by Martin Odoni

One tradition I do find fascinating at the close of every year is the publication of National Archives’ documents after their 30-Year-Rule protection expires. It is always a bug-bear of mine that this country does not feel its people are entitled to know much about what it does until three decades after the fact, but three decades later is better than a full lifetime later, I suppose. And it can be engrossing to learn more about the struggles that happened behind-the-scenes a generation ago.

One revelation in this year’s releases that got the BBC in its thrall is one that has been published a few years early – a row between Margaret Thatcher and her successor John Major, just weeks after he had taken over as Prime Minister in 1990.

By all accounts, when Thatcher had accepted the inevitable and resigned as Prime Minister in November that year, she had hoped Major would succeed and carry on her policy program. But in later times after he won the leadership, Thatcher increasingly undermined him as he moved in a (somewhat) more social-democratic direction. The row highlighted in the papers released this week – a row that took place on 3rd January 1991 – appears to have been the point that the divisions between them began.

The argument hinged on the issue of the Conservative Government of the time setting a very high minimum interest rate. Major had been Chancellor of the Exchequer before Thatcher had resigned, and had largely maintained the high interest rates around the 15% mark set by his predecessor, Nigel Lawson. Because of the never-ending difficulties with high inflation, which had tormented the British economy since the late-1960’s, both Lawson and Major had become obsessed with getting it under control. A frequent cause of inflation is excessive demand for goods; the more people buy goods and the scarcer they become, the more suppliers can charge for them, meaning prices go up, and so money in effect becomes less valuable. So one way of attempting to combat inflation – one whose effectiveness varies quite widely – is to encourage saving and to discourage manic spending by raising interest rates: A higher interest rate means people are likely to get extra money when saving up, while anyone borrowing money in order to purchase unnecessary goods would find themselves paying more interest on their loans. A Chancellor raising interest rates also encourages currency speculators to buy more sterling, as they will know that if they hold large numbers of pounds in UK accounts, they will again get more interest on them, which therefore can increase demand for the pound, and in turn make it more valuable.

But to discourage purchasing of goods is only a sensible move when there is too much economic activity, and when that is the main reason inflation is high. Inflation can happen for other reasons though, which means that a slow-moving economy is no guarantee that the currency will not lose value. As it happens, in late-1990, despite annual inflation being up around 7.5%, the UK economy had been in a slowdown for over a year as the (massively over-rated) ‘Lawson Boom‘ of the late-1980s rapidly ran out of steam, and the country was now moving into a recession. In any recession, more growth in Gross Domestic Product is required, which means more spending activity must be encouraged. Thatcher was therefore right to criticise the high interest rates; they were too high for a country that was in a recession. They needed to be set lower so that people would be discouraged from saving up as much, and even encouraged to borrow-and-spend more.

However, it must also be noted that Thatcher was being a hypocrite about the matter, because it was substantially her own fault that the interest rate had to remain so high. It was not for reasons of high inflation or low GDP as such.

The obstacle that Thatcher and Major had put in their own way was that the UK had joined the European Economic Community’s Exchange Rate Mechanism in October 1990 – just weeks before Thatcher was deposed. She had always opposed joining the ERM, but had finally given in to the inevitable when Major spoke out in favour, and having accepted it, she just decided that the UK would join the very next day – no planning, no calculations, no negotiations with the rest of the countries in the Mechanism. On 8th October, sterling entered the ERM.

Unfortunately, Thatcher’s timing was pretty awful. Joining the ERM was not necessarily a bad idea in itself, and might have worked pretty well if it had happened, say, in 1987, when the UK economy was near the height of the ‘Lawson Boom’. But by late-1990, the economy was back in its second annual recession in less than ten years. The Treasury therefore needed to cut interest rates to boost economic activity, but under ERM rules, the conditions of the time – the inflation-rate of the pound was fluctuating quite wildly and was at some stages roughly three times higher than the inflation-rate of the German Deutschmark – required higher interest rates to stabilise sterling’s relative value.

Joining the ERM in 1990 was therefore bound to pull the economy in two diametrically-opposed directions. The need to stimulate growth was at odds with the primary aim of the ERM, which was to fix the relative values of the currencies within it at roughly the same levels – the pound was meant to peg itself to the value of the Deutschmark.

With far higher inflation rates in the UK (almost 11% early in 1992) than in Germany (2.7%), but also with a high exchange-rate of 2.95DM to the pound, the British Treasury was giving itself a very difficult target exchange-rate to maintain right from the outset. The far higher rate of UK inflation meant that, right from the moment of joining the ERM, the pound’s value was already drifting away from the required valuation.

It was possible for the UK to join the ERM in 1990 and make it work, but only by artificially devaluing the pound first, say to a more manageable rate of 2.75DM. An artificial devaluation might well have slowed depreciation of sterling; any holders of large amounts of sterling who might have been planning to sell it off would suddenly find there was nothing to gain by doing so, and hence retain them, while any speculators would find a cheaper pound more appealing to invest in, increasing demand for the pound. More pertinently, a devaluation would also set a more realistic target exchange-rate to try and maintain. But at the time, devaluation of the currency was still seen in rather jingoistic “don’t-insult-our-beloved-pound!” terms by a wider British public who had little-or-no understanding of how currency exchanges work, and therefore would have seen such a move as somehow ‘sullying’ the country.

Thatcher never even paused to consider such matters in any event. Having lost Lawson as Chancellor of the Exchequer largely over the matter of joining the ERM less than a year earlier – he was heavily in favour while she was dead-set against – she could hardly risk losing Major from the role as well when he swiftly announced that he was in favour of the idea too. Clearly wanting the argument just to go away, Thatcher decided simply to leap in feet-first, without making sure conditions were right.

So Thatcher has to take a big chunk of the blame for the very problem she was complaining about. But Major also should not be let off the hook for the calamity that would eventually follow, as he too did not appear to consider the implications of joining the ERM during a recession with a much higher inflation level than the ‘target’ currency. Once that decision was made, Major’s hands were rather tied by ERM rules by the time that he took over at 10 Downing Street. Of course, he could have un-tied his hands at any time by suspending the UK’s membership of the ERM, but to compound the intial mistake he had shared with Thatcher, he stubbornly refused to suspend due to his narrow fixation on getting inflation down at any cost – something Kenneth Clarke and Gordon Brown were able to do more consistently in later years from outside the ERM.

To add to the UK’s ERM woes, international conditions became even less favourable. German state spending had increased markedly since 1990 due to the inevitable strains of reunification between East and West Germany, and this extra spending had led to a (relative) upswing in inflation of the Deutschmark. This caused the Bundesbank to increase interest rates to combat the effects, and under ERM rules, that made it impossible for the UK Government to lower its own interest rates. Britain’s finances were in a long-term double-deficit (exports lower than imports alongside public spending above tax income), made worse through early-1991 by a startling depreciation in the value of the US dollar, in which many British export goods were valued.

With the recession showing no signs of abating, speculators became convinced by September 1992 that suspension from the ERM would be unavoidable, probably followed by a devaluation of the pound to make sterling more attractive to purchasers and imports of British goods cheaper in other countries. The rise in German interest rates had lured currency speculators to start buying Deutschmarks in order to cash in on the higher dividends, often in exchange for pounds. This drop in demand for sterling and increased demand for the Deutschmark meant the pound was under growing pressure. Worried that their holdings would soon become less valuable, on the 16th, speculators brought about a familiar self-fulfilling prophecy; they dumped sterling in a frenzied rush of selling – a run-on-the-pound so notorious that it was given the nickname ‘Black Wednesday‘. As demand for the pound went through the floor, its value tumbled out-of-control.

The Bank of England spent billions in gold and foreign currency reserves to buy up pounds at the high ERM rate, in a frantic struggle to prop up sterling’s value. It did little to slow down its nosedive. Major ordered two large increases in interest rates during the course of the day, up to 15%, to tempt holders of sterling to resist selling with the reward of higher interest dividends on their pounds. Again, the rises failed, while also increasing the pain of the ongoing recession.

