thatchergrad – on sea!

The annual document dump under the 30 year rule is usually good for a story or two, but this year’s threw up something genuinely strange. Here’s Thatcher’s response to the Vietnamese boat people refugee crisis; some obvious Thatcher features are there – notably sanctimoniousness, vindictiveness, and the abiding right-wing tendency to mistake sarcasm for content:

When Whitelaw said his own postbag indicated a shift of opinion in favour of accepting more refugees, the prime minister said that “in her view all those who wrote letters in this sense should be invited to accept one into their homes. She thought it was quite wrong that immigrants should be given council housing whereas white citizens were not.”

(Nice Willie Whitelaw, as I believe one is legally required to refer to him, is in there as well, coming up with “a kind of steeplechase designed to weed out south Asians in particular”, which would seem to be a piece of deliberate official racism.)

But this bit is truly odd:

The papers, released at the National Archives today, show that her reluctance to take in any of the Vietnamese boat people led to her making a proposal to the Australian prime minister, Malcolm Fraser, that they jointly buy an Indonesian or Philippine island “not only as a staging post but as a place of settlement” for them all. This proposal was blocked by Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore, who feared it might become a “rival entrepreneurial city”.

The PM was seriously suggesting creating a new crown colony, in the year of our Lord, 1979? What? This requires a significant update in our understanding of a number of things in history, especially Anglo-Australian relations and the overseas military commitments. And you can’t miss the Minister Mentor himself’s swift move to prevent Hong Kong 2.0 from appearing on his doorstep.

The alternate history would be fascinating. I can easily imagine the Thatcherite-dystopia version (privatised nonfunctional water supplies, tax-haven jillionaires, enraged Filipino or Indonesian guerrillas and bewildered British infantry exchanging fire), as well as the Thatcher-fan version (low low tax city state, semiconductor fabs, banks etc). And, presumably, if the project hadn’t gone all Somali by 1999, it would have taken the place of Vancouver as a primary destination for Hong Kong emigrants.

By the early 80s there wouldn’t have been that much room for another semiconductor fabbing Asian city-state economy. Actually, I suspect the most likely development model would have been something like the Sharjah Airport Free Zone, and I’ve even got a candidate island or two – this one isn’t Indonesian or Filipino, but it is an old Royal Navy base with a deepwater anchorage and an airport, that’s since become a tax-haven. The runway is only 7,500 feet long, but there’s room to expand at one end – although not at the other, because there’s a golf course in the way and it’s these people’s culture, like.

Perhaps Paul Staines would have become mayor?

The actual documents are available here, although you’ll have to go through a silly rigmarole of using the National Archives webstore to pay them £0.00 and having them e-mail you a download link. And they are 30MB image files tucked into PDFs. (Usability FAIL.)

Come to think of it, she did have form for this sort of thing.


  1. As you say, usability fail — I glanced through the docs but couldn’t find where Fraser was approached about this (and he has denied that he was), or indeed any discussion of the matter, except for PREM 19/130, part number 2, page 100, a record of a meeting between Thatcher and Lee Kuan Yew at 10 Downing Street on 20 June 1979:

    Mr. Lee said that, in his view, the best solution would be for the United Nations to purchase one or more islands, from Indonesia, Malaysia or the Philippines, to which the refugees could go. They were hard-working, talented and productive people and, given an island and twenty years, they could create another Singapore. Neither he nor, for example, the Indonesians would welcome this, but it would solve the problem.

    From that it would appear that it was originally Lee’s idea. If I can be bothered I’ll have another look through for more references.

  2. Keir

    Mind you in terms of a mad loopiness, up until the Japanese invaded, Sarawak was ruled by a dynasty established by a Briton out of the illegitimate lower aristocracy (born in Benares) who’d told the Sultan of Brunei he’d help out with a local uprising in exchange for being made Rajah. His heirs had a great deal of difficulty putting down head-hunting.

    By the way, speaking of nutty Thatcher fandom, the New Straits Times is reasonable pro-Palestine etc (as you would expect.) But it also gets heaps and heaps of content from the Daily Mail, making it rather schizophrenic.

    And Malaysian supermarkets pipe James Dobson at you.

  3. Okay, so Baraholka thought to ask the Guardian reporter, and the proposal to Fraser is apparently mentioned in CAB 148/183, in the minutes of the meeting of the Cabinet Defence and Overseas policy committee for 10 July 1979.

  4. Now we know where John Howard got his bedtime reading, wot?




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