The Black activists who mourned Thatcher

During the re-writing of history after Margaret Thatcher's death, a story remained untold. This was the support the Iron Lady enjoyed from some Black activists, due not least to the crushing of the 'racist' union movement.

I look at the 1980s as the best time of opportunities for a generation. 

  • Thatcher broke the trade unions that were against Black workers – did you ever see a Black miner?

    I loved her voice.

              (9 April 2013)

These quotations are not from right-wing Conservatives but from two male African descent community activists who live in an industrial multi-cultural English inner city. They each have nearly three decades of community organising experiences against racism and support African and African Caribbean emancipation causes. Having agreed to co-author this article responding to the coverage of Margaret Thatcher's death, do we ignore these comments that were delivered with passion and self-belief – or do we utilise them and provide analyses of how and why some community activists hold these beliefs? We chose to meet their comments head-on. 

One approach is to attribute the pronouncements to the Marxist notion of ‘false consciousness’. This helps us with a method of understanding ideas and actions that run counter to a person’s individual or wider class interests, although the person may temporarily believe that they have gained financially or socially. Such gains may appear real but hide a wider agenda that in reality prepares them, their families and class, for defeat. An example of this false gain for Black communities and the working class was the sale of Local Authority council housing. Initiated in 1980 by the Thatcher government, the ‘Right-to-buy’ scheme benefitted individual families in the short-term, but reduced the total stock of available rented housing for others from working class and Black communities for the future. The scheme was also part and parcel of a political philosophy of the buyer based on ‘self’ at the expense of others.

There is some historical truth in the recollections about trade unions by Black activists referred to above. There is indeed a history of White trade union racism. A good overview was provided by John Wrench (April, 1986), which describes how some local and national officials colluded with employers to exclude Black workers from particular industries such as the craft unions of the print industry, engineering and work on the docks. Peter Fryer in Staying Power (1984, p298) noted that from 1918 the seamen’s unions opposed the employment of Black seamen when White union members were available. One particular example was a ‘colour bar’ in operation during the 1980s at a Leeds Trades Council Working Men’s Club, which excluded Black workers. 

Other methods of economic exclusion deprived Black workers of equal pay with their White counterparts. They were often the first to be made redundant, irrespective of whether they were the last to be recruited; and Black workers could be denied union recognition or support from White colleagues when they took industrial action. Even today these issues are still hotly debated as indicated by the recent theme of the TUC Black Workers Conference, entitled; ‘Putting Race Back on the Agenda’ (see Lorna Campbell, April 2013). 

There is also a certain ‘slight-of-hand’ at work regarding the 1980s and opportunities for the Black community. Opportunities did indeed open up for Black workers as a government response to the 1981 social inner-city uprisings. Urban Programme spending was increased in 1980 from £125 million pounds to £270 million, with 200 new minority ethnic programmes approved during 1982-1983. However, this intervention did not alter structural disadvantages in the criminal justice system around policing, unemployment, housing, schooling and migration issues that led to the uprisings in the first place. It can be seen as another example of a short-term or false ‘fix’.

We are in agreement with Tom Mills that Thatcher at the height of her powers was:

"… an advocate of inequality, a friend to dictators and arms dealers, champion of power and privilege and scourge of the poor and the vulnerable. A true blue class warrior."

Thatcher’s government brought together old and new constituencies of middle class voters and the reactionary elements of the working class, by creating common enemies to unite against. According to John Campbell, in Margaret Thatcher Volume Two: The Iron Lady (2011):

"To fuel the aggression that drove her career she had to find new antagonists all the time to be successively demonised, confronted and defeated."

The concept of the ‘enemy within’ is not new and continues to be part of the right-wing armory used today as a uniting tool to distinguish ‘them’ from ‘us’. Such labelling is usually more clearly defined and championed during times of open class war such as occurred during the August 2011 social uprising after the death of Mark Duggan in Tottenham. See our article on the riots or social uprisings and a history of negative labelling. 

During the Thatcher era, some of these ‘enemies within’ included: young men of African descent, black and brown skin migrants and Britons, Irish Catholics, the Greater London Council, radical trade unionism, radical working class ideas, radical working class communities and social justice activists.

Young Black people were one of the first groups to strike back during the UK street uprisings in 26 cities during the summer of 1981. A few months prior to these rank-and-file actions, 20,000 people took to the streets in London in a Black People’s Day of Action demanding steps be taken to investigate the New Cross Fire where 13 Black youths were killed. The marcher’s slogan was, ‘thirteen dead, nothing said’. Soon, bridges were built with other marginalised groups such as miners, nurses, young working class Whites, gays, anarchists, radical poets and musicians – all of whom were portrayed at various times as pariahs by the Thatcher government.

During Thatcher's reign, Black and White marginalised groups initiated radical solidarity and collective actions to defend the ideological and practical destruction of radical working class traditions. But let us not forget the members of the Black working class who supported Thatcher, who may have temporarily benefitted from particular social policies, been angered by exclusion from the full benefits of the trade union movement and endorsed her strong leadership style. Even today, some community activists do not reject the Conservative social policies of 1979-1990. This is a part of Thatcher’s history, just as the street uprisings of 1981 are part of her legacy.

About the authors

Dr Bertha Ochieng is a Principal Lecturer, University of Bedfordshire.

Dr Carl Hylton is a freelance researcher, social justice activist and Chairperson of Leeds West Indian Centre Charitable Trust.