The pound lost 15% of its value in a single day, and it was clear that more was to come if drastic action was not taken immediately. Therefore, that very evening, the UK officially withdrew from the ERM, and the pound was artificially devalued, deterring holders of sterling from selling any further. Interest rates were eventually cut, giving the economy the breathing space to start growing again.

Ejection from the ERM was a complete reversal of the central pillar of Major’s entire economic policy, which had been built around the pound staying in the Mechanism, and on which he had staked his whole reputation. Black Wednesday was therefore a political disaster for the Conservative Party as much as the ERM fiasco had been an economic disaster for the country. Thousands of people lost their homes during membership, and the Major Government’s reputation for economic ‘soundness’ was irredeemably destroyed. Even though economic growth did finally recover healthily under Ken Clarke’s Chancellorship, Labour would win the 1997 General Election with the biggest landslide for any party since before the Second World War.

The story of who officially got the blame for the chaos instead of either Prime Minister is quite unjust. Norman Lamont, Major’s immediate successor as Chancellor, had lost his job within a year of Black Wednesday, scapegoated for an economic policy that he had faithfully tried to implement but with which he had never altogether agreed, and for a disaster that he was powerless to prevent. It is therefore perhaps ironic that one of his special advisors at the Treasury at the time would become a Prime Minister seventeen years later; –

Norman Lamont and a young David Cameron in 1992

Norman Lamont was Chancellor of the Exchequer during the notorious ‘Black Wednesday’ financial crash of 1992. Look who was one of his special Treasury advisers…

It should be noted that joining the ERM had not been a complete failure; inflation of the pound was brought down very substantially over the two years Britain was a member, and it paved the way for a new economic framework over the next ten years that helped keep a lid on sterling’s depreciation.


But the real drawback was that the pound had joined the Mechanism at least two years too late to get the most out of being part of it – by joining at the end of an economic boom rather than near its beginning – and then stayed in it at least three months longer than the time that it was able to provide the economy with any benefits while in the midst of a recession. Britain only joined when it did because of Thatcher’s bludgeoning impatience, and only stayed in as long as it did because of Major’s stubbornness. Both of which are examples of economic policy formulated by letting the heart rule the head. Cold, hard numbers seldom co-operate with that.

Britain’s dabbles in the ERM were not all that far from working well, but the mistakes of timing turned the whole exercise into a humiliating fiasco. Black Wednesday is therefore just one more example of how nonsensical is the notion that the Conservatives are ‘better’ at running the economy than Labour.


by Martin Odoni

Please note: If you haven’t heard the original version of this very, very famous old joke before, it has been popular in Russia for decades, and there are many variants of it. You can witness an animated version of it on YouTube, and a pre-Mikhail-Gorbachev version is available to read here. This is an adaptation to reflect the ideological stupidities of the various Tory leaders of the last forty years.

Edward Heath, Margaret Thatcher, John Major, William Hague, Iain Duncan-Smith, Michael Howard and David Cameron are all travelling together in a railway carriage through the open countryside. Unexpectedly, the engine shudders and splutters, and the train grinds to a stop. They look at each other in consternation, and immediately start trying to work out how to get the train moving again.

Cameron suggests: "Let’s cajole the directors of the train company with a tax cut, and hope that they respond by fixing the rails." So they award the directors of the train company a tax cut, but the train doesn’t start moving.

Howard answers, “There must be too many passengers on board. Let’s impose a strict quota on the number of foreigners that are allowed to use the British rail network!” So they impose a strict quota on the number of foreigners that are allowed to use the British rail network, but the train doesn’t start moving.

Then Hague puts his head out of the window and shouts, "Let’s promise the driver that we’ll keep the Pound if he gets us to the next station!" So they promise the driver that they’ll keep the Pound if he gets them to the next station, but the train doesn’t start moving.

Major speaks up, suggesting, "Let’s threaten the driver with an increase of VAT on rail fares for all journeys that don’t reach their destination on time." So they threaten the driver with an increase of VAT on rail fares for all journeys that don’t reach their destination on time, but the train doesn’t start moving.

Thatcher then shouts, "Let’s send in the police to beat up the driver repeatedly until he agrees to get the train moving again!" So they send in the police to beat up the driver repeatedly, but still the train doesn’t move.

Heath then says, "Chaps, dear lady, we should extend the period over which the driver is educated in how to control a train by two years." So they extend the period over which the driver is educated in how to control a train by two years. But still, the train doesn’t start moving.

Then Duncan-Smith chimes in. "We don’t have to do any of that to get the train moving! The train is still moving! IT IS!!! It is my earnest belief that this train is still moving……."

by Martin Odoni

So, the house from Kansas has finally departed the cyclone and crash-landed, and the victim whose feet protrude from under its foundations is the Wicked Witch of Grantham. Margaret Thatcher is no more.

As I type this, it is in fact nine days since her final demise, and they were nine days of almost stupefying predictability. Every day, we’d hear a sentimental Tory politician of past or present offering words of mourning and nostalgia that would completely misrepresent the realities of the 1980’s, words that as soon as I heard them would provoke me to sneer, “Oh, I just knew he would say something like that.” And every day, a thousand other people would respond with equally predictable expressions of joy and celebration, including street parties in many of the nation’s favourite cities; predictable not least because most of them had been loudly promising for years that a party was precisely what they would throw once the Iron Lady had kicked it.

Now I have said more than once before that I have little time for people who go so far as to organise celebrations for the passing of a political or military opponent – see – and indeed the more prolonged and triumphant the revelries become, the more ill I start to feel. This is true even for the worst of tyrants, and the reality is that, heartless, anti-democratic, and dictatorial though Thatcher was, she wasn’t quite the free market answer to Pol Pot (her prized ally against Vietnam) that she is sometimes painted as.

I concede I allowed myself the privilege of a smug grin for most of the day when her death was announced, and even a satisfied drink or two when I got home from work, but I was never going to organise a parade through the streets. As much as a matter of seemliness, it would be quite pointless and empty to start partying, as her death has come much too late for it to have any beneficial effect for anyone whose lives she made so miserable while she was Prime Minister. She fell from power only a few months after her favourite false-bogeyman-of-Africa, Nelson Mandela, was freed from prison, and since then, the real world Margaret Thatcher has been increasingly a figure of quaintness. Either clinging with increasing exasperation to obsolete, 1940’s Neo-Toryist ideas of patriotism, obsessing over the phantom ‘menace’ of Trade Unions that were already more or less crushed by about 1987, or just retreating into rather poignant and enfeebled dementia. By the end of her days, she was no longer a figure to be hated so much as a doddering, mad old granny to be treated with reluctant pity.

In her time, she was like the 2005 revival of Dr Who; you hated her, everyone you knew hated her, you were convinced everyone in the country hated her, and you could never find anybody who would admit to not hating her. And yet somehow, every election, she kept getting back into power anyway. Just like the new Dr Who is largely made up of over-loud, sentimentalist rubbish, but when it comes down to it, nobody dares to suggest it should be taken off the air.

Why did Thatcher keep getting back in though?

One argument I’ve been hearing a lot over the last few days is that she was prepared to face realities that her predecessors – both Labour and Conservative – were too blind to accept. The 1970’s, according to these people, were the darkest, gloomiest and shabbiest decade in living memory (er, never heard of the Blitz, anyone?) with the structure of British society wearing thin under the grinding strain of planned economics, nationalisation of industry, and subsidisation of failure – be it failed industries or indolent people. Thatcher was respected, they argue, simply because she formalised reality; she merely did what would have had to be done sooner or later,  they say, irrespective of who was in power.

The standard hagiographic clichés to sum this view up have been as follows; –

“She deserves our love and respect, because she put the ‘Great’ back into Great Britain!”

“Even if you didn’t agree with her, you have to admire her convictions!”

“The country was about to go bankrupt. Thatcher knew we couldn’t keep paying for things we couldn’t afford!”

