Was Thatcher a 'Champion of Freedom and Democracy'? Don't. Be. Silly.

The reactions and tributes to Margaret Thatcher's death have illustrated the way in which modern conservatives have emptied the words 'freedom' and 'liberty' of all meaning and import. If (wo)man is judged by the company (s)he keeps, then Thatcher must be judged a champion of despotism and dictatorship, not of freedom or liberty.

The reactions and tributes to Margaret Thatcher's death have, perhaps above all else, illustrated the way in which modern conservatives have emptied the words 'freedom' and 'liberty' of all meaning and import.

"The world has lost a true champion of freedom and democracy," declaimed Nancy Reagan.

"She believed in the power of liberty, individual freedom and the rule of law," argued former Tory minister Virginia Bottomley.

"The freedom of the individual stood at the core of her beliefs," claimed Germany's very own Iron Lady, Angela Merkel, while Poland's foreign minister, Radoslaw Sikorski, called Thatcher a "fearless champion of liberty".

The Economist magazine hailed the late Tory leader's "willingness to stand up to tyranny" and "bet on freedom".

And it wasn't just card-carrying conservatives who lined up to laud Thatcher as an unflinching defender and promoter of democracy; self-professed liberals joined in with the encomiums too. Echoing Nancy Reagan, US president Barack Obama, for instance, described Britain's Iron Lady as "one of the great champions of freedom and liberty".

I suspect, however, that the citizens of countries such as Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Iraq, South Africa and Chile might disagree. The inconvenient truth for Thatcher fans is that the freedom-loving, democracy-defending British premier was a close friend and admirer of the thugs, thieves, despots and racists who ruled over those nations in the 1980s.

"In Pakistan, Margaret Thatcher was best known for supporting General Zia ul Haq's military dictatorship," tweeted Time magazine's Pakistan correspondent Omar Waraich yesterday, referring to the Iron Lady's anticommunist alliance with the country's vicious, Islamist dictator. In a speech at a banquet hosted by Zia in 1981, Thatcher praised the general's "courage and skill" and toasted "the health and happiness of His Excellency". She made no reference to the need for democracy or elections in the self-styled 'Islamic Republic".

Consider also the case of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Remember the infamous Al Yamamah arms deal with the corrupt and totalitarian Saudis, signed by the Thatcher government in the mid-eighties and described by the Campaign Against The Arms Trade (CAAT) as "the largest ever UK arms contract with a foreign customer" and by the Financial Times as "the biggest [UK] sale ever of anything to anyone"? Well, she was just batting for British business, right? Wrong. Thatcher shamelessly praised the Saudi regime, an absolute monarchy and exporter of Islamist terror, as "a strong force for moderation and stability" at a Chatham House conference in 1993, three years after leaving office. "I am a great admirer of Saudi Arabia," she proclaimed, adding: "I have no intention of meddling in that country's internal affairs." How the repressed women of Saudi Arabia, denied not just the right to vote but the right to drive, must have cheered this supposed feminist icon back in 1993.

How about General Suharto of Indonesia, whose 32-year dictatorship was rightly described by the New York Times as "one of the most brutal and corrupt of the 20th century"? Suharto's military coup in 1965 was followed by the torture and killing of around 500,000 suspected Communists in Indonesia; his invasion and occupation of East Timor in 1975 resulted in the deaths of around 250,000 men, women and children on the island - yet the liberty-loving Thatcher later celebrated this blood-soaked Indonesian tyrant as "one of our very best and most valuable friends".

How about the bloodiest dictator of them all, Saddam Hussein? According to investigative reporters David Leigh and Rob Evans, it was on Thatcher's watch that "£1bn of Whitehall money was thrown away in propping up Saddam Hussein's regime and doing favours for arms firms".

In fact, we now know that the Thatcher government began selling arms - sorry, "non-lethal equipment" that just happened to include spare parts for tanks and fighter jets - to Iraq as early as 1981. A letter from junior minister Thomas Trenchard to the PM in that same year explained how a meeting with Saddam would represent "a significant step forward in establishing a working relationship with Iraq which ... should produce both political and major commercial benefits". Thatcher's response? "Very pleased" she scribbled by hand at the top of Trenchard's letter.

Seven years later, after the Baathist dictator deployed chemical weapons in his now-notorious attack on the Kurdish town of Halabja, Thatcher did not merely turn a blind eye to the atrocity; she and her ministers actively played down reports that the Iraqi regime had used poison gas against its own people. "Within a month of the Halabja attack," wrote US investigative journalist Barry Lando in his book on Iraq, 'Web of Deceit', "Thatcher's trade secretary, Tony Newton, was in Baghdad to offer Saddam 340 million pounds of British export credits."

This, I guess, is how liberty is championed and freedom is secured.

Then there's apartheid South Africa, where millions of black people were denied the most basic of liberties - and yet this British champion of liberty had little to offer them by way of support. "Thatcher resisted global efforts to isolate apartheid-era South Africa, including by vetoing sanctions," wrote the Washington Post's foreign affairs blogger Max Fisher yesterday. "Though she opposed apartheid as a policy, she still supported the government that implemented it..."

In fact, in 1984, Thatcher defied tens of thousands of anti-apartheid demonstrators and invited P.W. Botha to Chequers: the first South African premier to visit the UK since his country's departure from the Commonwealth in 1961.

Oh, and who can forget her despicable description of Nelson Mandela's ANC as a "typical terrorist organisation"? Is it any wonder then that Dali Tambo, son of the former ANC president Oliver Tambo, told the Guardian that "it's quite likely that when Margaret Thatcher reaches the pearly gates, the ANC will boycott the occasion". It's a shame, he noted, "that we could never call her one of the champions of the liberation struggle".

Apologists for the Iron Lady tend to excuse such shameful and anti-democratic behaviour by their heroine by invoking realpolitik and citing the backdrop of the Cold War and the struggle against Soviet communism.

Such arguments are both disingenuous and unconvincing. They don't, for a start, explain Thatcher's close, personal friendship with Augusto Pinochet, which continued long after the Cold War had ended and long after both leaders had left office? The Chilean general presided over a 17-year reign of terror in which a minimum of 3,000 people were killed or 'disappeared', tens of thousands were imprisoned and tortured and hundreds of thousands were forced into exile.

Yet in 1999, when Pinochet was arrested and detained in London on a Spanish warrant, Thatcher - who, in the words of Virginia Bottomley, believed in "the power of liberty" and "the rule of law" - visited Pinochet at the former dictator's rented Surrey mansion to thank him for "bringing democracy to Chile" and to denounce his arrest as "unjust and callous". There was no mention of the 'desaparecidos' (disappeared) from our former prime minister on that particular occasion.

"She recognised... the benefits of the military government," declared retired Chilean general and

Pinochet underling Guillermo Garin yesterday, adding: "President Pinochet always had tremendous admiration for her, they had a very close relationship highlighted by the visit she made to his place of detention in London."

Forget the row over who gets credit for the fall of the Soviet Union - Mikhail Gorbachev or Reagan and Thatcher. If (wo)man is judged by the company (s)he keeps, then Thatcher - self-professed friend to generals Pinochet, Suharto and Zia, ally of Saddam Hussein, admirer of the Saudi royals, soft on apartheid - must be judged a champion of despotism and dictatorship, not of freedom or liberty. The historical record is so clear and indisputable that to believe otherwise is wilful blindness.


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