The Tories who failed to support Mandela’s “long walk to freedom” were not bad, merely wrong

by Rob Marchant

With the thousands of pieces being written around the world about the death of a political giant, this is not about the great man himself – there are plenty of people better-qualified to write that one.

But it’s worth pausing to think about Mandela’s relationship with Labour.

Like many, I grew up in the late 1970s and 1980s constantly hearing about some or other horrific injustice from apartheid South Africa on the 6 o’clock news. We were too young for the Sharpeville massacre or the imprisonment of Mandela himself, but not too young to learn of the death of Steve Biko in police custody. In fact, you had only to listen to switch on Radio One – Peter Gabriel’s “Biko”, Little Steven’s “I Ain’t Gonna Play Sun City” or The Specials’ “Free Nelson Mandela” – to be aware of what was going on.

It’s probably fair to say that one of the things which made me realise that it was Labour, and not the Tories, that would be my party of choice was the fact that the Tories seemed perfectly content with tolerating a regime where black people were not valued the same as white people. In 1985, Margaret Thatcher was rather dragged kicking and screaming into agreeing limited sanctions against the all-white Botha regime, whilst black citizens were still not eligible to vote. Others in her party continued to resist even that token action.

Different reasons appealed to the Tories for why it was best not to upset the applecart with Pretoria. There was, of course, the odd not-very-nice Tory who had business interests to protect, or simply a quasi-identification with the idea of blacks as second-class citizens. But more common were those who had not yet experienced the fall of communism and genuinely thought that “engagement” was the way to gradually improve things; or – a little less forgivably – that we should not interfere in “foreign cultures” which we didn’t understand.

They were all wrong, as Mandela was to prove; but it also behoves us to remember those on the left reluctant to interfere with “foreign cultures” today. Those perfectly happy with, say, not interfering in honour killings, female genital mutilation or forced marriage (see the Times report on a foolish academic paper to this end) on precisely those grounds, even when these take place in their own country and not a foreign one.

By 1990, having lived through our student years and become a bit more political, I and most of my contemporaries fully understood the huge significance of the freeing of Mandela. We all stood and cheered at the Wembley concert where this slight, smiling figure with tremendous charisma stood up and thanked us all politely for our support.

A decade later, his country meanwhile having spent its first five years as a true democracy under his leadership, he was to be seen here again, this time at Labour party conference in Brighton.

He well remembered that the Labour party had been pretty much a lone voice arguing his cause in Britain during his years in prison, and was grateful. He charmed us, like he charmed everyone, with his humour: the “unemployed pensioner with a criminal record”. We basked in his thanks, mostly because he was right: we had been there in his our of need (if not in government, which would have been considerably more useful). The facts were the facts.

But there’s more to the story.

Much had changed in between times, of course: Labour was no longer a lumbering elephant of an opposition party, stumbling between crises. It was unquestionably, for better or worse, a well-disciplined governing power with a thumping majority. The Tories were marginalised, and in a mess. On the way to meltdown, of course, they had made many mistakes, but their stance on South Africa had surely failed even to register on British voters’ scale of priorities.

No, it was other things that had done for the Tories: Black Wednesday, politicians’ “sleaze” and the visibly disintegrating government of John Major. Just as, in the 80s, it had been our stance on unilateral nuclear disarmament, or our dogged refusal to embrace any kind of market economics, or any number of other things, which did for us.

The coverage following Mandela’s death reminds us of two things: first, that there are fundamental differences between Labour and the Tories, and we should be glad for them. There are reasons why most of us could never metaphorically “cross the floor”. We were on the right side of this debate, if nothing else.

But the second is that Tories who believed what they did in the 1980s did so not because they were evil; merely because they were wrong.

Labour called this one right, yes: but in practically all the other debates of the day, the party ended up on the wrong side of history. And at least one of the Tories’ mistakes of that era, that of thinking someone else’s “culture” is no business of ours, is still going on in some corners of our party today. If you don’t believe me, look at the Labour MPs who still embrace jihadi terrorists or hate preachers.

Peter Hain, as a Tory Twitter correspondent of mine even-handedly pointed out, has “legitimate bragging rights” as a leader of the anti-apartheid movement. Good luck to him – he worked for it. As for the rest of us, we can probably afford ourselves the luxury of a little humility about the story of all those years ago.

Rob Marchant is an activist and former Labour party manager who blogs at The Centre Left

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18 Responses to “The Tories who failed to support Mandela’s “long walk to freedom” were not bad, merely wrong”

  1. swatantra says:

    We have to get away from this habit of labelling people as ‘bad’; the majority of people are not ‘bad’, they behave in that way because of their upbringing and personal experiences.
    The only people I would regard as positively ‘evil’ are the Islamofacists and Terrorists, as evidenced currently in the Trial of the killers of Lee Rigby. They cannot be regarded as insane because evil and the spirit of Jihad resides in their soul and it must be driven out.