“She really believed in what she stood for!”

But is any of this really true? The trouble is that most of the people who say it are part of the large minority who inevitably benefited from the changes she made, which were designed to concentrate wealth. Many of these people were part of the obnoxious ‘Yuppiedom’ culture of the mid-1980’s. But did Britain really become ‘Great’ again, given that it finally lost, once and for all, its production and resource bases, and so became completely dependent on foreign imports and investment to get by? Britain has mines across its length and breadth, and yet the country hardly extracts any coal, tin or iron from its own soil. Almost all such resources that the British use are now imported, creating trade deficits, and presenting the countries the resources are bought from with considerable potential to ‘strong-arm’ the British Government.

As for the secondary sector, contrary to popular myth, manufacturing is still alive in Britain. However, the great bulk of it is run from other countries these days, which again makes it very easy for multi-national firms to twist the arm of British policymakers, with the threat of closing factories and laying off workers any time the “economic climate in the UK ceases to be as appealing” i.e. any time that running a business in the UK becomes a bit more expensive or becomes subject to rules that already exist in other countries – workers’ rights that are actually worth something, for instance.

I am not disputing that the British primary and secondary sectors were in a poor way at the turn of the 1980’s, but what they needed was reform. That does not mean that they needed butchering, and the price the UK has paid in the decades since Thatcher just dismantled them and sold off the assets has been a very high one, in the sense that, far from being ‘Great’, the country has almost ceased to be able to sustain itself without foreign investment. (Some might well argue, given how much Britain was dependent on lifting unpaid resources from its Empire in past centuries, that this ‘greatness’ was always an illusion.)

And did Thatcher really know we couldn’t keep paying for things we couldn’t afford? And more to the point, did she put a stop to it? On close analysis, the answer appears to suggest a split-personality at best. Roughly speaking, she wanted to cut public spending, but she didn’t know how to do it. At all. Yes, she cut spending on education, health, and support for the unemployed, but in real terms, public spending almost always went up during the period from 1979 to 1990. In only two years while she was in office did public spending decline. In all the others, spending continued to go up, even though she was reducing monies paid to its previous beneficiaries.

The reason for this is as true of her as it has been of almost every prominent Tory in the years since; she just never ‘got’ (perhaps wasn’t willing to ‘get’) the circulatory nature of how an economy operates. She understood enough that low taxation could plausibly increase private spending, and so increase profits for companies, which in turn would lead to greater tax yields. Unfortunately, she couldn’t spot everything else that could and would happen all around it when spending is reduced in a frantic rush to allow taxes to be cut in the first place. She seemed convinced that everything could be solved with a mixture of ruthless impatience and aggression.

The difficulty was that she denationalised or closed down much British public industry. Some people will sniff, “Good, less time and money spent on failing industries” at that, but this is not only a generalisation, it is also short-sighted. For consider, what other knock-on effects would happen when you close down firms, be they private or public, and thus make their staff unemployed? The answer is, of course, those who have lost their jobs will stop spending, because they have no money to spend. And so the shops and businesses who had previously profited from their custom suddenly lose trade. And as the businesses lose trade, revenue would go down, offsetting the benefit of the tax-cuts. The top and bottom of the matter in the early-1980’s was that the tax-cuts were not sufficient to increase tax yields, because they would not result in increased sales all around, nor in companies taking on more staff. Sometimes they would even have to lay off staff to cope with the loss of sales, repeating the cycle. This is a contributory reason why unemployment surged so wildly for much of the decade.*

It was therefore necessary to compensate for the loss of spending power by allowing people to stay on benefits – albeit reduced – even though Thatcher never really believed in them and tried to make them harder to obtain. (This goes to show that, contrary to right wing dogma, benefits are not only good for the disadvantaged, they in fact provide good stimulus for an economy, at least in the short term, as they make sure that those who are out of work can at least carry on spending money.) So public spending was merely diverted, not reduced, from paying for people to work – which at least provided an end-product – to paying for people merely to avoid starvation. Given Thatcher was always so obsessed with her father’s notion that, ‘Anyone can do well so long as they work hard,’ and therefore wanted to end state-support for those out of work, this does rather put a different complexion on matters for those who say that she “believed in what she stood for”. Her own hyper-aggressive approach cornered her into doing the opposite. Whether or not you see that as a good thing (which I do – benefits are not only sound morally, but they are, as I explained above, of far more practical value than they are often given credit for), it is clearly a paradox in her position.

But even more so, when people say Thatcher “believed in what she stood for”, it rather invites a question; what exactly did she believe in? This is where we arrive at the central lie of her entire worldview. She believed in, and embarked on, a campaign of Milton Friedman’s monetarist ideas. The monetarist philosophy argues that the state should not be allowed to interfere in the market at all. The less regulation there is, according to Friedman, the freer the market becomes to take the actions that are needed to keep an economy ticking over and vibrant. The more a state intervenes, he believed, the more reluctant companies would become to make decisions, or to employ staff.

But further, he also theorised about one of the sporadic blights that haunted many a successful economy. That was inflation, the phenomenon of a currency declining in value. Inflation can be caused, not just by economic hardship, but even by economic success. The better an economy is doing, the more people there will be in work, the more money there is moving around, and the more people there will be with money to spend. And in all probability they will spend it. When spending is not merely high but manic, demand will be high. And when demand is high, the tertiary sector will know it can afford to charge the maximum price for its goods and still make its sales more often than not. The higher a price people have to pay for goods means, by definition, that the currency they are using is worth less than it used to be, for they are unable to buy as much for the same amount of money as they could previously. Friedman’s idea to address that was to keep wages for the majority low. If people couldn’t afford to buy much more than the occasional luxury, he opined, then demand could be kept from turning manic.

The best way of keeping wages low, Friedman argued rather insidiously, was to keep demand for labour low. One of the main circumstances that cause wages to rise is when there are fewer workers available than the number that are needed by industry. At such times, those people who receive an offer of work have a powerful bargaining chip with which to negotiate a better wage, for the simple reason that the employer may not have an alternative candidate to turn to. (In England, the aftermath of the Black Death of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries was a prime example of that. The population had halved in size, and suddenly there was a severe shortage of workers available to farm the land, and so the surviving serfs began to demand much better terms from landowners. Any landowners who refused to do a deal would soon see the serf walking away to offer their services to someone who had a better grip on reality.)

The answer as Friedman saw it was to make sure that demand for work was higher than the demand for labour. This is to say, the number of people looking for work needs to be substantially higher, at least in monetarist eyes, than the number of jobs available. That way, any time a candidate is angling for a job, they won’t be in much of a position to haggle; if the candidate refuses the offer put on the table in front of them, the employer can be sure of finding somebody else who will tolerate low-payment terms soon enough, because the number of unemployed people to choose from is substantial, and most of them will be desperate for an income.

By the cynical logic of Friedmanite thinking, unemployment – usually between five and ten per cent of the working-age population – is a good thing, as it keeps inflation contained. This is to say, monetarism wants there to be unemployment.

And here is the lie in Thatcher’s philosophy, indeed in conservative philosophy as a whole, not just in the UK but around the world. Thatcher hated unemployment, and she despised those people who were unemployed for long periods of time. Conservatives the world over despise the unemployed. They speak of them as ‘scroungers’, or ‘parasites’, or ‘moochers’, and are forever grailing against the ‘burden’ that benefits claimants heap on ‘hard-working’ (by which they really mean upper-Middle Class) society. Thatcher always maintained unflinchingly that anyone who needs help should get up and help themselves, and that if anyone wants to get on in life, they will always be able to do so, as though it is a simple matter of trying a bit harder.

