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Maggie’s legacy not as great as she thinks

Posted on 5 May 2009 | 8:05am

The right-wing papers have had a showering of hagiography for Margaret Thatcher in recent days, to coincide with the 30th anniversary of her coming to power.

Most of it has focussed on the economic (without any reference to the current mess) and the geopolitical (her and Ronnie tearing down the Berlin Wall).

Last night’s dramatisation of the secret talks which helped lead to the end of apartheid, Endgame, on Channel 4, was a reminder that there was another side to the story, unsurprisingly overlooked in all the accounts.

It was a reminder of the extraordinary journey South Africa has taken in recent years, and a reminder of the courage of some in making it happen. The only fleeting reference to Mrs Thatcher took the form of a joke.

She and her supporters would see that as a further dig from what she calls in her book ‘the media left’ who feted Nelson Mandela, but whose ‘sound and fury’ was less responsible for his release than her dogged refusal to join the near universal condemnation of apartheid South Africa.

After watching the programme, which had so many moments with echoes of negotiations over Northern Ireland, I looked up Mrs Thatcher’s book, The Downing Street Years, to see if there was any acceptance that she might have been wrong in her stance.

Far from it. Pages 512 – 535, part of the chapter headed ‘Putting the world to rights’ might be sub-headed ‘how I fought and won for Mandela’s release, and set South Africa on the road to free enterprise.’

She writes of her persistent fight for Mandela’s freedom – it kind of passed me by, as a journalist covering her at the time. Of her first proper meeting with him in Downing Street post-release, she notes the Left’s irritation that she was seeing him, adding ‘but then he, unlike them, had a shrewd view as to what kind of pressure for his release had been more successful.’

She makes the same point when turning down an invitation by President de Klerk to go to South Africa. ‘There was, I knew, nothing more likely to sour his dealings with other governments who had been proved wrong about South Africa than for me to arrive in his country as a kind of proclamation that I had been right.’

The accounts of the abuse she took from other Commonwealth leaders as she dug in against sanctions were an interesting reminder of her resilience. But can she really believe that her basic position – the ANC are terrorists, South Africa is better than the Soviet Union, sanctions don’t work – led to the country becoming democratic?

Inevitably, dramatised accounts of historic events, particularly when involving secret meetings, cannot ever be totally accurate. But there was almost certainly more truth in last night’s programme than in Maggie’s account of how she set Mandela free.

  • Twitterer

    I’ve actually been asked a few times recently, what is the one thing for me that makes Labour a more “morally” sound choice than the Conservatives. And it’s simple really: it was their oppostion to apartheid all those years ago.

    In politics when you wade through all the policies and all the waffle: surely what it comes down to is how a party views and treats ALL people. That’s the essence of it. And in that, Labour is truly the party for the people.

    p.s Alastair please forgive any split infinitives and all the other gross grammatical errors above!

  • George Allan

    You have to admit though that she had real leadership qualities. To be fair to your man, so did Tony Blair, and it is interesting that you saw echoes of N Ireland in last night’s film. Blair certainly did more for NI than she did for SA, I think we can all agree on that. But if Blair was more like Thatcher in terms of leadership, you have to admit Brown is more like Major. Second best after one of THE best. Btw I am a Lib Dem so allowed to praise both sides!

  • Francie Connors

    I watched the programme too and of course you have to wonder about just how accurate it all is. But if it is, then the role of Michael Young deserves far greater recognition. People keep complaining that an ordinary person can have no impact on the political system. Well here was an ordinary man becoming extraordinary by dint of having a daring vision. I wonder if Mrs T has even heard of him

  • Angela Crick

    I spent half of my teenage years on marches and rallies fighting for Mandela’s release. Like you, I was unaware of Maggie Thatcher’s support for our cause. All I can remember was her going on about natural resources and not rewarding terrorism.

  • Grumpy Old Man

    I wonder what your version of history would have looked like if a majority-ruled SA had descended into the sort of Stone Age, tribal, genocidal politics so common in Africa? That SA is a liberal democracy is mainly due to the actions and Christian-based ideals of Mandela and Desmond Tutu, but both had a tremendous struggle against an anarchic/ communist tendency epitomised by Winnie Mandela. Have you considered that Maggie’s public position on political terrorism was consistent wherever it happened, even if personal safety was involved? Is it possible that her position on ANC terrorism in SA may have made the success of the voices of reason just a little easier, or are your critical facilities still drowned in the blood and thunder excitement of direct action?

  • Marion

    I am constantly irritated by how Brits and Yanks rewrite European History. Thatcher and Reagan did not tear down the Berlin Wall…Germany did that themselves. If anything it was initiated by the Solidarity Movement in Poland. To say it was down to Thatcher and Reagan – the Capitalist leaders of the time – makes a mockery of the brave men and women who gave their lives in altercations with the USSR.

    Want to see some of Maggie and Ronnie’s legacy? Get on a flight to Africa and have a look for yourself. The rich elite and the poor kept in desperate poverty… not always by bad policy, but by a lack of forethought of the consequences of political actions. It seems to me this is what the Conservatives are promising for the UK: a weak manifesto, and policies formed without due consideration for the consequences.

    To be fair, I think TB was to some extent guilty of this too. However, when he made decisions that lacked sufficient thought for the future – he was under tremendous pressure and usually reacting to immediate global events (e.g. 9/11). Whereas his manifesto promises and domestic policy, that he had time to think through, considered the impact decisions would have on future generations.

