With the US president fanning the flames of violence in Minneapolis, Diane Abbott MP looks at the history of scapegoating and finger-pointing at ‘the enemy within’
By Diane Abbott
Published on Morning Star, May 29, 2020
Minneapolis and other US cities are in flames after the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed and immobilised black man in police custody.
He is alleged to have committed fraud. Campaigners have contrasted his treatment with a number of US serial killers who all made it safely from apprehension to arrest to the court room without injury, who were all white.
Donald Trump has intervened in the process, effectively encouraging a shoot-to-kill on unarmed civilians.
Initially Trump tweeted: “Any difficulty and we will assume control but, when the looting starts, the shooting starts. Thank you.”
Twitter has categorised this as a violation of its rules glorifying violence.
For those of us who had to endure the Thatcher era, we remember how an increasingly unpopular leader can run on a platform of “the enemy within.”
In her case, it was principally black youth and the National Union of Mineworkers, although there were many others too, notably gay people and single mothers — even if her followers are rather embarrassed about these targets now.
For reactionary leaders the counterpart to the enemy within is the external enemy.
For Thatcher, on different scales, it was Argentina, the Irish, Nelson Mandela and even the European Union.
For Trump, it increasingly looks like his chosen enemies are China, Venezuela and Iran.
It is important to understand why they adopt these tactics. This is not primarily because they are nasty or stupid people. Margaret Thatcher was definitely not stupid.
But Thatcherism was an attempt to reorder the British economy and the whole of British society in order to overcome what was then widely called the malaise that Britain “was the sick man of Europe.”
This expressed the fact that economic growth had been comparatively feeble in this country for a prolonged period.
In order to overcome this, Thatcher imposed austerity policies, mass job losses, young people on pitiful wages, real-terms pay cuts more widely, privatisations and massive cuts to public services.
At the same time there were massive cuts to taxes for the rich and for big business, financial deregulation and the “Big Bang” in the City of London. Greed was good.
If this all sounds rather familiar, it is. What we now call austerity was then called monetarism.
But the actual content of the shift in favour of the very highest earners and big business was almost exactly the same.
George Osborne’s claims to be a strategic innovator are completely bogus. All he did was copy Thatcherism.
The trouble was, none of this worked even in its own terms. The sole reason there was a later boom well after Thatcherism began was because of the enormous inflow of North Sea oil revenues.
Thatcher’s policies did not revive industry, they decimated it. What boomed was the international role of the City of London, and real-estate agency based on booming property prices and cheap credit, especially in London and south-east England. Thatcherism solved nothing.
The reason this is all relevant now is because both Donald Trump and Boris Johnson have massively and inexcusably mishandled the coronavirus crisis.
Trump and Johnson have presided over two of the worst outcomes in the world. They have clearly done so because they have not put public health first.
They are followers of the “herd immunity” notion in practice, which has led to tens of thousands of avoidable deaths and will lead to an unknowable level of even more deaths.
Paradoxically, their aim of prioritising the economy has spectacularly backfired.
They forgot the basic rule that people are vital to an economy. Their well-being should come first, even in strict economic terms.
The result is that all the reputable economic forecasters assume that we are facing something worse than the great recession of 2008 and its aftermath, which we had not fully recovered from before the virus hit.
Some of those forecasters believe it will actually be far worse. That is an unknown and largely depends on how the public-health crisis is handled from here.
With both Trump and Johnson easing lockdowns before the virus is truly under control, the outlook is not good.
The recession will be severe. In each country the severity of the downturn will generally be in line with the severity of the public-health crisis, and the weakness of the government response. The US and British governments are world leaders in this respect.
It is completely naive to believe that the depth of the crisis will lead to an outbreak of niceness from either government.
They are already showing their true colours by forcing people back to work too early, which almost certainly means more people will die unnecessarily.
Compared to forcing people to risk death, slashing jobs and pay and conditions will not cause any lost sleep in either No 10 or the White House — but this is where the lessons of Thatcherism are crucial.
When you are pursuing vicious policies, which are clearly hurting the majority of the population, internal and external enemies are extremely useful.
They shore up your minority support and try to divide your political opponents, some of whom may be won over, especially if the resistance to these policies becomes “too extreme.”
The myth of the “loony Labour left” was born in these circumstances, because we supported those trying to resist Thatcher’s targets.
We stand against discrimination, scapegoating, racism and war-mongering.
We are for unity, and our real enemy is those who caused so many people to die.
Diane Abbott is Labour MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington, and served as shadow home secretary from 2016 to 2020.