And yet, while loudly and contemptuously berating what she (quite wrongly) called ‘parasitism’, and the largely mythical culture of dependency, she was very actively, very willingly, even proudly, creating more unemployment, and making it more or less impossible for unemployment ever to be really eradicated. It is quite true that, under James Callaghan, the era of full employment had already ended – unemployment had increased to one and a half million by the time he fell from power in 1979 – but Thatcher made no attempt to stop the slide. On the contrary, she butchered public industry, and that soon doubled the sum, probably worse than doubled it. (We may never know the exact real number of Britons out of work around 1983, thanks to the rather obvious figure-fiddling that was going on at the time, but there is a growing suspicion among historians that the number might even have exceeded four million. In a population of under sixty million, as it was at the time, that is truly horrendous.)

And Thatcher revelled in it. She wasn’t sorry for it, she wasn’t hesitant to do it. She wanted to put large numbers out of work, because it was what the monetarist doctrine told her to do; to get Government out of the economy by denationalising, and to reduce demand for workers. And the most vile aspect was that she offloaded the blame for the consequences onto her victims; she condemned people for being unemployed, while condemning them to unemployment. She castigated those who were out-of-work, while taking away their option to be anything else.

So either Thatcher did not believe in what she stood for after all, or she believed in two mutually exclusive premises, and tried to speak up for both of them. Either way, she was lying. Lying to the country, or lying to herself, well who knows? But what she said and what she did were not compatible, and almost every ‘Neoliberal’ conservative since her time – not just in the UK, but in the USA, Australia, Italy, Germany and many other countries beyond – who have invoked those same philosophies, have been telling the exact same lie.

The lie is to say that being unemployed is shameful, while making sure that there will always be large numbers out of work. It is a lie used as a substitute for justifying monetarist policy. The policy is convenient, so conservatives adhere to it, but it has terrible repercussions for innocent people, and will always cause opposition. The most effective way of evading criticism for unfairness is to blame its victims for their own misfortune. To condemn them for their ‘idleness’ or their ‘profligacy’. So when conservatives throw ordinary people on the scrapheap for the sake of monetarist convenience, the easy way to avoid a shaming argument is just to condemn those who have been scrapped. Call them ‘dependent’. Call them ‘parasites’. Call them ‘useless’ or a ‘burden’. Call them ‘lazy’. And try not to let attention be drawn to the fact that they are on the scrapheap because conservatives put them there – usually without even consulting them.

This is why I find Tory appeals for ‘respect’ over the last few days, in response to the anti-Thatcherite rhetoric,  to be empty, pompous and two-faced. Conservatives have spent their lives insulting the poor, often in Thatcher’s own name. If the poor wish to condemn Thatcher in return, when finally she is gone for good and can hurt them no more, who can blame them?

So now, in the aftermath of Thatcher’s funeral – insultingly paid for by public funds of all things – and a week of listening to the usual history-rewriting, dewy-eyed Tory mush about Thatcher being the ‘saviour of Britain’, I look back on those vulgar days of revived class snobbery in the 1980’s, and compare them with now, and realise that they are right in a sense. She did save Britain, but not in the way her acolytes would have us believe. What she saved was Old Britain. Not the Britain of state-run industries or trade unions, but a much older idea. The Britain of elitism; sure the elite may have changed names, or even where some of them came from, but they were still an elite as much as the old aristocratic ruling class of previous centuries. The Britain of jingoism; a country where the definition of doing the right thing is being pro-British, thus allowing Thatcher to be dear chums with PW Botha, General Augusto Pinochet and General Suharto while condemning the African National Congress as terrorists. And a Britain that convinced itself it was ‘Great’ simply because it was British. As I said earlier, there was something unsettlingly Neo-Toryist about Thatcher’s worldview, like a 1940’s Conservative desperately trying to convince himself that Britain was not in decline after the colossal strain of fighting two World Wars in thirty years. Some people might acclaim Thatcher to be a radical, or even, really perversely, a ‘working class heroine’, simply because some of her Yuppie supporters emerged from the lower classes. But for most on society’s bottom rung, life got far worse thanks to her, and that was because she believed it should. Despite her claims, it was not possible for absolutely anybody to make it in her Britain by working hard. Hers was a Britain designed not to have enough to go around. Since the war, the nation had moved away from that old idea of itself, and the idea was starting to die out, only for it to be revived with a vengeance in 1979. That was the Britain that Thatcher saved – by reversing the steps taken away from it.

And if the public funding Thatcher failed to cut must now be used for her funeral, purely because conservatives like it, then it simply proves what many of us have known all along; ‘austerity’ does not mean cutting needless expenditure to repair the British economy. It means that, from now on, the Government will only spend money on the things that rich people like.

Should we even be surprised? That was what always happened in Old Britain. It is a sick but fitting tribute to Margaret Thatcher that, having restored Old Britain, she should be given the only kind of send-off that Old Britain could possibly like.


* Today, we have a similar problem with George Osborne’s one-eyed obsession with getting rid of public sector workers. Every single worker he gets rid of will end up with little or no income. How are they supposed to contribute to the nation’s already-dwindling cash-circulation when they have no money to spend? If he really believes that the cutback approach is correct – which it probably isn’t – he needs to do it in stages, offloading staff at a trickle, and allowing time for the private sector to take up the lost public sector workforce without it being hit by a private spending down-surge. Instead he is trying to remove many thousands of people from the state payroll en masse. By any perceived wisdom, of either the left or the right, that is self-destructive folly.

by Martin Odoni

A few days ago I released an essay – see – explaining why I have concluded that Margaret Thatcher’s complicity in the cover-up of the causes of the Hillsborough Disaster is unlikely. Not fun for a committed leftie like me, but out there it is. Since that time, depressingly predictably, a number of online Hillsborough campaigners from the more extreme fringe (especially on Facebook pages) have taken rather short-tempered issue with my arguments. Now I saw plenty of indication during these exchanges that the individuals in question have not even read the essay properly before lashing out at it, but one issue that has (half-)legitimately been raised is that I seem to have overlooked an important item of evidence against Margaret Thatcher.

There is a frequent rumour that I have heard on and off going back for many years that, at some point during 1989 or 1990, Thatcher said something on the lines of, “I am determined that no Police officer shall ever be prosecuted for the Hillsborough Disaster.” This rather alarming quote is seen by many as the clinching evidence that Thatcher colluded in the cover-up by the South Yorkshire Police. There are three reasons – two of which overlap substantially – why I did not bother mentioning it in last week’s essay.

Firstly, the essay was chiefly a response to what implications, if any, the Report of the Hillsborough Independent Panel, released on September 12th, might have for Thatcher’s would-be involvement. The Report has not made any apparent mention of the quotation at all (unless I missed it), so it was not really relevant.

Secondly, and very similar to the first point, there is in fact no clear indication from any quarter that the quotation is genuine. If it is not cited in the Report, which is an assessment of all state-held documentary evidence relating directly to the Hillsborough Disaster, then we have to assume until further notice that no evidence exists that she ever said it.

And thirdly, the quote is always so vague and so devoid of context whenever I hear it that it has to be viewed with great suspicion and doubt anyway. Although the meaning of it is always much the same, the quotation has taken so many different forms, and its origin has been so inconsistent, that it just is not credible without someone finding a firm source for it. It has taken the form I mentioned above, but I have also heard it in the following forms as well; –

“For so long as I am Prime Minister, the Police will not be blamed for Hillsborough.”

“I do not want to see any Policeman ever convicted for Hillsborough.”

“Not one Police officer will be imprisoned for the Hillsborough Disaster. Not if there is any way I can prevent it.”

Among others. As I say, the meaning is always more or less the same, but the actual word-content of the quotation varies so widely that it does rather invite the label, Urban myth.

It also does not help that the context in which it is invoked is often as vague and subject-to-change as its wording. Quite simply, when and where she is supposed to have said it, and whom she is supposed to have said it to, are as changeable as the weather. Sometimes she has said it in Cabinet to her Ministers in the New Year of 1990. At other times, it turns out she said it in secret briefings she held with representatives of the South Yorkshire Police around August the previous year. (Secret briefings? Well, how did we find out about them, or what was said in them, then?) Some people have her saying it to her Press Secretary on 16th April 1989, as she was touring the scene of the Disaster, which sounds the most likely time to me that she might have said it. Did she say it in all such circumstances perhaps? Well maybe, but it is strange if she was so frequently loose-lipped on the matter that there is no official record of her saying it at any time.