  2. swatantra says:

    I would add that Madiba was not a Jihadist, but a Freedom Fighter and a political prisoner, fighting against an evil Apartheid regime. Thankfully the Afrikaaners saw reason and the evil was driven out of them.

  3. Rob Marchant says:

    @Swatantra: quite. It is worth making the point that, contrary to what Russell Brand tweeted a couple of days ago, there is absolutely no comparison whatsoever between modern-day Islamist terrorists and the ANC, or indeed any other terrorist outfit. Large-scale, repeated, deliberate massacres of civilians mark them out as different.

  4. The Oncoming Storm says:

    Good article! The situation in South Africa was far more complex than people today realise. While Mandela was justified in taking up arms against a vicious and brutal regime some of the actions of the ANC’s armed wing were morally indefensible and as in any conflict there are those like Biko, Desmond Tutu and further afield Martin Luther King and Ghandi who rejected the gun and relied on moral force. It is the actions of such people who often achieve more than by blowing up buses. Many on the British Right were repelled by the ANC’s Marxism and by some of its actions, people also fail to understand that Britain was facing its owning bombing campaign from a Marxist group, the IRA, and South Africa was viewed through those prisms and there was no difference between the IRA and MK.

    This was of course a highly flawed view but many of those who held it were simply wrong. Just as there were those on the Left who idealised the Soviet Union and either dismissed its many crimes as “imperialist propaganda” or “necessary for the achievement of Communism.” Both Right and Left got both of these issues badly wrong and the people responsible need to admit their mistakes.

  5. Carl Gardner says:

    You mention unilateral nuclear disarmament and opposition to market economics as among Labour’s wrong turns in the 1980s. I agree with you.

    What you don’t mention, and what’s often ignored in discussions about those days, is that Labour was also clearly the anti-European party in the 1980s. Its policy was to leave the EEC, as it was then, without a referendum (and said so in a manifesto only 8 years after a referendum concluding we should stay in – which shows referendums don’t really settle arguments).

    Since then, no party has won a majority in Parliament when it’s been identifiable at the election as more Eurosceptic than the alternative government.

    One arguable exception is 1992 – but then, it was hard to tell which of the two main parties was more Eurosceptic as Labour and the Tories were basically passing each other as they travelled in opposite directions. 2010 is not an exception: we do not have a Conservative government.

    At every other election since 1979, the clearly more “pro-EU” of the two main parties has won the election.

    This is an important and apparently persistent aspect of modern British politics, and one that Ed Miliband should pay attention to. It would be a truly awful strategic blunder for him now to commit to “an in–out referendum”.

  6. John Reid says:

    The hypocrisy of those toires who wanted him hung,,are now prising him is sickening, it could also be said for the Tory press,like the mail, calling him a terrorist, and criticising Labour figures who gave the ANC support too,

  7. Ex Labour says:

    The fact is that Margaret Thatcher wrote to PW Botha in 1985 urging the release of Mandela and also arguing for the removal of aparthied, This has been well publicised recently. In fact Mandela himself thanks her and called her an enemy of aparthied, but granted she was unsure of getting involved in another countries politics. But of course it didnt stop those on the left from abusing her.

    People are often unaware of the facts or what is going on behind the scenes, so they make judgements based on what they know. Their judgments maybe for or against your particular point of view, but that does not make them right or wrong.

    The never ending stream of drivel by certain left wingers to portray anyone who disagrees with their ideas and objectives as “bad”, “evil” or “nasty” is one of the reasons I gave up on Labour (see shit written on here by Sam Fowles). The hard left are more fascist than those they accuse of being the same.

  8. Neither Margaret Thatcher nor her party, as a party, was in favour of apartheid in principle. But both were compromised by it. While she is dead, it is not quite, and it remains compromised by that period. A few hours’ ago, David Cameron answered Prime Minister’s Questions.

    No one asked him why, after their remarks since Nelson Mandela died, the Conservative Whip in the House of Lords continues to extend to Norman Tebbit, while the Conservative Whip on Runnymede Borough Council continues to extend to Terry Dicks? Not Peter Hain. Not John McDonnell. Not Ed Miliband. No one.

    On the fringes of the fringes of the Labour Party, mostly in London, there are people who continue simultaneously to defend and to deny the crimes of Stalin and Mao, to whom Labour was never allied, either in Government or in Opposition, just as even the Thatcher Government was never formally allied to apartheid South Africa; Pinochet’s Chile was a different story.

    But if a Labour member of either House of Parliament, or elected representative at any level, were to give voice to such views, then the withdrawal of the Whip would be immediate, and expulsion from the party would follow rapidly.

    If David Cameron will not do the same to the continuing defenders of the old South Africa, in and of itself rather by reference to any subsequent faults or failures, then he and his party are unfit for office. He needs to be asked this directly and immediately, on the floor of the House of Commons.

