As promised I am going to do another 'what if?' about an assassination and this time focusing on the British prime minister 1979-90, Margaret Thatcher. I have said all I need to about her policies and her manner in previous postings. However, given the focus on the 30th anniversary of her coming to power, it seems like a good time to explore what would have happened if Margaret Thatcher had been killed in the bombing of the Grand Hotel in Brighton on 12th October 1984. The 1980s are striking for the assassination attempts that were unsuccessful. You can look at the shooting by John Hinckley Jr. of US President Ronald Reagan on 30th March 1981 when six explosive bullets were fired at him, one hitting him, one permanently paralysing his Press Secretary James Brady, one permanently disabling police officer Thomas Delanhty's left arm and a fourth hitting secret service agent Tim McCarthy who recovered. Reagan lived on until 2004 when he died aged 93. Similarly the assasination attempt against Pope John Paul II failed. The pope was hit four times by bullets fired by Mehmet Ali Ağca on 10th May 1981. Though severely wounded the Pope survived until April 2005 when he died at the age of 84.
The bombing of the Grand Hotel was carried out by Patrick Magee, a member of the Provisional IRA (Irish Republican Army) which had been conducting terrorist attacks since 1969 up until renouncing violence in 2005 though splinter groups continue to commit atrocities. Despite being sentenced to 'whole life', Magee was released from prison in 1999. The statement by the IRA at the time of the bombing was that it was a revenge for the perceived occupation of Ireland by Britain and torture of IRA suspects and members. The bomb had been planted twenty-four days earlier and was not detected despite the security procedures in place during the Conservative Party conference in Brighton. The bomb was 13.6 Kg and made a whole column of the hotel collapsed. Six people were killed: Sir Anthony Berry, MP; Roberta Wakeham, wife of the Trade & Industry Secretary, Lady Muriel Maclean (who died in hospital) in whose bathroom the bomb had been planted, Eric Taylor and Jeanne Shattock. Margaret Tebbit, wife of the President of the Board of Trade was permanently paralysed. The bomb damaged Thatcher's bathroom but not her bedroom. However, it is clear that with a more powerful bomb or one in a different position or gone off at a different time (it detonated at 02.54 when Thatcher was working; she was renowned for not sleeping much) Margaret Thatcher could have been killed or so injured as to have been unable to carry on in office.
Let us assume that Margaret Thatcher was killed on 12th October 1984, what would have been the consequences? Simon Heffer has looked at this case in 'What Might Have Been: Leading Historians on Twelve 'What Ifs' of History' (2004) edited by right-wing historian Andrew Roberts. However, Heffer entirely wastes the opportunity. He sees Michael Heseltine, then Minister of Defence and not at the conference as becoming Thatcher's successor and then perceives that as leading to disaster for the Conservatives as Heseltine was too much in favour, in Heffer's opinion, of European integration and would have diverged from Thatcher's harsh monetarist economics and so would have lost the party credibility in handling the economy and led to their defeat at the 1992 election, which they almost lost anyway. He also believes, clearly wrongly, that Thatcher had a hand in accelerating the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe and so her missing from history post-1984 would have slowed down the ending of the Cold War. It is clear Heffer is one of these deluded individuals who sees Thatcher as having been God's gift to the planet, particularly the UK, and loathers Michael Heseltine (who was always very popular with the public) and so uses the counter-factual to a lay a diatribe against Heseltine.
Of course with the death of Thatcher and assuming that no other leading minister was killed, William 'Willie' Whitelaw (1918-99), the deputy-prime minister (1979-88) would have assumed immediate power in Thatcher's place. There is no need in British government to have a deputy prime minister but both Thatcher and Blair retained the post throughout their periods of office, in each case giving them to men who could keep on board the different elements of their respective parties. Whitelaw, unlike Thatcher and Heseltine, was very experienced, having been a minister 1972-4 with the difficult portfolios of Northern Ireland and Employment under Edward Heath and Home Secretary 1979-83. By 1984 he was 68 and embarrassing incidents, rioting and an escalation in IRA attacks in the early 1980s meant he was marginalised into a nominal role. His great skill was being able to moderate extreme behaviour keep the Conservative Party intact. The Conservatives had only won the election in June 1983, with an increased majority, so were secure. Whitelaw had been a hereditary peer after the 1983 election and it is unusual for British governments of the 20th century to even consider a lord as prime minister (because they are unelected so not directly accountable to the electorate), so it is likely that the Conservatives would have sought to elect a different, commoner, leader. This is where Heffer sees Heseltine coming in.
