From Jams' archive: Thatcher and Solidarnosc (and Pol Pot)

I was planning to write something about Thatcher's death, and still might do, but for now something not new but timely. I have been browsing through the archives of my late friend Shaun Downey, who, as you know, blogged (wonderfully) as Jams O'Donnell at The Poor Mouth

I came across the interesting piece, entitled "The Joy of Realpolitik", from February 2012. I thought this is significant, because her alleged role in defeating Soviet totalitarianism and winning the Cold War is one of the things that Thatcher has been much praised for among the mountains of sickening hagiography from trans-Atlantic hacks and pompous politicians. This post shows how thin that achievement was. I have corrected a couple of Shaun's minor typos; otherwise it is un-edited.
My thanks go to to the excellent James Bloodworth who tweeted this item earlier today (James writes for the Independent and has an excellent blog called Obliged To Offend)*. The tweet relates to an item on Spiegel Online which reveals that the British government in the 80s would have shafted Solidarity.

The article states that German chancellor Helmut Schmidt appeared to be the only top Western politician who was skeptical about the Polish trade union Solidarity in the early 1980s. However, it now seems that Thatcher was also had deep reservations about the movement and its leader Lech Walesa.

New evidence, reported in Monday's SPIEGEL magazine reveals British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was suspicious about the influential movement and Lech Walesa, the man who later became a Nobel Laureate.

In September 1981, British Premier Thatcher even considered supporting the Eastern bloc regime in Warsaw in quelling Solidarity. This is according to a declassified German Foreign Ministry document. 
According to the document, Thatcher's Foreign Secretary, Lord Peter Carrington, told colleagues in New York that Britain sympathizied with Solidarity. But if Solidarity got out of control and the government had to take repressive measures, it might make sense to help the government, he added.

Carrington had earlier outlined the UK's position, saying that his government only backed Solidarity out of respect for public opinion, but that perhaps, from a more rational position, they would actually be "on the side of the Polish government".

Back then, Warsaw was threatened with insolvency and Thatcher evidently feared that the demands of the workers' movement could trigger a Soviet invasion. A few months later, the Polish communist Leader Wojciech Jaruzelski imposed martial law and the US invoked economic sanctions against Poland. Britain, however, avoided levying sanctions on the country.

The imposition of martial law was a setback for Solidarity. About 100 "political dissidents" died in internment camps. But it did not prevent Solidarity from helping to bring about the end of communist rule in 1989-90. 
To be honest this does not surprise me. While I despise Thatcher and her minions, I know that any other British government would have shafted Solidarnosc in a heartbeat. Western governments pay lip service to freedom and human rights but are happy to cozy up to the nastiest of regimes if it means trade and profit... Look at our relationship with Saudi Arabia for proof of that.
In a similar vein, John Pilger - who had been a hero of both Shaun and me, before we became disillusioned - had an article in the New Statesman about Thatcher's support for Pol Pot, it being 25 years since Pol Pot entered Phnom Penh and the Year Zero genocide began:
In the months and years that followed, the US and China and their allies, notably the Thatcher government, backed Pol Pot in exile in Thailand. He was the enemy of their enemy: Vietnam, whose liberation of Cambodia could never be recognised because it had come from the wrong side of the cold war... 
Until 1989, the British role in Cambodia remained secret. The first reports appeared in the Sunday Telegraph, written by Simon O'Dwyer-Russell, a diplomatic and defence correspondent with close professional and family contacts with the SAS. He revealed that the SAS was training the Pol Pot-led force. Soon afterwards, Jane's Defence Weekly reported that the British training for the "non-communist" members of the "coalition" had been going on "at secret bases in Thailand for more than four years". The instructors were from the SAS, "all serving military personnel, all veterans of the Falklands conflict, led by a captain". 
The Cambodian training became an exclusively British operation after the "Irangate" arms-for-hostages scandal broke in Washington in 1986. "If Congress had found out that Americans were mixed up in clandestine training in Indo-China, let alone with Pol Pot," a Ministry of Defence source told O'Dwyer-Russell, "the balloon would have gone right up. It was one of those classic Thatcher-Reagan arrangements." Moreover, Margaret Thatcher had let slip, to the consternation of the Foreign Office, that "the more reasonable ones in the Khmer Rouge will have to play some part in a future government". In 1991, I interviewed a member of "R" (reserve) Squadron of the SAS, who had served on the border. "We trained the KR in a lot of technical stuff - a lot about mines," he said. "We used mines that came originally from Royal Ordnance in Britain, which we got by way of Egypt with marking changed . . . We even gave them psychological training. At first, they wanted to go into the villages and just chop people up. We told them how to go easy . . ." 
The Foreign Office response was to lie. "Britain does not give military aid in any form to the Cambodian factions," stated a parliamentary reply. The then prime minister, Thatcher, wrote to Neil Kinnock: "I confirm that there is no British government involvement of any kind in training, equipping or co-operating with Khmer Rouge forces or those allied to them." On 25 June 1991, after two years of denials, the government finally admitted that the SAS had been secretly training the "resistance" since 1983. A report by Asia Watch filled in the detail: the SAS had taught "the use of improvised explosive devices, booby traps and the manufacture and use of time-delay devices". The author of the report, Rae McGrath (who shared a joint Nobel Peace Prize for the international campaign on landmines), wrote in the Guardian that "the SAS training was a criminally irresponsible and cynical policy".
Via Blood & Treasure, here is Thatcher on Blue Peter, a British BBC children's TV programme from 1983, when I was about ten. The key bit is about three and a half minutes in.