    Labour is in a position to do that, because Mandela was released before John Smith died, meaning that support for his release could not be branded “Old Labour” and discarded. But that would otherwise have happened. The Anti-Apartheid Movement had already achieved its objective, so that noisy opposition to it could not be made a defining mark of the self-styled “decent Left”. But that would otherwise have happened, too.

    Apartheid South Africa would have been a classic neoconservative favourite state, and did in fact have the closest possible relationship with the other one, which even gave her the Bomb. But do not mention how, along with three former Soviet Republics including ever-reviled Belarus and now-reviled Ukraine, South Africa achieved unilateral nuclear disarmament, thereby proving the possibility of such.

    How very Old Labour. How very indecent Left. And what a standing contradiction of the theory that any of them was or is some kind of Communist dictatorship. Communist dictatorships, or aspirants to such status, do not give up their nuclear weapons.

  9. Stephen Hildon says:

    “Labour called this one right, yes: but in practically all the other debates of the day, the party ended up on the wrong side of history.”

    Obviously not the Poll Tax or Section 28 and arguably Northern Ireland.

    It is also worth remembering that Thatcher’s attitude to economic sanctions on South Africa caused a massive boycott of the 1986 Commonwealth Games.

    Here is the Artists United Against Apartheid singing “Sun City”

  10. Matthew Blott says:

    I would generally agree that Tories weren’t on the wrong side of history because they were “evil” but just plain wrong but I don’t buy the line that their indifference to black South Africans’ suffering was due to cultural sensitivity. Rob Marchant has clumsily shoehorned that argument in just to make a point about the Left’s failure to tackle Islamic extremism. We got a view of the Thatcher government’s thinking when cabinet paper’s showed her sympathy towards white Rhodesians settling in the UK while opposing such moves for British passport holders in Hong Kong. You might think this was all in the past but head over to the Spectator and Telegraph blogs and a quick read through the comments will show you racist conservatives are still alive and kicking.

    @ Ex Labour (Never Was Labour more like)

    Someone who so enthusiastically champions Margaret Thatcher regarding Nelson Mandela is nothing but a Tory troll. The utter bollocks written by the Right these past few days has been staggering and you repeat some of the swill here. If Nelson Mandela had generous words to say about Thatcher it was because he was being polite – he had kind words to say about all sorts of people, including his enemies.

    Here’s a good post related to this subject ..

  11. John Reid says:

    Ex labour, Thatcher also tried to ban the free Nelson Mandela concert,she may have wrote in private for his release,but she and her freinds in the Tory press and the young conservatives didn’t say that at the time,

  12. steve says:

    Ex-Labour: “The hard left are more fascist than those they accuse of being the same.”


    If it wasn’t for people like Rob and his precursors we would now be nose-to-dirt beneath the iron heel of Michael Foot’s jackboot.

  13. Ex Labour says:

    @ Matthew Blott

    You confirm my point i.e. what a bunch of ignorant people some of the left are and I see you resort to ad-homs…what a surprise !

    I did not “champion” Margaret Thatcher as you wrongly state, I merely gave this as an example to illustrate to dullard leftards like you who subject people to abuse knowing little of the facts or what goes on behind the scenes in politics. Your very simplistic view of international politics and relations is touching, but if you confine your sphere of influence to the reading the Guardian then its to be expected.

    @ John Reid

    Please read the full letter recently relased by the SA Government. In there Thatcher explains to PW Botha why she did not support sanctions. Her reasoning was that sanctions very rarely hurt those they target and in fact do the complete opposite hurting those they are meant to help. She acknowledges that she took abuse for that stance in the letter, but felt it was the right course of action.

    Man of the left Galloway made this point very well in relation to sanctions on Iraq and the death of thousands of children.

  14. Matthew Blott says:

    @ Never Was Labour

    Nice one with the insults – like the Tory troll you are you think anyone on the left as in the bien pensant Owen Jones camp. If you’ve read any of my comments previously you’ll find I’m highly critical of the Grauniad’s editorial line and don’t view foreign policy through the prism of Seamus Milne’s Ladybird guide to English barbarism. Pop over to Labour List where you will find I’m regularly at odds with others and denounced as a Tory for not taking the orthodox line on issues. But I’m a man of the left all the same and South Africa is one of the issues where I’m in full agreement with my comrades. Rob Marchant is right that the left got a lot of things wrong over the past three decades but this is one issue where it has been vindicated – the Right got this plain wrong. Margaret Thatcher could hardly say she opposed sanctions because she thought it would be bad for business and she didn’t really care about the darkies – she was a woman well aware of her legacy and had to pay some sort of lip service to the anti-apartheid cause. Saying she was opposed was meaningless – how could she anything else? “I support the white minority over the black majority” was not a view that would have been tolerated by a Western head of state even back then.