Furthermore, it needs to be acknowledged, however reluctantly, that even if we could get clear indications that the quotation is genuine, it does not necessarily prove that she colluded in the cover-up. To a large degree, it very much depends on when she might have said it. For instance, if we take the third of the scenarios suggested above – that she said it while touring the Hillsborough Stadium in the aftermath of the Disaster – it becomes a very flimsy piece of evidence indeed. At that point, not only Thatcher, but also most politicians, most of the media, and much of the country as a whole, had just taken it as read that the Liverpool supporters themselves were to blame for the tragedy. Given that the Chief Constable of the South Yorkshire Police, the ineffable Peter Wright, was giving her a running commentary as she surveyed the interior of the central pens, it seems highly likely that this false impression was being very firmly reinforced. Therefore it is quite plausible that she would have declared her intention to protect the police at that point, simply because she would not have realised at that early stage that the police had got anything wrong, or that protecting them would require a cover-up.

But this, let us not forget, was nearly four months before the release of Lord Justice Taylor’s Interim Report, which at the start of August that year turned everything on its head with the announcement that supporter-behaviour was not the cause of the Disaster; Police bungling and poor stadium design were at fault. So if Thatcher initially expressed a desire to see the Police exonerated when she had no way of knowing what had really caused the Disaster, once the Taylor Interim Report set her straight on that, it is entirely conceivable that she changed her mind about protecting the Police. (And if she really had planned to cover things up right from the outset, why did she not do anything to stitch up the Taylor Inquiry?)

The quotation could only be seen as real evidence therefore if she gave voice to it after the Report. As I say, many people put the words in her mouth a lot earlier.

The idea can never be dismissed outright of course, but until its provenance can be definitely pinned down – and even the Report of the Hillsborough Independent Panel was unable to help with that – it is unreliable hearsay, nothing more.

POSTSCRIPT 1-11-2012:

I mentioned in the first paragraph above that I have had a few arguments this week with people who want to see Thatcher implicated in Hillsborough. One particularly unpleasant exchange occurred on a Facebook group calling itself “Bet I Can Find 1 Million Who Want Justice For The 96”. One of the moderators of that page, calling himself “Chris, Hillsborough survivor”, got very angry with me for linking to last week’s essay on the page, insisting that Thatcher was definitely guilty of collusion.  When I challenged him for evidence, his response was to patronise me, to state that he is a survivor of the Disaster (really? With a username like that? Well, get away…), to point out that he has written a book about Hillsborough (what? He wrote a book, so I have to assume that makes him right about everything connected with the Disaster, including all the goings-on at 10 Downing Street?), and to instruct me that I should go learn something about it. At no stage did he answer my question. Not sure exactly where he got the idea from that I don’t know anything about a Disaster that I have studied in some detail for over twenty years, but never mind. He did point to the idea that Thatcher had said she wanted to make sure the Police were exonerated. I asked him again for evidence, and his response was to throw four-letter-word abuse at me, to delete my posts, and to ban me from the page. (Oh well, that’s Facebook admins for you.)

The exchanges carried on a bit further behind the scenes as I tried to appeal against the ban. I actually went too far with that, by suggesting his behaviour resembles that of the South Yorkshire Police. Now to be brutally honest, the comparison is valid i.e. he was guilty of deleting statements, of gagging people when they were stating inconvenient facts, of trying to force people to stay ‘on-message’, but still in hindsight, given what he apparently went through because of the South Yorkshire Police in 1989, the accusation is cruel, so I do apologise to him for going that far. (I doubt he will ever apologise in turn for the high-handedness, evasiveness or the foul personal abuse that he was guilty of, but I doubt I shall sleep any the worse without his words of contrition.)

One interesting development in this though is the final comment he posted before I decided that life is just too short and dropped the matter. He stuck by this claim about Thatcher, and tried to support it by stating that he was there when she said it.

To say that I am skeptical of this claim puts considerable strain on the modest definition of ‘skepticism’. It was an extraordinary remark that I suspect was the product of the desperate realisation that his arguments just were not going to cut it. The problems with it are obvious. One, why did he wait until that stage of the argument – we had been arguing for about four days by that point – to announce such a revelation, and not mention it when he first raised the matter? Two, yet again, there was no explanation of context e.g. where and when did she say it, whom was she talking to, what else did she say either side of it? Three, why in blazes would a professional politician be so stupid as to declare something like that in earshot of exactly the people she most needs to keep it secret from? Seriously, Chris, if you ever read this, please explain to me why the hell you would be present to hear a conversation like that? Were you a member of Cabinet or something? The only possible reason I can think of is that she visited the hospitals in Sheffield after surveying the Disaster-scene on April 16th, and if you were one of the injured, you might have overheard her talking to someone in her delegation while she was visiting the ward you were on. Even then, I still find the notion ridiculous that she would blurt out anything so hush-hush in front of the very people who would be most outraged by it. Thatcher was clearly mad, but she was not stupid, at least not when it came to maintaining her portfolio.

Also, this idea again falls foul of the point I made above about it being prior to the release of the Taylor Interim Report, and therefore not very firm evidence of complicity.

Until further notice therefore, I shall maintain my position of dismissing the claim as hearsay.

(If you wish to see a summary of the argument I had with “Chris, Hillsborough Survivor”, please go to


I suspect that “Chris, Hillsborough survivor” is Christoper Whittle, author of With Hope In Your Heart, which was published earlier this year.

Now I have not read his book as yet, but while I have no doubt that it is a very legitimate and revealing account of what happened on the day of the tragedy itself, and what happened to him personally in the aftermath, I am far from convinced that it will offer any reliable or substantial insights on Margaret Thatcher’s role in events. I may revise that view after I have read it.


I have now obtained a copy of With Hope In Your Heart. Before I say anything further, I need to stress again that I am assuming here that “Chris, Hillsborough survivor” is Christoper Whittle, which he possibly isn’t (although the writing style appears sadly similar). Therefore, please do not take what I am about to write as definitive. However, if Mr. Whittle and “Chris, Hillsborough survivor” are one and the same, I can only conclude that his aforementioned claim about being there when Thatcher uttered her putative quote was, as I suspected, a lie.

Now, the book is not a very good work of authorship at all, littered with spelling mistakes, questionable word-selection, a tendency to thrash its way from subject to subject a little randomly, and a generally aggressive-defensive tone – understandable but detrimental. However, we have to allow for the fact that Whittle is not a professional writer, and that his aims in writing the book were not commercial or literary, but cathartic, so I will not dwell long on making criticisms of his writing style. (I feel compelled to point out one thing though; constantly trying to inform the readers that he’s ‘saying something funny’ by punctuating the relevant sentences with three exclamation marks is very, very annoying – the literary equivalent of playing a trombone whenever a clown falls over. The editor, if there was one, should have pointed this out to him. But there were plenty of other failings in the editing as well, too numerous to go into here.)

What I will confine myself to for now is what is relevant to this essay; what insight does the book offer on the subject of Thatcher’s possible role in the cover-up, and on whether she really did give voice to ‘that’ quote?

The answer is zero, as I had predicted previously (see the Post-Postscript from 3-11-2012). The only clear reference I can find to the Thatcher quote** is in Chapter 12: At The End Of The Storm There’s A Golden Sky. There, on page 142, Whittle writes, “We also know of her insistence that ‘no police officer should be prosecuted over Hillsborough.'” No explanation of where we ‘know’ it from follows, let alone any suggestion that he was there when she said it. As the book’s endnotes only point to titles of other books and websites, it is difficult to pin any precise source down for any particular assertion Whittle has made. (Yes, I know my own endnotes on this blog tend to be very vague like that as well, but then I am not criticising Whittle for it as such, at least not here. I am just pointing out the difficulty it gives me when trying to assess how accurate some of his assertions are when they come from outside his personal field of experience.) Either way, it is noticeable that he does not mention anywhere in the book having ever been in the same place at the same time as Margaret Thatcher. Not once. Why not? Especially if, as he claims, she announced in front of him something as explosive as a plan to fix the Hillsborough Inquiries in favour of the police? Where the book discusses Thatcher, its condemnation of her is unrestrained and vitriolic (as indeed is mine whenever I discuss her), and yet Whittle did not think that personally witnessing a foul declaration as major as this was worth a mention? But it suddenly was worth discussing during an argument on a very minor Facebook page?