She says: 
Some of the Khmer Rouge, of course, are very different. I think there are probably two parts of the Khmer Rouge, there are those who supported Pol Pot, and then there’s a much, much reasonable grouping within that title, Khmer Rouge.... So, you’ll find that the more reasonable ones of the Khmer Rouge will have to play some part in the future government, but only a minority part. I share your utter horror that these terrible things went on in Kampuchea. The United Nations couldn’t do anything about them, none of us could do anything about them. They were absolutely terrible.
In short, far from being tough on totalitarianism, Thatcher tried to return to power the worst Stalinist dictatorship of the twentieth century for reasons of realpolitik, and for reasons of stability and order contemplated supporting the Polish Communist junta's repression of one of the most powerful movements for freedom to emerge behind the Iron Curtain. Some legacy.

Related posts: The Hitch and Cambodia; GHW /Bush on the wrong side in the Cold War; 25 years of Solidarnosc; From the Cold War to the war on terror.

*For the record, James Bloodworth is now at Left Foot Forward. He wrote this fine post in anticipation of Thatcher's death over a year ago. I will try and post some more gems from Shaun's archive over the coming weeks, as well as links to some of the moving obituaries to him in the blogosphere.


Richard Powell said…
You, Shaun Downey and James Bloodworth all miss a rather important point. This is that repressive measures were indeed taken against Solidarity, and the British government did not support those measures. The British government did not shaft Solidarnosc, and almost certainly never had the slightest intention of doing so. Lord Carrington's conversation, probably with the FRG Foreign Minister, was presumably a discussion of hypothetical scenarios. The key thing would have been to head off a Soviet invasion.

As for sanctions, an article in the Times of 18 December 1981 noted that "the idea of imposing economic and political sanctions on the new Poland is in attractive because it would drive the military still further into the arms of the Russians." In any case, even in 1981 the UK would not have imposed sanctions unilaterally, but only in concert with the EEC as it then was.
kellie said…
Related at Foreign Policy, Thatcher's opposition to German reunification and support for maintaining the Warsaw Pact after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Richard Powell said…
No, kellie, that's not quite right. The discussions with Mr Gorbachev described at Foreign Policy took place before the fall of the Berlin Wall. No-one in September 1989 had any inkling that the Wall would fall within two months. In Berlin the hardliners still had the lid on things. Mrs Thatcher's opposition to German reunification was well known at the time and, as Foreign Policy indicates, widely shared. Mrs T did not show support for maintaining the Warsaw Pact - what she told Gorbachev was that she "was not interested in its dissolution". In other words, let events take their course. She may well have felt it would be counter-productive to press for the early demise of the WP. Does anyone really think she would have put all her cards on the table in her talks with Gorbachev?

If you want to show that Mrs Thatcher was an appalling hypocrite, you really can't just rely on random reports of meetings free from context or historical background to make your point for you.
bob said…
My argument would not be that Mrs T was an appalling hypocrite or that she was a friend of the Soviet totalitarian dictatorships. Rather, I think that (as per Jams' original title "The Joys of Realpolitik") that she was essentially a cynical realist and not the conviction Cold Warrior that she is portrayed as. Her priority was not freedom in Eastern Europe and Kumpuchea; it was geopolitical order and stability, business as usual.
kellie said…
Yes Richard, you're correct that the meeting was prior to the fall of the Wall (my apologies for the clumsily inaccurate phrasing) though I think it's clear both Gorbachev and Thatcher anticipated the end of the closed border even if they didn't foresee the exact date and manner of the Wall's collapse; why else would they be discussing reunification? They both saw the Wall's days were numbered, and were discussing what would follow.

By the time of their meeting, East Germans were already crossing to the West in large numbers via the Hungary-Austria border. The East German status-quo was clearly not sustainable, though whether the immediate future would bring violent repression, reform, or collapse, was not certain.

Thatcher's preference was clearly for reform within existing borders, and I wouldn't argue that there was anything immoral in that. The interesting part in the context of the above post is the contrast between sometimes idealistic public rhetoric and a more realist balance of power policy in private. In this she was far from alone, but it's worth highlighting in view of the tendency towards hagiography that Bob is responding to.
kellie said…
On the Khmer Rouge story, I notice that some details of Pilger's account have been disputed (see for example comments here) so saying "Thatcher tried to return to power the worst Stalinist dictatorship of the twentieth century" might be going a bit far. It would be good to see a detailed re-examination of this story by a more reliable journalist than Pilger. Still, even on the basis of those aspects not in dispute, it confirms the realist-not-idealist view of Thatcher.
kellie said…
Sorry to go on, but some further snippets of meetings between Thatcher and Gorbachev posted here are interesting. I found this April 1989 conversation on resolving conflicts in Africa particularly striking, and quite a contrast with the more combative tone of the March 1987 excerpt.
Anonymous said…
Right as you are, I am at least appreciative of her post-office rhetoric calling for intervention the Balkans against the majority of Tories. Certainly, she had her moments of idealism; but never was she willing to confront them if it was politically inexpedient to do so. Perhaps there's been a slight change there under New Labour and the present coalition? It remains to be seen.
Anonymous said…
Is it reprehensible to have opposed German reunification? How well I remember my Russian acquaintances telling me in 1979 that the USSR should not allow the two Germanies to be reunited for at least 500 years. They were typical. I also remember travelling on a Russian bus with Danes, and some passengers wanting them kicked off, believing them to be German. Fear of a united Germany was a majority opinion prior to 1989.
Anonymous said…
During the miners strike in '84-5 coal was imported from Poland via east coast ports.

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