Today, when we think of Thatcherism and the birth of neoliberalism, the new economic order Margaret Thatcher helped install, we think of striking miners, yuppies and riots from Brixton to Toxteth. But Thatcher’s vision for change stretched beyond a domestic project. Too often we think of Thatcherism separately from the global context in which it arose. There is a pre-history to Thatcherism and the wider ideology of neoliberalism, one that takes place in the aftermath of decolonisation in what was once called the British West Indies. With conversations about decolonising our institutions becoming more prominent, it’s important to remember that Thatcherism simply wouldn’t have triumphed in the UK without the defeat of another political vision then emerging from what was once among Britain’s most lucrative colonies: Jamaica.
In Britain, the countries we assume have histories that are tightly bound with our own usually include the likes of the USA, Germany or France. But prior to independence, the island of Jamaica had been under British control for nearly 300 years. The Kingdom of England gained the island of Jamaica as part of the 1670 Treaty of Madrid, over three decades before the Act of Union would create the modern British state, making Jamaica part of Britain from its very inception.
Today, the island is one of the most popular destinations for Britons holidaying outside Europe, with almost a quarter of a million British nationals visiting every year. Yet, its history remains largely unknown, even among the people who go there to enjoy luxury cruises or five-star beach resorts. Holiday companies sell Jamaica to Britons as being a distant, tropical paradise, not a country whose political and economic fate has been intimately connected to our own for centuries.
Exactly 50 years ago, in February 1972, an election took place in Jamaica that would carry huge consequences for the shape of the world today. The Jamaica of the 1970s, of Bob Marley and Peter Tosh, had been independent of its ‘mother country’ for just ten years at that point, but already sat at the centre of a global confrontation between the sovereignty of ‘Third World’ nations and the property rights of multinational capitalism. And the 1972 election saw the island fall under the leadership of a politician who was determined to imagine an alternative way to organise the global economy. His premiership became a key battleground in the early history of neoliberalism and its outcome set in motion the story of debt, austerity and privatisation that have become all too familiar over recent years.
The scion of a famous political dynasty, Michael Manley could have easily become just the kind of establishment figure that could be trusted to take charge of a vital former colony without rocking the boat. Educated at exclusive British colonial schools, Manley served as a fighter pilot in the Second World War. But after the war, Manley took up his university studies at the London School of Economics (LSE), where the teachings of Marxist professors like Harold Laski and Ralph Miliband made an impression on 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, becoming prime minister 50 years ago, in 1972.
Upon taking office, he began implementing one of the most ambitious programmes of social reform that has ever been tried in a former British colony. But it was on the international stage that Manley would cause the biggest stir. For him, the arena of international law offered the perfect avenue to organise all of the recently decolonised countries to use their growing power to call for what he and his allies would christen a ‘New International Economic Order’ (NIEO).
The New International Economic Order
Manley mobilised the numerical advantage that the former colonies enjoyed in the UN to pass a resolution in May 1974 that still reads as radically today: the Declaration on the Establishment of a New International Economic Order. This UN declaration contained a commitment to ending all waste of food products, a recognition of the right for countries to enjoy full, permanent sovereignty over their own natural resources and, perhaps most strikingly, a provision which reinforced the power of national governments to control “the activities of transnational corporations”. What would the world today have looked like if this declaration had been actualised, if the freshly decolonised nations had been able to ‘take back control’ from multinational corporations? Could this moment have altered the balance of power between the interests of capital and the democratic demands of people across the world? We will never know. Because as all the attention was focused on the battle at the UN, changes to the political landscape back in the old centre of the world – Westminster, London – would soon have major consequences for the dreams of Manley and his allies.
After the failure of free marketeers like Enoch Powell and Keith Joseph to seize control of Conservative Party, in 1975 Margaret Thatcher succeeded where they had failed and, after the 1979 election, became Britain’s first woman prime minister. Thatcher’s position was reinforced 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 come to a head. In 1981, 22 heads of state from across five continents met for the world’s first and only ‘North-South’ conference. The world leaders gathered at the Cancun Sheraton, looking out over the coast of Mexico towards the crisp Caribbean Sea, an idyllic setting to contrast with the tension that underpinned the power struggles taking place.