  15. Ex Labour says:

    @ Matthew Blott – man of the left or man of the centre left ?

    If you had bothered to read any of my previous missives you will have noticed that I was a 30 year Labour supporter until Brown took the helm. Miliband followed and the truth about Labours stance on welfare, immigration etc came out. Labour dont give a toss for ordinary people and are led by Cappucino slurping Balsamic drizzling North London political elites. They care more about ensuring Wayne and Waynetta get their cheap beer and pizzas and of course Sky TV, rather than representing those they were formed to represent.

    Dont even get me started on teenage trots like Jones and Penny. The only thing they do for Labour is push people towards other parties.

    You talk in terms of left and right and who has the moral high ground and I think Rob’s point was people on both side got it wrong, but just because they got it wrong at the time doesn’t mean they are “bad”. But of course this doesn’t suit the left’s narrative as they consistantly want to paint anyone right of Len McLusky as some “evil Tory”. Thatcher (and I have no real time for her by the way) is the bete noir who seems to be the focal point for the hard left hatred, yet the previously secret documents released by the SA government show that behind the scenes was a completely different situation and she was pushing for massive change within the country. The fact that she didnt support sanctions is also explained and as I pointed out sanctions in Iraq hurt the population not the government – so does this mean her stance on SA sanctions is vindicated ? Who knows, its a judgement call within any unique situation for political leaders.

    The point is that some people felt differently to others at the time, but does it make them bad, evil or nasty? Perhaps misguided, thoughtless, ignorant or “D all of the above” but to tarnish all on “the right” in some triumphalist manner is just wrong – and Rob makes that point.

    Sadly this bad/evil/nasty narritive will continue, irrespective of the evidence now in the public domain.

  16. steve says:

    Ex Labour: “Labour don’t give a toss for ordinary people”

    Quite true.

    Today’s Labour Party exists only to perpetuate the ensconcement of its own elite.

    Life under Miliband’s Labour would be identical to life under Cameron’s Tories. Only the politicians would notice the difference: an entitlement elite would be replaced by a careerist elite.

    Both parties have the same policies, both are dependent on undemocratic internal party structures. Both, if elected, shamefully ignore the interests of the electorate and then attempt to pass off their shamefulness as ‘leadership’ (i.e. ‘taking tough decisions’ lol.

    With each passing day the number of people fooled diminishes.

  17. Rob Marchant says:

    Wow, have returned to see quite a few comments – thanks all for the debate, sorry I can’t answer everyone but a couple of points:

    @CarlGardner: I think I’d agree with you on the fact that people are much less Eurosceptic than people give credit for. As my good colleague John Rentoul has observed, Brits are grumpy about Europe, not anti-Europe. However, I think your argument overplays the evidence a bit: correlation is not causation and just because no firmly anti-Europe party has won an election, doesn’t mean it is a causative factor.

    In fact, the real danger is just the contrary: decisions are made on hugely important issues to do with Europe based on votes in general elections where Europe is NOT a critical issue for most voters. They vote on the economy mostly, or perhaps health, or education.

    @DavidLindsay: Oh, if only what you say about withdrawing the whip were so! If only the party would withdraw the whip from MPs who support totalitarian regimes. If only it would kick out those who support terrorists Hamas, some very nasty terrorist-linked politicians in Pakistan and Bangladesh, or Castro. I am afraid that, in recent times, if anything, the Tories have been quicker to react than Labour and the Lib Dems to such things.

  18. John Reid says:

    Stephen goldon, what was Labours view on Northern Ireland, after the October 74 election, and the Birmingham, Guildford pub bombings, Labour moved against home rule, and had emergency powers 7 days detention without charge,I’m not sure how much the Govt of the tiime new that the Guildford 4 were framed, but from 79-83 Labour supported Willie white laws views on N.zi,

    O.k Livingstone and the GLC welcomed with opened arms, the leaders of the IRA during the royal wedding , and called them freedom fighters, Diane Abbott appearing on stage with balaclavas members of the IRA, and the GLC tried to push through conference their opposition to PACE ,which had the temporary measures anti terrorism bill, despite Neil Kinnock saying the GLcs proposal to scrap the police wouldn’t be party of the 87 manifesto, despite being voted for by conference, by 1988 Labour supported the temporary measures bill, which included Sinn Fein not being able to talk on TV, and the banning of the UDA,

    I recall the head of Sheffield Labour Party saying at the 87 election that the Brighton bombing was a justified act of self defence,I don’t think Labour got that right, the Tories had it in a party election broadcast, that helped them win that election,

    As for other things that labour got right in the 80’s, not selling council homes dirt cheap,without replacing them, or the Tories not accepting crime doubled in the 80’s due to poverty, or the Tories destruction of the NHS ,were other things we got right,

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