Everton Pryce Sunday, April 14, 2013
The reactions of outrage and surprise by thousands of Jamaicans to the announcement and subsequent 24-hour official visit to our shores of the ‘Iron Lady’, Mrs Margaret Thatcher, the late British prime minister, in July 1987, underscored yet again the extent to which global realities kept looming large in the popular consciousness of the Jamaican people, and how her arch-conservative principles and ideology affected our lives and the way we looked at the world.
Her visit came 10 months after the official visit of the South African Anglican Bishop, civil rights leader and Nobel Laureate Desmond Tutu, and weeks after the successful visit to the island of his fellow countryman, the late president of the African National Congress (ANC), Mr Oliver Tambo, at the request of the People’s National Party (PNP).
THATCHER… the quintessential icon of the New Right in British and European politics
But given the timing of her visit and, more important, the resentment of what she represented as a divisive global political personality, I believe that most people in Jamaica will not be affected by her passing.
Several factors account for this.
In the first place, Thatcher’s visit took place in the centenary year of the birth of our first and universally revered national hero, Marcus Mosiah Garvey; and against that background, Mr Tambo spoke during his visit to a particular reality with which the vast majority of Jamaicans were able to relate with relative ease.
He spoke, for instance, about the liberation struggle in Apartheid South Africa, and the dignity of the Black man and woman in that country in the ongoing struggle to regain their patrimony, which had a particularly relevant and resonant appeal, given Jamaica’s leadership in the anti-Apartheid struggle.
Second, Thatcher was visiting a country steeped in racial pride and deep ancestral African connections, whose majority inhabitants had made it their duty to pay close attention to the pro-Apartheid and anti-sanctions foreign policy of her Conservative Government back in Britain.
Much more critical was the fact that Jamaicans correctly perceived in the struggle for liberation from racial oppression, ethnocentricity and social death of the Black South African, a mirror image of their own struggle for liberation of the past, their persistent marginalisation within the body politic (Independence and self-Government notwithstanding), and their stubborn existence at the periphery of the global system of power as appendages to civilisation. If, as rumour had it then, the plan from Jamaica House behind Thatcher’s invitation to visit Jamaica was to upstage the PNP and Mr Tambo, such a plan clearly failed.
For as history has shown, the visit of the Iron Lady of British politics in no way assisted the election campaign of the Government of the day for a third term, if only because the inner and outer landscape of the ordinary Jamaican was — and remains — indifferent to what Thatcher represented.
She was, by most accounts, demonstrably perceived as anti-trade union, anti-socialist (she had threatened to ‘crush’ socialism from the landscape of British politics), pro-nuclear weapons, anti-Commonwealth, anti-Black people, and much more.
For sure, she was at her best when telling others what to do and when to do it. But in 1987, Jamaicans, like the majority of the British people, had absorbed their fair share of monetarist harshness and authoritarian insensitivity in public life.
In the face of the outrage and disquiet over her visit, her local apologists zealously mounted the argument that her 24-hour peep into the country would have strengthened Jamaica-British relations and assisted her in coming to terms with the depth of feelings here towards her Government’s stance on the struggle against Apartheid, both in and outside of South Africa.
But history tells us that her encounters with Jamaican support for the liberation struggle in South Africa hardly changed her mind and that of her Government about the necessity of Britain imposing urgent mandatory and comprehensive sanctions against South Africa.
This was in spite of the fact that Apartheid — apart from being a version of the majority of a population living in social death as our forebears did in the 16th, 17th, 18th and part of the 19th centuries — succeeded in perpetuating the great lie of the West that people of a certain ethnic origin are not fit to govern or to rule themselves.
Thatcher and her Government certainly knew by 1987 that the imperialist imperative of the 19th century persisted with a vengeance in South Africa, depriving millions of people of control over their own destiny and their own lands while a dominant minority got rich off the sweat, blood, and labour of the downtrodden majority.
In fairness, the Iron Lady did strongly criticise Apartheid. She also regarded PW Botha as an evil menace to world order. But her spoken words about South Africa did not match the passionate denunciations she reserved for the Soviet Union, for example. She fudged and side-stepped the South Africa issue, to the deep displeasure of many in the Third World, and appeared to lend tacit support to the neo-fascist and tyrannical regime of the country. One very important factor that accounted for this was her subjective make-up, which moulded her into feeling a simple righteous pity for the prisoners of Soviet tyranny.
To be sure, she was a sincere abominator of the Soviet system of government, and felt that the country’s once pronounced role as an enemy of Britain and of freedom had made it uniquely fit for her opprobrium. But the black South Africans, on the other hand — trampled on, dispossessed, disenfranchised and terrorised — had never made such a gut impact on her.
In fact, at the time of her visit Thatcher was the quintessential icon of the New Right in British and European politics. Her ancestral pedigree was lower middle class British society (her father was a grocer) reinforced by a heavy reliance on prudence, hard work, discipline, and individualism over co-operatism as the sine qua non of success. The Britain over which she governed while moving towards a freer, more competitive, more open economy, also moved towards a more repressive, more authoritarian state.
Under that state, the constraints which the Keynesian consensus on economic management and the liberal consensus on race and law and order — which was once imposed on policy making and debates about policy in Britain in the 1980s — were all successfully breached at several key points while she was prime minister.
In this regard, the rise of mass unemployment and the spread of mass poverty, the expanded scale of the privatisation programme, the extension of police powers and surveillance techniques, and the restriction of civil liberties, are some of her real domestic achievements in Britain.
This brings us around to appreciating the conviction and contradictory politician that she was: a woman who, on many occasions, was exposed as a political fox, highly skilled in the art of political discrimination. She certainly succeeded in getting the Government of Jamaica in the 1980s to believe, like the Thatcherites in Britain, that monetarism was a recipe for generalised prosperity and social justice, despite the fact that it had failed to produce policies which could guarantee even minimum standards of living to all here.
In the final analysis, Mrs Thatcher’s unbridled freedom in pursuing Conservative policies in Britain produced a society in which the majority of citizens had a property stake through house and share ownership, in which the trade unions were considerably weakened and markets free and the State strong. Individualism became the accepted form of behaviour, and everyone was forced to sell and accumulate. The British State under her leadership ultimately viewed favourably risk-taking, while the bearers of inefficiency and inadequacy were penalised.
On reflection, none of this could have possibly endeared her to the average Jamaican whose kith and kin at that historical juncture made up 3.1 million Black people in Britain’s inner cities who had been hardest hit by ‘Thatcherism’ to the point of historic and horrific riotous explosions in 1981 and beyond.
Despite all of this, however, this column joins with others at home and around the world in expressing condolences on the passing of one of Britain’s political giants of the 20th century.