You Can’t Understand Thatcherism Without Knowing Michael Manley
Today, when we think of Thatcherism and the birth of neoliberalism, the new economic order that Margaret Thatcher helped to establish, we think of the striking miners, the yuppies and the riots from Brixton to Toxteth. But Thatcher’s vision for change extended beyond a national project. Too often we think of Thatcherism separately from the global context in which it was born. There is a prehistory to Thatcherism and the broader ideology of neoliberalism, which takes place in the aftermath of decolonization in what was once called the British West Indies. With conversations about decolonizing our institutions become more importantIt is important to remember that Thatcherism simply would not have triumphed in Britain had it not been for the defeat of another political vision then emerging from what was once one of Britain’s most lucrative colonies: the Jamaica.
In Britain, countries that we assume have histories closely related to ours usually include the United States, Germany or France. But before independence, the island of Jamaica had been under British control for almost 300 years. The Kingdom of England acquired the island of Jamaica under the Treaty of Madrid in 1670, more than three decades before the Act of Union created the modern British state, making Jamaica part of Britain from its inception.
Today, the island is one of the most popular destinations for Britons on holiday outside Europe, with nearly a quarter of a million British nationals visiting each year. Yet its history remains largely unknown, even among people who travel there to enjoy luxury cruises or five-star resorts. Holiday companies sell Jamaica to the British as a remote tropical paradise, not a country whose political and economic destiny has been intertwined with ours for centuries.
Exactly 50 years ago, in February 1972, an election was held in Jamaica it would have enormous consequences for the shape of the world today. The Jamaica of the 1970s, that of Bob Marley and Peter Tosh, had only been independent of its “mother country” for ten years, but was already at the center of a global confrontation between the sovereignty of the nations of the “third world” and the property rights of multinational capitalism. And the 1972 election saw the island fall under the leadership of a politician determined to imagine another way of organizing the world economy. His premiership became a key battleground in the early history of neoliberalism and its outcome sparked the story of debt, austerity and privatization that has become all too familiar in recent times. years.
Coming from a famous political dynasty, Michael Manley could easily have become the kind of establishment figure who could be trusted to take over a vital former colony without rocking the boat. Trained in exclusive British colonial schools, Manley served as a fighter pilot in World War II. But after the war, Manley resumed his university studies at the London School of Economics (LSE), where the teachings of Marxist professors like Harold Laski and Ralph Miliband impressed him. He moved from theory to practice when he returned to Jamaica to inherit the leadership of the People’s National Party from his father, Norman Manley, who became prime minister 50 years ago in 1972.
Upon taking office, he began to implement one of the most ambitious programs of social reform ever attempted in a former British colony. But it is on the international scene that Manley will make the most noise. For him, the arena of international law offered the ideal avenue for organizing all recently decolonized countries to use their growing power to call for what he and his allies would call a “New International Economic Order” (NEIO).
The new international economic order
Manley mobilized the numerical advantage enjoyed by former colonies at the UN to pass a resolution in May 1974 that still reads just as radically today: the Declaration on the establishment of a new international economic order. This UN declaration contained a commitment to end all food waste, a recognition of the right of countries to enjoy full and permanent sovereignty over their own natural resources and, perhaps most strikingly, a provision which strengthened the power of national governments to control “the activities of transnational corporations”. What would the world have looked like today if this statement had been updated, if the newly decolonized nations “taking back control” of multinationals? Could this moment have altered the balance of power between the interests of capital and the democratic demands of the peoples of the world? We will never know. Because all attention was focused on the battle at the UN, shifts in the political landscape in the former center of the world – Westminster, London – would soon have major consequences for the dreams of Manley and his allies.
After the failure of free marketers like Enoch Powell and Keith Joseph to gain control of the Conservative Party, Margaret Thatcher succeeded in 1975 where they had failed and, after the 1979 election, became the first female Prime Minister of Britain. Thatcher’s position was strengthened by the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan as the new US president. The Anglosphere had taken a decisive ideological turn just in time for tensions to escalate. In 1981, 22 heads of state from five continents came together for the world’s first and only “North-South” conference. World leaders gathered at the Cancun Sheraton, facing the Mexican coast and the crisp Caribbean Sea, an idyllic setting contrasting with the tension that underpinned ongoing power struggles.
