Peter Tatchell: ‘Thatcher talked freedom but supported tyrants’

Illustrated rainbow pride flag on a pink background.

Peter Tatchell shares his thoughts on Margaret Thatcher who died earlier this week and writes about her relationships with foreign dictators.

Margaret Thatcher’s collusion with tyrannical regimes in the 1980s included regimes that persecuted LGBT people, such as Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, South Africa and Chile. As well as opposing LGBT equality in the UK, and legislating the notorious Section 28 ban on the so-called ‘promotion’ of homosexuality, she allied with the US president Ronald Reagan who also opposed LGBT equal rights and who for many years ignored the AIDS pandemic as it killed tens of thousands of LGBT and African Americans.

In the wake of her death, Margaret Thatcher has been hailed by President Obama as “one of the great champions of freedom and liberty.” Former president, George Bush senior, added: “Margaret was, to be sure, one of the 20th century’s fiercest advocates of freedom and free markets.” A similar view was echoed by Chancellor Angela Merkel: “The freedom of the individual stood at the core of her beliefs.”

Indeed, together with Ronald Reagan, Thatcher spearheaded the fight against “communist totalitarianism.” Although the break up of Soviet-era communism was largely as a result of internal contradictions and popular protests, the ‘Iron Lady’ can claim some credit for challenging the ‘Iron Curtain’ and halting its further advance.

Often her opposition to communism was, however, at the price of unsavoury alliances with anti-communist regimes that were far from freedom-loving. Throughout the 1980s, Thatcher colluded with the right-wing dictatorships in South Africa, Iraq, Pakistan, Chile, Saudi Arabia, El Salvador, Indonesia and the Philippines. She and her supporters have glossed over this less than seemly side of her freedom crusade.

Ever the Cold War warrior, a country’s stance in the East versus West struggle for global hegemony was the principle basis of her foreign policy and diplomacy. She also indulged dictators if there was money to be made; hence her love of that bastion of freedom, the House of Saud. She sold them weapons and bought their oil. It was a necessity of realpolitik, she said by way of justification. There was not a jot of concern expressed by her about the plight of women or religious minorities under the iron-fisted rule of King Fahd. Freedom for Saudi women and Christians did not concern her.

At a time when human rights organisations were condemning Saddam Hussein’s tyranny, her government sought to sell arms components to the Iraqi dictator in 1981. Ignoring his poison gas attack on the Kurdish town of Halabja in 1988, which killed at least 3,000 people, she dispatched her envoy to offer Saddam £340 million in export credits; thereby helping sustain his brutal regime and arguably helping make it possible for him to attack Kuwait and ignite the first Gulf War.

Thatcher was also one of the closest allies of the apartheid leaders in South Africa. Although not personally in favour of apartheid she defended their regime because she saw it as a bulwark against communism. To this end, she believed that black freedom in South Africa had to be sacrificed to what she saw as the more important goal of halting the spread of communism in Africa. She smeared Nelson Mandela as a terrorist when she denounced his liberation movement, the African National Congress, as “a typical terrorist organisation” and vetoed Commonwealth sanctions against the apartheid government. During the savage repression in South Africa in 1984, she hosted the apartheid leader, P W Botha, for tea at Chequers. Just a few years before the fall of apartheid, her spokesman scoffed that it was “cloud cuckoo-land” to suggest that Mr Mandela would ever win power. She was an apologist for the white minority regime, right to the end.

Likewise, for the same anti-communist reasons, Thatcher backed the Chilean dictator, General Augusto Pinochet, even after his military government was exposed for interning, torturing and killing liberals and democrats. More than 2,000 Chileans were murdered and over 30,000 tortured. She declined requests to speak out for freedom in Chile; preferring to heap praise on Pinochet’s adoption of her monetarist economic mantras.

Even after the Cold War was over, in 1999, when Pinochet was detained in London on charges of human rights abuses, Thatcher denounced his arrest as “unjust and callous” and praised him for “bringing democracy to Chile.”

Despite similar grave human rights abuses, General Suharto of Indonesia – who murdered 500,000 suspected communists following his 1965 military coup – won accolades from Margaret Thatcher. She hailed him as “one of our very best and most valuable friends” and never spoke out against his arrest and detention of journalists, students and human rights defenders. Far from objecting to the military occupation of unfree East Timor and West Papua, she sold Jakarta weapons that were used to suppress the people there. Hundreds of thousands were killed.

Margaret Thatcher may have talked about freedom but too often she colluded with tyrants and torturers, in the name of stopping communism. For the victims of these anti-democratic regimes, they never saw any evidence that she cared about their freedom.

The regimes she did business with were sometimes as harsh and unfree as the communist alternative she loathed and was determined to prevent. Her ideas of freedom were contradictory. She was intolerant of communist tyranny but relaxed about dealing with anti-communist tyrants.

Margaret Thatcher’s foreign policy was first and foremost driven by a hatred of communism, not by a love of freedom.

Peter Tatchell is director of the London-based human rights organisation, the Peter Tatchell Foundation, and coordinator of the Equal Love campaign.

As with all comment pieces the views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of