  • Josh

    Maggie’s legacy is even better than she thinks. She rescued a country from the parlous state to which socialism had brought it, gave us back our self confidence.

    Marion, it was the trimumvirate of Thatcher, Reagan and Gorbachev who broke the Soviet Union. For forty years, the US had pursued a policy of detente, allowing the Soviets to grow strong. It was because of Reagan and Thatcher’s military build up that the USSR became frightened. Reagan funded the Solidarity Trade Union movement.

  • Jane A

    I think its worrying early for the media to be rewriting Mrs T’s history, given there are plenty of us who haven’t forgotten the facts. The weird celebrations of “Thirty years since…” were one-sided and quasi-worshipful.

    Still, it made a change from a long piece the BBC ran all day about “the history of Bank Holiday weather.” Rivetting. The Sunday & Monday papers made me glad I had gardening to do.

  • Gary Enefer

    Did Maggie really write and give the impression she ‘helped’Mandela and South Africa?

    This i find very hard to believe and quite sickening. As a young man I remember Peter Gabriel doing a lot and highlighting Steve Biko’s ‘murder’ in Police custody. I remember Labour politicians asking about change and sanctions and i distinctly remember Thatcher an dthe Conservatives just not being interested or wanting to get involved.
    I do not remember one instance when ‘maggie’ said anything about Mandela or South Africa-apart from sanctions would n’t work.
    Be interested to here if someone reading this blog who knew Maggies or the issues in detail at the time can say if she did anything.

  • Em

    Grumpy Old Man: had it been up to Thatcher, apartheid would still be alive and well.

    And George Allan is right, Thatcher had great leadership qualities. So did Hitler.

    In the Downing Street years BBC doc, Thatcher says “President Reagan and I decided communism had to go”. I love it when politicians take us for complete idiots. The woman had nothing, absolutely nothing to do with the end of communism or apartheid. The worst is that she appears to believe her own bullshit: complete loon.

    I’m glad your diaries are around; anything that leaves historical revisionists less room for manoeuvre is a good thing.

  • Jonathan

    I do find your slight snootiness about Lady Thatcher a litte depressing.

    She found this country in the dust. She exposed the myths of socialism and left the country a hundred times better than she found it. No, she was not perfect. But she was, at a conservative estimate, 100 times the prime minister that Gordon Brown is.

  • Em

    I must add this: friend of mine was a teacher trainee four or five years ago in London. She asked her class whether they knew who Margaret Thatcher was. Little six year-old girl squeaked: “She’s the milk snatcher!”

    Thatcher’s true legacy remembered down the generations. Heart-warming, isn’t it?

  • Alina Palimaru

    I concur with earlier comments regarding Western leaders assuming ownership of movements that emerged in other countries. The USSR had been undergoing profound social changes for years and the apparatchiks had been too stupid to notice and catch up. Ronald Reagan (sorry, I have a serious beef with this idiot!) had nothing to do with the fall of the USSR. His shallow understanding of that country, its history and its legacy is best conveyed by a retarded advertisement line he recited in the 1960s against a more equitable system of health care in the US: “One of the traditional methods of imposing Stalinism or socialism on people has been by way of medicine”. How could the Americans inflict this bozo upon the rest of us?

  • Terry Evans

    It’s amazing how many people believe their own bullshit. When she was P.M she just could not accept alternative views. I remember the way she bullied political journalists. If that is strength, keep it. We got what we deserved by voting for her.(not me, too young) Had she not engineered the Falkland war, she’d have been out after 1 term.

  • Marion

    Was Reagan worse than Bush Jnr? I didn’t think so until this economic crisis unravelled his legacy…

    I’m not an expert (and it sounds like Josh is!) How much support did the US give the Solidarity TU Movement? I thought much of the Cold War was re-invented by propaganda (on both sides). E.g. Kennedy’s success in Cuba, well the USSR turned their own ships away; the US telling the Hungarians they would support them – but during the Uprising changing that definition and leaving them to the Soviet tanks. The point I’m trying to make (probably not too well!) is that ‘worship’ of the T,R,G trimumvirate in a way steals the contribution that local people played – which in time is subsequently forgotten. A bit like the American’s winning WW2 ignores the contribution of intelligence and sabotage the French Resistance made.

    Regardless of who solved the problem – isn’t it more important to learn from it, so the suffering is not repeated? The world obviously didn’t learn from apartheid – it is going on in Bolivia today. With the white (Spanish descent) population being surpressed by the majority (85%) indian population.

  • Evelyn Alexander

    Alistair Campbell’s book All in the Mind is the best book I have read in years. It gives an amazing insight into depression and both the frailities and strengths of human nature. I cannot recommend it highly enough. Thank you so much and keep writing.

  • gary Enefer

    I like beautiful writing and wondered if any of you (Em,Terry Alina Everlyn )- sorry if I have missed anyone out i would like ot hear from all of you on oday’s blog t,could join me on Twitter? Thank you to Marion and Jane A who have do so and AC again for making this miracle happen. i have joined your ”going Fourth” website campaign Alastair after looking at who jane A and Marion were following. By doing this I am also getting a fantastic education.My username is MYYOGA-Gary Enefer. Sorry for the MYYOGA- I got confused and thought yuo shouldn’t use your real name. by the way AC after this Bank holiday madness-Blears Johnston et al do you think GB can keep his cool and recover. I read that Peter mandelson had to step in to calm him down on thursday – He needs a team and strategist AC?

  • Alan Quinn

    Manufacturing industry decimated overnight by economic incompetence. That’s her legacy to me as a skilled engineer.