Thatcher became Prime Minister in May 1979 and served until November 1990. She was preceded by James Callaghan (Labour) who, on 28th March 1979, lost a vote of confidence in the House of Commons - (see Wikipedia - Callaghan Vote). A general election was called and was won by the Conservative Party under Margaret Thatcher. Interestingly, Callaghan lost the vote of confidence by just one vote which, at the time, I thought surprising given the Winter of Discontent 1978-79.
The Thatcher years were noted for terrorism - often, in connection with Northern Ireland: e.g. the murder of Lord Mountbatten of Burma (August 1979); bombs in Hyde Park, London (July 1982); the Brighton Hotel bomb (October 1984). Throughout those years, the Prevention of Terrorism Acts - (first enacted in 1974 after bombings in Birmingham) - were continued in force by annual renewal in Parliament. These were the precursors to permanent terrorism legislation from 2000 onwards - (see article by Kathryn Fisher). The UK now has a complex web of anti-terrorism law - Terrorism Law resource. In Northern Ireland, non-jury trials for certain 'scheduled offences' were introduced in the early 1970s and they continued in force through the Thatcher years and beyond - see Diplock courts and Law and Lawyers 14th October 2010. A lingering legacy of the Diplock Courts is that non-jury trial for certain offences continues to remain possible in Northern Ireland - see Rights Watch UK - March 2013.
The 1970s was a decade marked by considerable industrial unrest particularly in large manufacturing industries. Government and the law had proved to be ineffective in dealing with this. The Industrial Relations Act 1971 which established the National Industrial Relations Court was a bête noire of the Trades Union movement. The incoming Labour government in 1974 wasted little time before introducing a Bill to repeal the 1971 Act even though some innovations made by the 1971 Act were retained such as 'unfair dismissal.' The new legislation became the Trades Union and Labour Relations Act 1974. During Thatcher's first term in office, further reforms to Trades Union law were made by the Employment Acts of 1980 and 1982.
|Goose Green ~ Falklands|
The Miner's Strike of 1984-85 was marked by extensive violence and confrontation between the Police and miners. It ended with the demise of most of the coal mining industry but with, at the time, very few employment opportunities for former miners. The resulting devastation of whole communities dependent on the one industry was tragic and there is lasting bitterness to this day though the power of central government was asserted.
A further assertion of governmental power in relation to the Trades Unions was the Council of Civil Service Unions case which arose from a decision not to permit Trades Union activity at GCHQ. Prior to this case, there was a view that Royal Prerogative powers were not subject to judicial review. However, the House of Lords held that exercises of the Royal Prerogative were generally subject to judicial review, with certain exceptions such as matters of national security. This case established that the application of judicial review would be dependent on the nature of the government's powers, not their source. The government won the case on the trump card of national security and trades unions were excluded from GCHQ.
Did the actions of Thatcher lead to the breaking of Trade Union power? To an extent, the answer must be Yes. However, for an interesting view see Did Thatcher break the trade Unions? It may be that Union influence and power was eventually bound to decline due to what would now be known as 'globalisation.' Some Unions - despite doing excellent work for their members in many areas - had behaved like dinosaurs in their failure to adapt to the changing world. Maybe all the Thatcher government did was give them a shove in the direction they were already going.
In their book Freedom under Thatcher, Keith Ewing and Conor Gearty traced changes in the law relating to civil liberty which occurred in the 1980s. These include the rewriting of much of public order law by the Public Order Act 1986. The book also addresses the form of centralised control of the Police which was introduced to deal with picketing. The relationship between the individual and the State altered as a result of this and subsequent legislation (e.g. Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 etc) and there is no doubt that the State has gained in its powers to control protest.
It was in 1988 that the Merchant Shipping Act was passed and this led to the incredibly lengthy and costly Factortame litigation. At the heart of the issue was the supremacy of Parliament v the supremacy of European Community law. As far as the courts in the UK were concerned, the will of Parliament had to be obeyed. As far as the European Court of Justice was concerned, national legislation could not override community law. Interestingly, the supremacy of community law was well established before the entry of the UK to the communities - Costa v. ENEL (1964), where the ECJ stated, "...the Members States have limited their sovereign rights, albeit within limited fields"and Van Gend en Loos v. Nederlandse Administratie der Belastingen (1963) - "...the Community constitutes a new legal order of international law for the benefit of which the states have limited their sovereign rights." There is a good discussion of the Factortame litigation at Thomas Cooper.
