appeared in the 29 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, What makes us human?

Photo: Getty Images
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.