“Labour councillors opposing rent rises, and trade unionists who finally won their case, forty years after the event. This is who Margaret Thatcher was directing her rule of law comments at.”
By Simon Fletcher
“Nothing is more important – more fundamental – to a democracy like ours. The rule of law is the foundation for everything. Margaret Thatcher called it the ‘first duty of government’ – she was right.”
This was how Keir Starmer chose to to stake out his position on crime today (March 23rd).
It may be assumed that the Labour leader wishes to do a number of things through dredging up Margaret Thatcher. He may hope the mere mention of her name will be enough to demonstrate that he cannot be seen as soft on crime in any way. He may think that he is reinforcing to Labour-Tory switchers in target seats that he has no difficulty in finding positive things from the Tories’ record. And he no doubt sees it as yet another iteration of Labour’s campaign to show ‘difference’ from Jeremy Corbyn, who would never have made such an intervention.
But invocation of Thatcher is instructive of a bad political method that plays a dangerous game.
What was Margaret Thatcher doing in the speech in which she made her ‘first duty’ remarks?
“I come last to what many would put first,” said Thatcher in October 1975, “The Rule of Law.” It was her first conference as Tory leader. Margaret Thatcher’s view of the rule of law in this passage consisted of a direct attack on the labour movement.
It is worth reading the context of what the Tory leader said at the time, with the argument that precedes the line quoted by Keir Starmer today, because this is its context and outlines that line’s purpose:
“The first people to uphold the law should be governments. It is tragic that the Socialist Government, to its lasting shame, should have lost its nerve and shed its principles over the People’s Republic of Clay Cross. And that a group of the Labour Party should have tried to turn the Shrewsbury pickets into martyrs.”
It was after of this passage and its attack on the labour movement that Thatcher then declared that the first duty of government is to uphold the law.
Clay Cross was a rent rebellion led by Labour councillors on the Clay Cross Urban District Council against Tory imposition of council housing rent rises. One of the participants in this movement was Dennis Skinner. The consequences of their struggle – in which they were surcharged for refusing to implement higher rents – ran on for years, into the period of the 1974 Labour government.
Clay Cross was repeatedly held up by Thatcher as a matter of the rule of law. Earlier in 1975 in a speech to Conservative Women’s Conference, in a section devoted to ‘law and liberty,’ she said that the Labour Party “would have us enshrine the Clay Cross clan in a special martyrs’ gallery”, that the rent rebels were “arrogant law breakers.”
The Shrewsbury pickets, demonised by Thatcher in her 1975 speech were criminalised during Ted Heath’s Conservative government. Their building-workers’ strike led to the Shrewsbury 24 campaign for justice after trade union members – including Ricky Tomlinson – were convicted of offences ranging from unlawful assembly to affray. Their convictions were finally overturned just two years ago this month by the court of appeal.
Labour councillors opposing rent rises, and trade unionists who finally won their case, forty years after the event. This is who Margaret Thatcher was directing her rule of law comments at; these campaigners, and the ‘socialist government’ of Harold Wilson for having no nerve or principles. The rule of law she refers to is not anything to do with any form of justice, but the maintenance of deep injustices and very sharp class politics.
Thatcher’s notion of the rule of law meant the introduction of restrictive anti-trade union laws, the deployment of the full weight of the law and the police to defeat the NUM, injustices in the courts, the homophobic Section 28, the use of the ‘sus’ law against black communities.
It is a dangerous game to play fast and loose with Thatcherism’s approach to the law. To triangulate with Margaret Thatcher’s record over law and order strips out the reality of the law during a period of particularly intense social and political conflict.
If Thatcher’s phase in the rhetoric of law and order is to be discussed, it should be in order to draw the lessons to oppose it.
- This article was originally published on Simon Fletcher’s Modern Left on March 23rd, 2023.
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