Whittle goes on to write of the research by the Hillsborough Independent Panel (their report had not yet been released at the time the book was published), “If the documents that the Government are trying to withhold* do get released into the public domain, then I am sure we will see the true, murky picture of (Thatcher’s) role in the cover-ups”. This again seems very much at odds with his claim to having, in effect, first-hand knowledge of Thatcher’s activities. If he had heard her, in person, declaring her role in the cover-up, why would Whittle subsequently need documentation to learn what her role was?

Quite simply, there is no indication whatever within the book that Whittle was privy to any behind-closed-doors activity within Government with regards to Hillsborough. (Or indeed with regards to anything else.) Given the general tone and tendency of his work, we can be confident that if he had ever had such access, he would have given us all of the gorey details, probably conveyed in the most damning terms. It would have been the perfect ammunition to support his position. This is why – and again I must stress that I am saying this under the assumption that Whittle is “Chris, Hillsborough survivor” I can only conclude that “Chris'” claim to have been present when Thatcher announced she would protect the police from convictions was just a flat-out lie, brought on by desperation when he was unable to find an effective counter-argument.

All of which leads me to ask a very obvious question; if Whittle is really so sure that his entire position on every single aspect of Hillsborough, including Thatcher’s role in it, is correct, why in the world would he need to make such a thing up? Why would he need to lie about anything? Especially something so obviously suspect as this? Maybe the real reason is that deep down he is not as sure of his ground as he is making out, but has clung on to the belief for so long that it is too painful and humiliating to admit that he was wrong.

In any event, it is a sad reflection on the Hillsborough campaigners that some of them, so rightly angry at the way the Disaster victims were lied about, will themselves resort to lying in order to accuse those people they want to see implicated in the cover-up. For Whittle in particular, who makes a great deal in his book about being a devoted Roman Catholic, this is an egregious breach of the Ninth Commandment. By claiming he heard Thatcher saying something that he plainly was not there to hear, he is guilty – quite literally – of bearing false witness. Thus the comparison with the behaviour of the South Yorkshire Police is harder than ever to resist.

Sorry, everyone, the notorious Thatcher quotation remains doubtfully sourced, and so, as far as I am concerned, it also remains unreliable hearsay until further notice. This is not bias; I will re-state now, I am a lifelong socialist, a staunch anti-Thatcherite who has always hated everything Margaret Thatcher ever stood for. But the reasons I have for that position are based on events in the real world. If her definite real world deeds are good enough reasons to oppose her and her legacy – and they are – why do some people need to spread baseless rumours as well?

Any truth that requires a lie to prop it up may not be the truth after all.

* It does seem a little odd of Whittle to write that the Government were trying to withhold the documents at a time when the Government had long since handed over all known documentation to the Hillsborough Independent Panel. Although The Daily Star has published articles suggesting that thousands more documents never reached the Panel, we already know why, and it had nothing to do with central Government; firstly, the private insurers at Royal Sun Alliance refused to co-operate with the Panel and withheld information. Secondly, documents relating to the current Metropolitan Police Commissioner Bernard Hogan-Howe seem to have gone astray. Hogan-Howe was, at the time of the Disaster, only an Inspector in the South Yorkshire Police, and therefore was substantially lower in rank – and thus of less use to anyone in Whitehall or Downing Street wanting to interfere in the Inquiry processes – than many officers whose deeds have already been fully exposed by the Hillsborough Independent Panel. Therefore, the chances of documents about Hogan-Howe’s role in Hillsborough having any juicy details to impart on would-be interference by central Government seem remote at best. (See and Yes, it is entirely possible that the missing documents about Hogan-Howe have been destroyed as part of the cover-up. But the likeliest conspiratorial reason for doing that would be to protect Hogan-Howe himself, rather than people outside the police force altogether. If Hogan-Howe took part in the smear campaign against the Liverpool supporters, or helped in any way with changing statements, that would make his current position in the Met untenable. That on its own would be enough of a motive for hiding files about him. He wouldn’t need to have anybody else to protect for such an action to be credible.

Yet again, I have to ask why some people need to add in outside agencies to make sense of the post-Hillsborough cover-up, when the story as it stands already adds up. As a rule, trying to imagine broadened conspiracies in this way only makes a scandal sound needlessly complicated, likely to have leaked out far earlier than it did, and, by extension, less plausible.

** Small correction. I’ve re-checked and I did find another reference to the quotation, on page 66, in Chapter 6: Miscarriages Of Justice. Whittle rants, “Margaret Thatcher had got [sic] her way. After all, she had stated, following the disaster, ‘I do not want any policeman prosecuted over Hillsborough.'” Once again, Whittle offers absolutely no explanation for how we ‘know’ this, where the information comes from, or when the words were uttered, let alone states that he was there when she said it.

It is also worth noting that, once again, the wording of the quotation has changed, even within the text of the same book, underlining my point in the essay-proper about why it is so difficult to take it seriously.

POST-POST-POST-POSTSCRIPT 13-1-2013 (Yep, sorry, I’m afraid there’s still even more…)

I had a glance at the FB group “Bet I Can Find 1 Million Who Want Justice For The 96” again this morning, and found the following passage written on 18th December 2012 by ‘Chris, Hillsborough Survivor’ ;-

Thatcher destroyed many peoples lives with her laissez faire, ultra right wing ideology, her police state, the richer getting richer, the poor getting poor, the destruction of society, 4 million people thrown on the scrapheap, “I’m alright Jack, sod the rest’ philosophy, the greed is good culture. Her war with the Miners, her police bully boys on huge overtime bonus whilst miners families had to survive on meagre strike pay. And of course, her murky role with Hillsborough. A truly evil woman. JFT96 YNWA (Chris, Hillsborough Survivor)”

Parts of this poorly-articulated passage are almost word-for-word the same as the passage written about Thatcher on page 142 of With Hope In Your Heart, and others. Therefore, I now take it as beyond doubt that  ‘Chris, Hillsborough Survivor’ and Christopher Whittle are indeed the same person. And while I agree wholeheartedly with most of his views on Margaret Thatcher – see if you wish to read some of my own thoughts – his stubborn persistence in trying to implicate her in the Hillsborough cover-up shows him to be a hypocrite. After all, he wrote in his book, “If the documents that the Government are trying to withhold do get released into the public domain, then I am sure we will see the true, murky picture of her role in the cover-ups”. So, if they had shown such a role, we can see from this declaration that he would not have paused for the slightest instant to question it. However, when the documents were duly released, they showed no such role, they did not conform to his prejudices on this issue at all. So he simply rejects that conclusion.

The problem is that he can only take such a stance honestly by rejecting the Hillsborough Independent Panel’s Report in its entirety. But of course he cannot do that, for if he were to do so, he would suddenly bring the entire cover-up by the South Yorkshire Police into question, and quite rightly he does not want anyone to start questioning that. So Whittle is effectively saying that the Report is accurate only so far as it supports what he has already decided. He said, in effect, “The documents will tell us what her role was in the cover-up, you wait and see!” We waited, we saw, the documents told us that there is no sign of her having any role at all, and Whittle then says, “Well, she’s guilty anyway!”

That is what makes him a hypocrite – the cover-up is conclusively proven by the Independent Panel’s Report. We cannot point to the Report as evidence of that, unless we accept that the Report is reliable, which means we have to accept all of the Panel’s conclusions, including the ones that exonerate people we do not wish to see exonerated. Whittle is not free to pick-and-choose which parts of the Report we are to regard as reliable, nor is he free to stake his certainty on forthcoming evidence, only to reject that evidence when it does not contain what he was banking on. It is the equivalent of placing a bet to win on the horse that then finishes eighth, and then demanding the bookmaker pay you the winnings anyway.