Michael Manley had paved the road to Cancun. Prior to this summit meeting, Manley had even hosted a preliminary mini-summit in Jamaica, which, while snubbed by the UK and the USA, was able to bring the leaders of West Germany, Australia, Canada and Norway together with the leaders of post-colonial countries to discuss a set of new rules to govern the global economy more fairly. However, the year before the Cancun conference took place, just five days before Reagan won the vote in the USA, Manley lost one of the most bitter and conflict-ridden elections to have taken place in the Western hemisphere. After a bloody contest that was marked by a shocking level of politically sponsored violence, Jamaica had elected a new president – the ‘business-friendly’ Edward Seaga, a politician known to opponents as ‘Edward CIAga’ due to his perceived closeness to Reagan and the USA.
Thatcher strikes back
So after years of trying to bring the global powers to the table, when the NIEO was finally put before the world’s global powers at the Cancun conference, it was without the man who had done so much to bring it together. With the wind of change now firmly blowing back in their direction, Thatcher and Reagan had little reason to compromise and casually dismissed the NIEO’s calls to allow for more democratic control over capitalism. Instead, Thatcher took this historic ‘North-South’ conference as an opportunity to tell the ‘Third World’ that the solution to its problems was simply to privatise and financialise further. In an early significant appearance on the international stage, Thatcher rejected the idea of protecting every nation’s sovereignty over its resources and shot down the idea of a UN bank, from which countries could access cheap credit to see them through financial storms, declaring that ‘there was no way that I was going to put British deposits into a bank which was totally run by those on overdrafts’.
Ultimately, the meeting in Cancun ended in frustration for those hoping for the birth of a new international economic order. No new laws or plans for action were agreed by the time attendees boarded their flights back home. When Thatcher returned to Westminster, she justified her obstruction tactics in Cancun by claiming: ‘I think that there was a lot of misunderstanding about the purpose of the conference. I think that hopes were artificially raised.’ She argued that ‘the United Nations resolution itself is very vague’ – in effect, the commitment to a new international economic order that Manley and others had worked so hard to draft and pass at the UN was little more than a worthless scrap of paper.
Over the following decades, Manley’s dream of countries being able to exert democratic control over multinational capitalism drifted further and further away. After nine years out of office, he would eventually be re-elected in Jamaica in 1989, but the change in global context meant that his second stint as prime minister would look very different from his first. When Manley re-entered office, the Cold War had just finished and the ‘end of history’ was being proclaimed. The radical ‘Third World’ leaders who had supported him in the 1970s had either given in, gone away or been killed. For Thatcher and her supporters, perhaps the sweetest revenge was in watching Manley, as he returned to office, having to embrace many of the free-market reforms that he had spent so much of his first premiership opposing. When he left office, just a little over a year after Thatcher’s own long stint in power had ended, Manley would say that he now shared political perspectives ‘very, very similar to those of Margaret Thatcher’.
When Manley’s second term as prime minister finished, it appeared as if neoliberalism was unbeatable. Even Manley had to accept its promise of trickle-down wealth. Now, as we mark the 50th anniversary of his first election, the financial crash, Brexit and Covid have all reinforced the impression that the wealth tap is firmly shut and the privatisation that Thatcher helped to impose upon the decolonised world has led to sky-rocketing inequality, not only abroad but in Britain as well. Jamaica and the other former colonies were used as testing grounds for the neoliberal reforms that have restructured society in Britain over the past few decades. As we start to look for an alternative way to organise our national and international economies, we could do worse than returning to the unrealised insights of the New International Economic Order and the young Michael Manley’s first term in office.
Kojo Koram’s new book, Uncommon Wealth, looks at the way Britain’s imperial legacy continues to impact the politics and economics of today.
Teaser photo credit: Michael Manley and his wife with Jimmy Carter. By White House Staff Photographer – This media is available in the holdings of the National Archives and Records Administration, cataloged under the National Archives Identifier (NAID) 177167., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4135468