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Margaret Thatcher: Extraordinary But Often Heartless

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THATCHER
AP

Her free market policies paved the way for the current economic crisis and she legislated the UK's first new anti-gay law in over 100 years: Section 28.

The current UK prime minister and Conservative leader, David Cameron, has praised Margaret Thatcher as "the greatest British peacetime prime minister". The greatest of all time? Really?

True, she was an extraordinary woman but she was extraordinary for mostly the wrong reasons. So many of her policies were flawed and often heartless.

Nevertheless, I don't rejoice in her death. I commiserate, as I do with the death of any person. I send condolences to her family and friends. In contrast, she showed no sympathy for the millions of people who were victims of her harsh, ruthless politics.

She victimised the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community, both by acts of commission and omission. Gay men were widely demonised and scapegoated for the AIDS pandemic in the 1980s and Thatcher did nothing to challenge this vilification. For the first few years of the health crisis, while only gay and bisexual men were dying, her government sat on its hands and did nothing. There was no state funding for the first gay-run AIDS education, prevention and support groups that pioneered the fightback against AIDS. When AZT was developed as a treatment (albeit a limited and flawed one), the government initially delayed and then restricted its funding and availability.

At the Conservative party conference in 1987 Mrs Thatcher mocked people who defended the right to be gay, insinuating that there was no such right. During her rule, arrests and convictions for consenting same-sex behaviour rocketed, as did queer bashing violence and murders. This backlash coincided with her successive "family values" and "Victorian values" campaigns, which urged a return to traditional morality and family life.

In 1988, the Thatcher government legislated Britain's first new anti-gay law in more than 100 years: Section 28. It banned the so-called promotion of homosexuality by local authorities, which led to massive self-censorship and the axing of funding to LGBT helplines and community groups - even to the removal of gay-themed books from school libraries and the evicting of LGBT organisations from municipal-owned premises.

On the plus side and to her great credit, she shattered the sexist glass ceiling in politics and got to the top in what had been a man's world; largely by emulating the macho, testosterone-fuelled style of male politicians. Disappointingly, on becoming prime minister, she did little for the rights of women. There was no serious action to remedy the gender pay gap or expand child-care for working mothers. She had hardly any women ministers in her government, let alone in her cabinet inner circle. Her feminist achievement was self-advancement, not the advancement of women in general.

The Iron Lady's policies were almost entirely divisive and destructive, including mass unemployment that hit three million - the highest level since the 1930s - and widespread urban decay. It is often said that she abandoned the Labour-supporting inner cities. They fell into a state of dereliction and neglect; contributing to widespread riots.

Her strong autocratic streak was revealed when she massively centralised state power, emasculating local government by stripping councils of their traditional autonomy and power. When the Labour-controlled Greater London Council refused to do her bidding she abolished it. In its place she imposed unelected quangos stuffed with her own appointees. For 14 years, the people of London had no government - the only major city in the world where the population was disenfranchised and denied the right to elect its public officials.

Her government boosted police powers to the detriment of civil liberties and the rights of the citizen.

During the 1984-85 miner's strike, the unions were ruthlessly crushed on her orders. She oversaw the use of police state methods. Pit villages were occupied and put under virtual marshal law. Baton-wielding police struck down peaceful miners. People travelling to support the strikers were pre-emptively arrested. Union members at Orgreave were framed on false police evidence, which the Independent Police Complaints Commission is only now finally investigating.

Thatcher initiated values and policies that paved the way for the current economic crisis: the me-first, makes lots of money and get-rich-quick business mentality. She decimated Britain's manufacturing base, promoted the free market and failed to adequately regulate the banking sector. This led to imbalances in the economy. The financial sector gained undue influence, with few checks and balances. Although these distortions were exacerbated by later prime ministers, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, it was Thatcher whose free market mantra created the economic framework that culminated in the present meltdown.

On a personal note: Margaret Thatcher once unintentionally flattered me. It happened in 1981 in the House of Commons. I had just been selected as the Labour parliamentary candidate for the south-east London constituency of Bermondsey. A Labour defector, Social Democratic Party MP James Wellbeloved, urged her to denounce me for advocating extra-parliamentary protests against Conservative government policies. She responded by saying that she had not read the remarks by the "honourable person". This was the first and last time she ever described me as honourable.

For more information about Peter Tatchell's human rights campaigns: www.PeterTatchell.net

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