Michael Manley had paved the way in Cancun. Prior to this summit meeting, Manley had even organized a preliminary mini-summit in Jamaica, which, although snubbed by the UK and the US, was able to bring together the leaders of West Germany, Germany. Australia, Canada and Norway with leaders of the Post -colonial countries to discuss a set of new rules to govern the global economy more fairly. However, the year before the Cancun conference, just five days before Reagan won the vote in the United States, Manley lost one of the most bitter and divisive elections to take place in the Western Hemisphere. After a bloody competition that was marred by a shocking level of politically sponsored violenceJamaica had elected a new president – “business-friendly” Edward Seaga, a politician known to opponents as “Edward CIAga” because of his perceived closeness to Reagan and the United States.
Thatcher Strikes Back
So after years of trying to bring the world powers together, when the NOEI was finally presented to the world powers at the Cancun conference, it was without the man who had done so much to bring it together. With the winds of change now blowing firmly in their direction, Thatcher and Reagan had no reason to compromise and casually rejected NOEI’s calls for more democratic control of capitalism. Instead, Thatcher used this historic “North-South” conference to tell the “Third World” that the solution to their problems was simply to privatize and financialize more. In a significant first appearance on the international stage, Thatcher rejected the idea of protecting each nation’s sovereignty over its resources and rejected the idea of a UN bank, from which countries could access cheap credit to help them weather financial storms, stating that “there was no way I was placing UK deposits in a bank that was run entirely by those with overdrafts”.
In the end, the Cancun meeting ended in frustration for those who hoped for the birth of a new international economic order. No new law or plan of action had been agreed upon by the time participants boarded their return flight. When Thatcher returned to Westminster, she justified her stonewalling tactics in Cancun by saying: “I think there’s been a lot of misunderstanding about the purpose of the conference. I think the hopes were artificially raised. She argued that “the UN resolution itself is very vague” – indeed, the commitment to a new international economic order that Manley and others had worked so hard to craft and push through the UN was little more than a worthless piece of paper.
Over the next few decades, Manley’s dream of being able to exercise democratic control over multinational capitalism grew increasingly distant. After nine years of absence, he would finally be re-elected in Jamaica in 1989, but the changed global context meant that his second term as Prime Minister would be very different from his first. When Manley returned to power, the Cold War had just ended and the “end of history” was proclaimed. The radical “Third World” leaders who had supported him in the 1970s had relented, left or been killed. For Thatcher and his supporters, perhaps the sweetest revenge was seeing Manley, as he returned to power, having to embrace many of the free-market reforms he had spent so much of his first premiership on. minister to oppose. When he left office, just over a year after Thatcher’s long term in power ended, Manley said he now shared a political outlook “very, very similar to Margaret Thatcher’s”.
At the end of Manley’s second term as prime minister, it seemed that neoliberalism was unbeatable. Even Manley had to accept his wealth trickle promise. Today, as we mark the 50th anniversary of his first election, the financial crash, Brexit and Covid have all reinforced the impression that the tap of wealth is firmly closed and that the privatization Thatcher helped impose to the decolonized world has led to soaring inequality, not only abroad but also in Britain. Jamaica and the other former colonies have served as proving grounds for the neoliberal reforms that have restructured British society in recent decades. As we begin to look for another way to organize our national and international economies, we could do worse than revert to the unrealized ideas of the New International Economic Order and the young Michael Manley’s first term.
Kojo Koram’s new book, Uncommon wealthexamines how Britain’s imperial heritage continues to impact politics and economics today.
Teaser photo credit: Michael Manley and his wife with Jimmy Carter. By White House Staff Photographer – This media is available from the National Archives and Records Administration fonds, cataloged under National Archives Identifier (NAID) 177167., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/ w/index. php?curid=4135468