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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10 Responses to “How Margaret Thatcher turned the left upside down”

  1. Helen Crittenden

    Thank you – the reality is, indeed, more complicated.

  2. Mason Dixon Autistic

    For a while I thought a serious point was being made, then I reached the second to last paragraph. It would be interesting to know just where we are supposed to draw the line at military interventionist foreign policy in the author’s eyes.

  3. Nymo

    To my mind the notions of left and right wing are defined essentially by one’s views on the role of the state vis-a-vis the market when it comes to ensuring and investing in social security, welfare and public services, as well as equality-related issues such as redistribution and taxation. Left and right wing have nothing intrinsic to do with foreign policy and one’s stance on military intervention. One can be left-wing and interventionist or left-wing and non-interventionist, and the same goes for the right.

  4. Andreas

    Rather than left and right M. Thatcher turned the author upside down…

  5. Mirela

    Good article (although I have to disagree with you over Iraq). I have to say, I find the this idea that Milosevic’s Serbia was somehow a victim of the ‘New World Order’ to be utterly bizzare. Until 1999, the West’s policy was, if anything, quite favourable towards Milosevic. Most Western governmnets supported the JNA’s intervention in Slovenia, and (initially) its invasion of Croatia, they (especially France and Britain) attempted to get Croatia to consent to changes to its borders (while making no similar demands on Serbia), they forced Croatia to halt sucessful offensives against the JNa, rescuing it from the brink of defeat in December 1991, they imposed and enforced the arms embargo in Bosnia (which came at the behest of Serbia), and from the very beginning it legitimised the SDS’s and (Boban wing) HDZ’s platforms of ethnically partitioning Bosnia-Herzegovina, and blamed Izetbegovic for the failure of the Lisbon Agreement (even though, leaving aside the fact that it was a 1992 version of the Munich Agreement, the SDS made it absolutely clear that they had no intention of abiding by it, and had already violated it numerous times). They tried to get the Bosnian government to essentially lie down and accept defeat. They condemned each and every attempt by Croatia to regain its occupied territory (more often than not, these offensives came in response to shelling or attacks by the VRSK), with Carl Bildt comparing the bombardment of Knin, which lasted a few hours and resulted in minimum civilian casualties, with the siege of Sarajevo, which lasted 3 years and left thousands dead. This policy of appeasement culminated in October 1995, when Karadzic, on the verge of total defeat, was ignominiously rescued by Western diplomacy, and the Bosnian government was imposed a territorial settlement which was quite favourable to the Serbs, and they were allowed to keep their own sectarian, aparteid entity with more autonomy ever offered to the Kosovo Albanians at Rambouillet.

    The considerable sympathy shown by some on the far left for the regimes of Radovan Karadzic and Milan Babic/Martic was even more bizzare. They were both openly anti-communist (with Karadzic saying to Borisav Jovic’s face that he viewed communism as worse than fascism), and proudly upheld the legacy of the Monarchist, Nazi collaborationist Chetnik movement (far more openly than Tudjman ever upheld the legacy of the Ustashe). This is not simple moral relativism, it is pure red-brown politics.

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