There are indications on that discussion thread – a very tasteless thread glorying in the prospect of Margaret Thatcher’s apparently imminent death – that another user was banned from the group for arguing against anti-Thatcher hate speech. Banning dissenting voices appears to be a rife activity on that page; there is a very intolerant, domineering quality in its administrators, of which Whittle is one, that is unpleasant to the point of rabid. They actively encourage visceral, blood-and-guts hate speech against Margaret Thatcher (not that she deserves any better, I just don’t find it agreeable, enjoyable, constructive or laudable in any way), and indeed they join in with it. At the same time, they find people merely raising a reasonable doubt against their more extreme accusations to be completely intolerable and shameful.

While I have nothing but sympathy for the bitterness and hurt they feel over Hillsborough and what followed, the behaviour it has led them into is still inexcusable, and ultimately very damaging and self-destructive. For instance, now that Whittle has shown how his hatred and anger have turned him into a shameless liar, it becomes very difficult to take any future claim he chooses to make on the subject of Hillsborough seriously at all. Some day in the next couple of years, as the Coroner’s Inquests are re-done, that may come back to haunt him.

It is an ancient maxim that people will always turn into what they hate the most. The likes of Christopher Whittle, alas, appear to be the living embodiment.


Other articles about Hillsborough; –

by Martin Odoni

The people of Merseyside, indeed the people of much of the northern half of Britain, have many a good reason to despise Margaret Thatcher and her Conservative Government of the 1980’s. As Prime Minister, she effectively dismantled precisely those industries that many in the north most depended on for their livelihoods, while at the same time making most of the state ‘safety nets’, such as Unemployment Benefit, that they would be forced to turn to once their main sources of work were taken from them, harder to obtain.

Liverpool was still, even as late as the 1960’s, one of the most important ports in the United Kingdom. By the end of the 1980’s, it saw less meaningful activity as a port than the likes of Grimsby or Hartlepool, and while Margaret Thatcher’s Government is not exclusively responsible for that decline, it made sure there was no attempt at a recovery. So walk along Liverpool’s mighty docklands today, and you will doubtless be impressed at what is a great monument to the city’s prominent past, and if it’s a nice day, you will probably be amazed by how many tourists you have to wade through as they take in what was once one of the great lynchpins of the British Empire. But in terms of the activities that a dockland is primarily supposed to be there for, well, you’ll find Liverpool is pretty much dead-to-the-world. You may see the odd passenger ferry scuttling back and forth across the mighty river, with the strains of Gerry & The Pacemakers’ classic hit Ferry ‘Cross The Mersey playing (probably loop-playing ad infinitum) over its tannoy, but anything to do with, say, ships hauling goods in and out of the country, or cargo vessels loading up from or unloading onto the jetties? Forget it. (Before any Thatcherites want to offer their ha’penny’s-worth to the discussion, yes, I am well aware that sea-ports had largely been superseded by air freight by the 1980’s, but that hardly justifies killing off an entire city’s whole purpose-of-being.)

Any attempt that Liverpudlians made through the 1980’s to resist the onset of what the Conservative Party called ‘progress’ was met with contempt and, on more than one occasion, substantial force. The opposition to forcibly changing the Merseyside way of life and culture was invariably portrayed in Government and media as stereotype layabouts throwing tantrums whenever their ‘privileges’ were taken away. When the enormous damage of ‘economic restructuring’ (as Tories are so euphemistically fond of calling their enormous industrial dismantling campaign of the early-1980’s) led to mass unemployment, huge inner city decay, serious poverty and deprivation, and significant – by British standards at least – unrest around Liverpool, the whole city was dismissively painted as a hive of violent Marxist rebels and Soviet Union sympathisers who somehow deserved all the hardship that was piled on them.

The fact that Liverpool’s economy was reformed with some success, and a relative economic recovery was achieved during the 1990’s can be pointed to in Thatcher’s defence, but only by the characteristic Tory attitude that ends justify means, and so success entails justification. The dreadful pains the city’s population went through to get there – and the cruel, unfair condemnation they routinely experienced from the rest of the country whenever they dared object to it – cannot and should not be ignored just because a light was eventually found at the end of the particularly dark and hazardous tunnel they were pushed through against their will. While the rest of the country lurched between repeated economic recessions at either end of the 1980’s – soothed only by the brief, very narrowly-beneficial ‘Yuppiedom’ boom of the decade’s middle years – Liverpool was one of the cities that were left behind, locked in what seemed an unending economic depression.

As I say, there is no reason on Earth for Liverpudlians to feel anything towards Margaret Thatcher but bitterness and hatred.

In this context, it is hardly surprising that, given the Hillsborough Disaster of 1989 occurred during Thatcher’s time as Prime Minister, and the long-running suspicions of an Establishment cover-up of its real causes (suspicions that, with the September 12th release of the Report of the Hillsborough Independent Panel, have now proven correct beyond any credible doubt), many on Merseyside have long accused her of being caught up in the legalised foul play. It was, let us not forget, Liverpool Football Club whose supporters were the victims of the Disaster’s horrors. It was also, let us again not forget, the campaign of the South Yorkshire Police to shift blame from themselves onto the supporters that was composed in large part of a vile smear campaign – a smear campaign that depended heavily on propagating the exact same stereotypes about the people of Liverpool that the Conservative Government had itself used to justify its own mistreatment of the city over the previous ten years.

I am perfectly willing to hold up my hand at this point and admit that I myself have for long years believed, or at least very strongly suspected, that Thatcher was closely involved in the cover-up. I was fairly sure that she was at least aware of it, and that even if it turned out that she didn’t actually co-operate with it,  she must have turned the proverbial Nelson’s eye to it.

With the Hillsborough Independent Panel last month releasing its long-awaited and damning Report into the causes of the Disaster, and the behaviour of various official bodies in its aftermath, it seemed likely that we should have our best-ever chance of finding out once and for all the true extent of Government involvement in the South Yorkshire Police’s skulduggery. Now for sure, what it had to say about the South Yorkshire Police, the West Midlands Police, Sheffield Wednesday Football Club, the Football Association, the Crown Prosecution Service, the Coroner’s Office, Sheffield City Council, the media, and others besides, was frequently scathing. But what did it have to say about the Government itself on the issue of Hillsborough?

Answer? Well, um, to be honest, not a great deal. Quite simply, in over four hundred and fifty thousand pages of evidence, all scrupulously and exhaustively analysed in substantial detail, they found very little worth pointing to that might suggest Government complicity. Indeed, there are probably only two instances that even hint at Thatcher trying to help the Police cover their own backs.

Back in March, there was a minor leak to the BBC – see – of a document uncovered by the Independent Panel. It intimated that Thatcher might have been unduly influenced early on by a completely uninformed and irresponsible conjecture by the then-Chief Constable of Merseyside Police, Kenneth Oxford, that drunkenness and ticketlessness played a key role in the Disaster (subsequently debunked by Lord Justice Taylor when he published his August 1989 Interim Report). Analysing the reference, it is clear that it was a speculative, ignorant and prejudiced statement by a man who snobbishly viewed the people he policed to be an irksome burden, and Thatcher should hardly have given it the time of day.

On publishing their Report, the Panel announced that they had also found interesting references to when the Prime Minister was briefed on the findings of the Taylor Interim Report. She was informed that Taylor had been ‘infuriated’ when questioning senior officers in the South Yorkshire Police during his Inquiry by their ‘defensive(ness) and evasive(ness)’. Perhaps most tellingly, the briefing went on to describe the ‘defensive and at times close-to-deceitful’ behaviour of South Yorkshire Police officers as being ‘depressingly familiar’. The briefing also requested that the then-Home Secretary, Douglas Hurd, should announce the Taylor Report’s findings to the House Of Commons by welcoming its ‘broad thrust’. Thatcher’s response, according to the recorded documentation, was to demand a change of emphasis; “What do we mean by ‘welcoming the broad thrust of the report’? The broad thrust is devastating criticism of the police. Is that for us to welcome?” (See sections 2.6.122 through to 2.6.135 of the Report of the Hillsborough Independent Panel.)

