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Margaret Thatcher: Divisive even in death

ODD FRIENDSHIP: Margaret Thatcher, accompanied by her husband Denis, with Zimbabwe president Robert Mugabe at Harare International Airport, March 29, 1981

THERE WAS a stunning moment at the 1985 Tory Party Conference when a Jamaican-born nurse took to the floor, declaring: “I am Conservative, black, British and proud to be all three.”

That woman was Lurline Champagnie OBE who has spent 25 years as a local councillor in Harrow, northwest London and was the first black woman to be selected as a Tory candidate.

The words provoked thunderous applause at the conference. But for those on the outside looking in it was an unfamiliar endorsement of Margaret Thatcher’s government.

In the late 1970s, living conditions and civil rights for black people in Britain were bleak.

Many from the community will argue that the Iron Lady, who became PM in 1979, did little to improve them. Many more will disagree.

Her vociferous support for privatisation, capitalism, lower taxation for individuals and businesses and the UK’s ‘special relationship’ with the United States were trademarks of her 13-year tenure.

The Voice spoke with Champagnie and veteran journalist and activist, Marc Wadsworth, to tell us what Baroness Thatcher, who will be laid to rest today (April 17), meant to the black community.

WELL-RESPECTED

More than two decades on, Champagnie, a well-respected politician once tipped for a seat in the House of Lords, said: “Personally speaking, I am an admirer because she was a woman, a strong woman, our first female Prime Minister.

“She was no pushover in politics or in life and provided a great example and model for the people of this country.”

She is adamant that the negative reaction Baroness Thatcher received from sections of the black community should be directed at the Labour Party.


THATCHER ADMIRER: Councillor Lurline Champagnie OBE

Yet it was under Thatcher that the controversial ‘sus law’, which allowed police officers to stop and search anyone they believed to be acting suspiciously, was introduced.

The powers paved the way for officers to arrest people without due cause, resulting in black communities to express anger at what they saw as police harassment.

In an interview with The Voice, long-standing Lambeth community activist Clarence Thomas described how there was a culture of “ni**er hunting” in the inner cities at the time.

“We went to a dance at the town hall, and on our way home, the police set dogs on us,” Thomas recalled of one particular incident.

In April 1981, the Metropolitan Police began Operation Swamp 81, deploying police officers en masse to areas such as Brixton – highly populated by the African Caribbean community.

TENSIONS

Around 1,000 people were stopped and searched, heightening tensions in an area where many people faced unemployment, poor housing and amenities – leading to riots that year.

Speaking after the disturbances, Thatcher said she could not “condemn [the events] too strongly”, and rejected the idea that her policies had played a role.

“After all,” said Thatcher. “We had much higher unemployment in the 1930s but we didn’t get this behaviour in any way. I know that among young West Indians there is a higher rate of unemployment, there tends to be. Many of them are unskilled and it’s not always easy to get a job for the unskilled.”
Asked if she would consider more investment in the area, she replied: “Money can’t buy trust or racial harmony.”

Champagnie has her own view: “The riots were a result of the mess that successive Labour governments leave behind. The Conservatives had to clean it up.”


FINAL GOODBYE: Margaret Thatcher's coffin and floral tribute during the funeral service at St Paul's Cathedral, central London.

Thatcher’s 1981 Budget cut public expenditure and raised taxes in the recession of the late 1970s.

Despite unemployment eventually peaking at more than three million, the fiscal plan sparked growth in the economy.

The former Mayor of Harrow said that if more of the African Caribbean community took entrepreneurial advantage of Thatcher’s example, they would have been wealthier.

“I have an Asian friend who emigrated to Britain with barely £10 in his pocket but worked hard and is now a multi-millionaire,” explained Champagnie.

“It is this, what Thatcher wanted us to do. It was simple; work hard, pay your taxes and achieve as much as you can.”

She added: “Margaret Thatcher’s legacy is that she took on a broken country, rebuilt it and made Britain great again. “In 1985, I said I was black, Conservative and proud. And I still am.”

Working as a senior news reporter at Thames Television, Marc Wadsworth came into contact with the former Prime Minster on two occasions: “(In an interview) I asked for her reaction to the vote from her own party colleagues which effectively ousted her rule as Prime Minister.

“She screwed her face and walked out of the interview. She wasn’t best pleased.”

INVOLVED

Wadsworth, who was involved with the Anti-Racist Alliance (ARA), is firm in his view that Thatcher was not helpful to the black British community.

“Thatcher was no friend to black people,” he insisted. “She was a supporter of the apartheid government in South Africa and hosted gleefully President Pieter Botha in England, which drew great public outrage.

Thatcher also called the great Nelson Mandela a ‘terrorist’.”

However, one of Thatcher’s key policies was the Right To Buy scheme, under which Lady Thatcher ordered local authorities to sell their council housing at a cut price to any tenant wanting to buy.


CRITIC: Marc Wadsworth

Many black families were among the 1.25 million tenants who bought their homes, raising £18 billion in revenues.

But there was one caveat: the proceeds could not be used to build new homes. Wadsworth believes that the move helped to limit the availability of social housing for future generations.

“She was selling housing stock meant for working class people,” he said. “This forced many poor people to get housing in the private sector because there was limited available housing. These private rented properties were owned by the rich. These rents were significantly higher than for social housing. It’s unsurprising that we have a situation now whereby there’s simply no housing for people.”

Baroness Thatcher’s leadership drew strong comparisons to another controversial Tory politician, according to Wadsworth.

“She was a pseudo-Enoch Powell figure. She was one of the few members of Parliament who supported Powell and was his female protégé.”

Thatcher, who won three successive elections, certainly earned her reputation as one of the most colourful, controversial and influential politicians of the past 100 years.

Upon hearing her name, some shudder with anger while others pound their fists with pride. What side of the fence are you on?

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