Unless Norman Tebbit had become prime minister we probably would have seen a change in style of government with the removal of Thatcher. Margaret Thatcher adopted a Gaullist approach to cabinet government, probably going even further than De Gaulle. In reality she listened to no-one except the voices in her head and someone like Michael Heseltine, Sir Geoffrey Howe (Foreign Secretary), Nigel Lawson (Chancellor of the Exchequer), Leon Brittan (Home Secretary), Tom King (Employment Secretary) or even Sir Keith Joseph (Education & Science Secretary), it was a little too early for Douglas Hurd. Anyway, one of these, most least Joseph, but certainly the others would have had to work on cabinet government. Thatcher's bullying tactics were unacceptable in a democracy and no other minister bar Tebbit could have pulled them off credibly. This would have meant we moved from one-person government that we saw during the 1980s leading to policies which actually damaged the Conservatives, towards the end, to something rather more tempered, at least in its contribution to electoral success. The Miners' Strike was already under way when Thatcher would have been killed, so it is likely that the policy of continuing to destroy the coal mining industry would have continued, perhaps spearheaded in Thatcher's absence by Tebbit, assuming he was not killed or disabled by the stronger/more successful bomb. Tebbit is the kind of man who makes your skin crawl, he is really the only one of the Thatcher cabinets whose image you could slip into a photograph of leading Nazis and no-one would notice. He sees to thrive on hatred and contempt. His statements especially in regard to unemployed people really set the divisive tone of the UK in the 1980s, the legacy of which we are still having to deal with.
One thing that intrigues me is how muted the government's response was to the bombing. I think Thatcher was more stunned by it than she let on. I think also she was indignant about the attempt by people she held in contempt (as she clearly did the entire Irish population) would dare to attack her. Though, as I have noted before, she does seemed to have thrived on blood-letting and destruction in an unnerving way. In this, unlike most things, she had Winston Churchill's delight in dealing with crises, but Churchill never drew strength from death and destruction in the way Thatcher always seeemed to thrive on it. Conversely to Thatcher's response of 'keep on, keeping on', I believe stand-in prime minister, Whitelaw, having lost his boss to a terrorist attack would have unleashed the full might of the British forces against the terrorists. Whitelaw's period as Home Secretary was known as being a period of harsh measures such as 'short sharp shock' treatment for young offenders, extensive use of the 'sus' laws especially to simply pick up young ethnic minority males, an increase in prison building and of the strength of the police. Partly this approach provoked the extensive rioting that was seen across cities in the UK in 1981. Following the assassination of Thatcher, who always saw Whitelaw as her most loyal lieutenant, I assume he would have opened up with a very harsh response.
As it was in our world, at the end of 1982, the 'shoot to kill' policy was adopted by British forces (especially the Special Air Service (SAS)) operating in Northern Ireland to execute extra-judicially members of Republican terrorist groups. This policy was extended to Gibraltar in 1988 (and, it is believed continuing to 1992). So, even without the assassination of Thatcher, the British government followed a policy of eliminating perceived opponents without recourse to the law. Internment which means the summary arrest of people suspected of being members of proscribed groups had been in force in Northern Ireland August 1971 -December 1975 which often involved the torture of those held, may have been brought in to the UK as a whole to allow the authorities to chase down suspects. Special Branch, that element of the Metropolitan Police Constabulary set up in 1883 to deal with Irish terrorism and still active today, would have seen its powers and numbers increased and perhaps resources allocated to MI5 (the Security Service) would have been diverted to worrying less about Soviet agents in the UK and more about Irish. Of course governments always find other uses for the powers they take (just look at the RIPA powers) and they would have been turned on striking miners, Arthur Scargill would simply have been picked up off the streets and detained indefinitely simply to get him out of the hair of the government.
