How Margaret Thatcher turned the left upside down

The return of the Conservatives to power in Britain in 2010 has reminded us of just how negative so much of Thatcher’s legacy has been, as they attack public services and the living standards of ordinary people. Thatcher was a disaster for British society, culture and morals. Yet since her intervention of April 1993 into the debate over the former Yugoslavia nobody can justifiably assume simply that ‘left-wing is good; right-wing is bad’. The reality is more complicated.

Marko Attila Hoare is a British historian who also writes about current affairs

When I was growing up in the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher was the incarnation of evil. I came from a left-wing family and was an activist from an early age, joining the Labour Party Young Socialists at fifteen or sixteen.

I was active in support of striking teachers and ambulance workers and against the poll-tax; I attended the great London demonstration against the poll-tax of 31 March 1990.

In those days, political rights and wrongs were very simple: right-wing was bad and left-wing was good. Thatcher, along with the US’s Ronald Reagan, was the number one left-wing hate-figure; most demos involved the ritual chant of ‘Maggie ! Maggie ! Maggie ! Out ! Out ! Out !’ Her fall in November 1990 was a time of joy.

My two-dimensional political world began to collapse in 1991, when Serbia’s fascistic dictator Slobodan Milosevic launched full-scale war in the former Yugoslavia, from where my own mother came. The crimes of Milosevic’s forces, culminating in the genocide in Bosnia, made the real or supposed crimes of Thatcher and the Tories – the sinking of the Belgrano, the crushing of the miners, the poll tax, etc.  – pale in comparison.

I naively hoped that the radical left’s opposition to oppression and injustice would lead it to show solidarity to Milosevic’s Kosovar, Croatian and Bosnian victims, as it did to black South Africans, Catholic Northern Irish, Palestinians and Kurds. After all, Milosevic’s aggression and genocide enjoyed the active complicity of the West, above all of the Conservative government of Thatcher’s successor, John Major.

A UN arms embargo, staunchly backed by Major’s Britain, prevented Milosevic’s Bosnian victims from defending themselves properly. Britain worked to destroy Bosnia and reward Serbia, and blocked military intervention against Serb forces. Solidarity with the Bosnians, in the face of Western collusion in their slaughter, should have been an anti-imperialist cause par excellence.

But it was not to be.

Milosevic was a reconstituted Communist – his party was called the ‘Socialist Party of Serbia’ – and for most of the radical left, tribal solidarity with a ‘socialist’ regime trumped everything else. The ‘socialist’ regimes of Eastern Europe had, in their ignominious collapse in 1989-1991, revealed their complete political, economic and moral bankruptcy to all who weren’t willfully blind. Yet left-wing radicals preferred to be on the wrong side of history, and either refused to oppose or actively sympathised with this final, anachronistic act of barbarity by Communists in Europe.

Kosovars, Croatians and Bosnians were – to borrow Noam Chomsky’s term – ‘unworthy victims’. One by one, the heroes of my youth – Tony Benn, Arthur Scargill, Dennis Skinner, John Pilger, Steve Bell and others, as well as groups like the Socialist Workers Party – revealed themselves to be Her Majesty’s Loyal Non-Opposition to Major’s Bosnia policy; the left flank of Tory British imperialism.

The days when Milosevic’s Western-abetted killing machine rolled on over Bosnia and its people, apparently inexorably, were dark indeed. Yet at the height of the darkness, on 13 April 1993, a glorious flash of light occurred, when one of the Conservative government’s most hardline, radical critics spectacularly denounced its policy on British prime-time television.

In a BBC interview, Baroness Thatcher called for the arming of the Bosnian army, and when the interviewer mentioned Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd’s argument, that this would create a ‘level killing field’, she denounced this as a ‘terrible and disgraceful phrase’. She compared Bosnia’s defending army with the British fighters at the Battle of Britain, and compared the West’s role in the Bosnian war to ‘an accomplice to massacre’.

It was the statement of solidarity to the victims of oppression and injustice in their struggle that most leading British left-wingers should have given, but didn’t. That was when Thatcher turned the world of the left upside-down.

Since then, the facile assumption that the radical left holds the moral high-ground vis-a-vis mainstream Western politicians has been disproven repeatedly: in 1999, it was Tony Blair, not Tony Benn, who flew off to Kosovo to promise the Albanian victims of Milosevic’s genocidal campaign that he would not abandon them; in 2003, it was the US neoconservatives, not the SWP, who supported the Iraqi democrats and Kurds against Saddam Hussein’s tyranny; in 2011, it was the Tory-dominated coalition government, not the British radical left, that saved the Libyan revolution from being drowned in blood by Gaddafi.

The return of the Conservatives to power in Britain in 2010 has reminded us of just how negative so much of Thatcher’s legacy has been, as they attack public services and the living standards of ordinary people. Thatcher was a disaster for British society, culture and morals. Yet since her intervention of April 1993 nobody can justifiably assume simply that ‘left-wing is good; right-wing is bad’. The reality is more complicated.

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