Now, some supporters of the Hillsborough Justice Campaign, and of the Hillsborough Families’ Support Group, have gone as far as to interpret this as a ‘smoking gun’, a frank admission that she did not want the South Yorkshire Police (her historic rod-of-iron, violently and successfully deployed against striking miners across the north of England during the mid-1980’s) to be exposed to public ridicule and disgrace.

In fact, not only is this not nearly explicit enough to be safely-inferred, the reference rather suggests to me that, much as it pains my lifelong Socialist leanings to admit it, Margaret Thatcher is probably not guilty of collusion, at least of active collusion, in the cover-up of the causes of the Hillsborough Disaster. Ideologically, it would have been very satisfying for me to be able to say that she was in on it all along. But I realise that for me to do so, I would be guilty of thinking with my heart and not with my head.

First things first, let’s get this reference into a fuller context by quoting a later sentence. “Surely we welcome the thoroughness of the report and its recommendations.” It’s a dirty trick often used in ideological discussion to try and ‘cherry-pick’ part of a quote that suits the desired viewpoint, and to edit out the parts of the quote that don’t conform to the viewpoint nearly so well. In this case, it is quite implicit from the later sentence that what Thatcher was saying was that it would be foolish for the Government to announce that it actually welcomed the discovery that the South Yorkshire Police were habitually deceitful and irresponsible, and were perfectly willing to behave corruptly in order to avoid carrying the can for their own foul-ups. The inadvertent suggestion of the briefing was that Hurd should in effect imply that the Government warmly approved of Police corruption, and Thatcher was therefore asking for the emphasis of the statement to be shifted to applauding Taylor’s diligence instead.

Secondly though, and this I think is just as telling, the exchanges in this briefing do not sound at all like those that would flow naturally from conspirators discussing fellow conspirators. To describe deceitfulness as ‘depressingly familiar’ would be quite incongruous when knowingly and actively assisting in that same deceit. This discussion of the Taylor Interim Report is very much couched in terms of authorities viewing events from the outside looking in, not of conspirators on the inside cynically dressing things up for external consumption.

Thirdly though, and most importantly, these two instances are about the only indicators that the Independent Panel could find that seem to offer any possible hint of Government complicity. And they are simply not strong enough, not by half. They are very weak, and can perfectly reasonably – probably more reasonably – be interpreted as Government officials and legislators following correct procedure and fulfilling their duties in the aftermath of a major peacetime disaster. If there really were Government collusion in the South Yorkshire Police’s dirty tricks, given that the Independent Panel had access to nearly half a million documents, surely they would have found far stronger indicators than these?

Some will argue, “Yeah, but the Government probably destroyed that evidence years ago!” Which was of course a serious worry right from the outset, when the Panel was set up. But no, if you think about it, that is still not plausible; if there were a plan to destroy such documentation as proved a cover-up, how did so many such documents survive to be assessed by the Panel? Why were such documents as proved the Police were up-to-no-good not destroyed as well, especially given that the whole point of the cover-up in the first place was to protect the Police’s reputation, not the Government’s? Would it not have been far easier to be indiscriminate and destroy all documentation that showed a cover-up by both Whitehall and the Police, rather than picking out the evidence against Whitehall? Indeed, many documents that would have shown Government collusion would not have been in Whitehall’s direct possession, and so would have been far more difficult to obtain and destroy. For instance, if the South Yorkshire Police were getting Government help, some of their own documentation should at least mention aspects of it. Realistically, at least some documents hinting at Government collusion would have gotten through. And yet, they are not there.

As I say, my heart would have taken a grim satisfaction if Thatcher had been implicated, but she has not been. The evidence is simply not where it would be were she truly guilty. It is frankly a little bizarre that many of the HJC/HFSG supporters on the Internet have tried to say that the Report has damned her for her role in a conspiracy, when even the Independent Panel themselves, when publishing their Report, stated quite firmly that they could find no such evidence.

This is not to say that Thatcher is completely innocent of all wrongdoing over the Disaster. The fact that she was warned so early on of the South Yorkshire Police’s deceitfulness means that she should have been suspicious straight away, and taken action to make sure that there was no Police interference in the investigations by the Crown Prosecution Service or the Coroner’s Inquests that followed. Instead, both she and her successor, John Major, very clearly chose to stand a long way back and just let the Legal Establishment follow its usual course of closing ranks and looking after its own. Meanwhile, Thatcher’s Press Secretary, Bernard Ingham, is shown to have been quite inconsistent in his stance on the Disaster, initially stating that it was “not the result of obvious hooliganism” – so suggesting he has known all along that the Police were to blame, and raising very suspicious questions about why his stance later turned so aggressively, inaccurately, and stubbornly against the Liverpool supporters. (See sections 2.6.24 and 2.6.25 of the Report of the Hillsborough Independent Panel.) But again, what does that prove, except that, as a rule, politicians are not big on consistency? Did we really not already know that?

Blame a victim for a Disaster, and it might happen to you in turn.

‘Sir’ Bernard Ingham pig-headedly tries to maintain, in flat contradiction of every scrap of evidence ever found about it, that the Liverpool supporters were to blame for the Hillsborough Disaster. This is foolish, because the trouble with blaming the victims of a Disaster for their own misfortune is that the same standards may equally applied to the one dishing out the blame. Such as Tories and the Brighton Bombing, for example.

Thatcher and Major are shown by the Report to be guilty of negligence, which to me is quite bad enough, even if it’s not as ‘sexy’ or ‘Hollywood’ a crime as would have been actively conspiring to cover up what really happened. But measuring fact is not about how exciting the findings are, it is about what they objectively say. In this case, what they say is that they didn’t seem to be doing the sorts of things that an active conspirator would have done. And besides, if you really do need a dose of Hollywood in your understanding of the premature and cruel deaths of nearly a hundred people (sheesh, what does that say about you if you do?), well, surely the dirty deeds of the South Yorkshire Police are enough on their own for that. For not only is there no evidence of Government complicity in the cover-up, but you don’t really need such complicity to occur for the cover-up to be workable and to make sense. By application of Occam’s Razor, which (very roughly) asserts that the simplest explanation that fits the known facts is usually the best, it seems that Thatcher’s Government weren’t involved.

Supporters of the HJC/HFSG have rightly insisted for many years that accusations of poor behaviour by Liverpool fans causing the Disaster have never been accompanied by supporting evidence, and so should be dismissed. Correct, but accusations of Margaret Thatcher colluding in the cover-up have also turned up no evidence, despite analysis of nearly half-a-million related documents. We can’t have it both ways. Based on the information we have, she is not guilty of conspiracy.

I hate what Thatcher stands for no less for saying it, and as I say, she was still guilty of holding the telescope up to her eye patch. But the bottom line is, she simply didn’t cover up what caused the Disaster at Hillsborough. That’s one point of bitterness against her that Merseyside will have to abandon, I’m afraid. Frustrating, and especially difficult to concede after so many years of believing otherwise, but still, the accusation is unsustainable.

It’s only one point of bitterness that is ill-founded though, and as I pointed out at the beginning of this essay, Merseysiders still have plenty of other, perfectly-justified ones to be going on with.

This is an image of revenge, not of justice.

A disturbing parody. Whatever we think about Thatcher (and who doesn’t?) do we really want the battle for justice to be reduced to a rabid, doubtfully-relevant hate-campaign of this type? Is this really what should be done in the name of Hillsborough’s victims?


Click here to read the Report Of The Hillsborough Independent Panel.

Click here to read the Taylor Interim Report.

More of my thoughts on Margaret Thatcher at; –