|Bruges Speech 1988|
During the 1980s, a number of important human rights cases reached the European Court of Human Rights. Despite this, we did not hear from the Thatcher government any extensive anti-Convention rhetoric and the right of individual petition was not questioned - (today, it is embedded into the convention itself). Furthermore, although the idea of a British Bill of Rights was mentioned in the Conservative Party's 1979 election manifesto, it did not proceed. In an interesting post on Euro Rights blog - Margaret Thatcher and the Constitution - Richard Edwards notes:
' ... in the absence of any domestic forum in which to bring human rights claims litigants went to Strasbourg for justice. The UK soon had the worst record of any Contracting State, often for rather mundane cases. Thus Conservative plans to restore corporal punishment in schools were soon abandoned as a consequence of Strasbourg (Campbell and Cosans v UK  7511/76). Repeated British refusals to regulate telephone tapping ended with the adverse judgment of the European Court of Human Rights in Malone v UK  ECHR 8691/79. The Interception of Communications Act 1985 followed. Similarly, a young German fugitive by the name of Jens Soering tried to prevent his extradition to the USA on capital charges initially before the English courts and when this was unsuccessful before the European Commission and Court. The rest, as they say, is history.'
A further case against the UK was McCann and others v UK (1995) 21 EHRR 97. Intelligence suggested a team of known Provisional IRA members (McCann, Savage, Farrell) were planning a bombing in Gibraltar. One of the team was a known explosives expert while the others had been linked as well as convicted for various explosive and terrorist related activities. During surveillance, the team crossed the border from Spain with no resistance from the authorities and subsequently parked a car in a crowded place. In previous times, the IRA had employed remote control detonators and intelligence suggested the car was rigged with explosives with the suspects holding the remote detonator. A team of SAS soldiers was sent to intercept and arrest them on conspiracy charges, in an operation code-named Operation Flavius. The team, in accordance with their training, shot and killed the suspects which at the time was justified by the teams to be in response to the suspects reaching for what they believed were the detonators. The inquest into the shootings found no breach of Article 2 of the Gibraltar constitution. At the time of the shootings the suspects had neither a detonator nor any explosives. A car was however found registered under one of the suspects names which had been laced with explosive devices of 'ticking time bomb' type and not remote detonators. It appeared that the suspects were on a reconnaissance-mission and had parked their car to save a space for the actual car containing the explosives. When the case eventually reached the Strasbourg Grand Chamber, the court (by a 10 to 9 majority) found the UK in breach of Article 2 (Right to Life) of the convention.
It is from cases such as McCann that States have come under an obligation to hold Article 2 compliant inquests when State authorities are implicated in a death - (see Article by Jeremy Hyam - Where inquests raise a question of human rights).
Reference has already been made to Northern Ireland in the context of terrorism and the Diplock Courts. The relationship of all Westminster governments to Northern Ireland has been exceptionally complex and the BBC is undoubtedly right in saying that her legacy - (and one could add the legacies of others) - is not likely to be resolved any time soon. - BBC 9th April Margaret Thatcher: Heated debate over Northern Ireland legacy. Thatcher took a tough stance regarding hunger strikes in Northern Ireland's prisons in 1981. She entered into an Anglo-Irish agreement in 1985 which gave the Irish government an advisory role in Northern Ireland's government while confirming that there would be no change in the constitutional position of Northern Ireland unless a majority of its people agreed to join the Republic. It also set out conditions for the establishment of a devolved consensus government in the region. The 1989 murder of Northern Irish solicitor Pat Finucane raised troubling questions about collusion between the Police and certain paramilitary groups - see post on Sir Desmond de Silva QC's Independent Review 12th December 2012.
|Northern Ireland Assembly|
Before concluding this post, I choose to mention two Acts of Parliament from her time in office which have been, in my opinion, particularly beneficial: the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 and the Children Act 1989. The 1984 Act was a major restructuring of Police powers and practice and added important safeguards for suspects. The 1989 Act established a comprehensive framework for handling those desperately difficult cases where children are suffering or at risk of suffering significant harm.
|Poll Tax Riots took place in 1990|
Baroness Thatcher died on 8th April 2013. She was replete with national honours including being a Lady of the Garter. Parliament was recalled on 10th April and a ceremonial funeral is to be held on 17th April. For some, the recall and the funeral are steps too far and, for others, they are seen as due recognition of her remarkable career. She was controversial in office and her passing rekindled the controversies - (e.g. Independent 12th April). It will be many years before a truly calm and objective assessment of her remarkable and often turbulent years in office can be made and this post is certainly no attempt to do that. I have sought to look at, albeit briefly, aspects of her policies which influenced the law and which continue to influence our lives today.
|Lincoln's Inn where Margaret Thatcher was called to be Bar in 1953|
Euro Rights Blog - Margaret Thatcher and the Constitution - Richard Edwards
Margaret Thatcher Foundation
A further biography with sound track
Bishop of London's address at Margaret Thatcher's funeral
In pictures - Baroness Thatcher's funeral - BBC 17th April
The Telegraph - Margaret Thatcher's funeral
The Independent - Margaret Thatcher's funeral