Norman Tebbit, who was always hostile to the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) who he felt was too left-wing (which I find bitterly ironic as I always feel it is far too conservative, even right-wing at times, it certainly defends rather than challenges the British Establishment) would have probably been given his head to impose news censorship. Even if direct censoring had not been stepped up (we have censorship anyway via the D Notice Committee) the atmosphere would have led to self-censorship and challenging news and drama broadcasts of the 1980s would not have appeared.
If you think of the attitude towards Arabs and Muslims that appeared in the USA following the 11th September 2001 attacks, we would have found something similar in Britain (i.e. the UK minus Northern Ireland) towards the Irish population (there are over 670,000 Irish people living in Britain now) and one would have seen vigilante attacks on anyone with Irish background. In cities with large Catholic Irish populations, notably Liverpool and Glasgow we may have seen sectarian violence as scapegoats for killing the prime minister were sought. Governments do not have to issue direct orders to encourage their forces and the general public to react hostilely to a particular group. The most obvious historical example is anti-Jewish activity in Nazi Germany which rolled on becoming more and more extreme without need for direct input by Hitler, he simply created an 'atmosphere of permissiveness' in which people felt it was alright, or even a good thing, to persecute Jews, without being commanded to do so. Something similar would have begun to happen towards Irish in Britain. I saw this to some extent in 1991 when a Kurdish acquaintance of mine who had fled Saddam Hussein's Iraq where Kurds were persecuted, was attacked himself at the time of the US invasion of Kuwait and Iraq because he was seen as being Iraqi and thus the enemy. The general public likes to have a focus for its anger and is no sophisticated in making distinctions (e.g. vigilante attacks on paediatricians instead of paedophiles in the 2000s).
Once the period of immense repression began to fade, what sort of country would Britain without Thatcher have been? Unlike Heffer, I believe Sir Geoffrey Howe, QC (born 1926) would have succeeded Whitelaw's interim government. Howe had been Chancellor of the Exchequer (Finance Minister) 1979-83 and Foreign Secretary since 1983, he had served as Solicitor General 1970-2 and Minister of State at the Department of Trade & Industry, but in the Cabinet 1972-4 so was very experienced. Unlike Heseltine, he would have been seen as a stabilising influence in the post-Thatcher period. Howe was opposed to Thatcher's hostility to the European Community (the EU pre-1992) but was not as large a supporter of European integration as Heseltine, so is likely to have pursued a progressive line, not massively out of step with Thatcher's but causing less friction. Similarly, as Foreign Secretary he was a supporter of the special relationship with the USA but was not so beholden to Reagan as Thatcher always appeared to be. So in foreign affairs which he was to oversee in our world until 1989 anyway, I do not think there would have been a great deal of difference with him as prime minister, perhaps a little less friction with the rest of Europe. His attitude to the apartheid regime of South Africa was less sympathetic than that of Thatcher so there might have been a harder attitude, for example over sanctions, than she adopted. However, given his dislike of economic control, he would have seen the imposition of sanctions difficult to stomach, but may have adopted a harder oratory line on the country's continued racialist policies.
We would have seen little difference in the economy with Howe as prime minister. In 1979-83 he followed the monetarist policy by the letter and his love of liberalisation of the economy would have meant privatisations would have continued at full steam under him. I think in many ways Thatcher saw Howe as a key rival, despite his seemingly bland exterior. This is why she removed him from his position as Foreign Secretary in 1989 and effectively humiliated him, using her press secretary Bernhard Ingham to play down the standing of deputy prime minister which Howe became in 1989. Ironically, Howe as prime minister may have succeeded better than Thatcher especially after the 1987 election. He made muted calls for her to shift her policy away from things such as the incredibly unpopular poll tax. This means that it is likely that not only would the Conservatives have won in 1987, but given probably won the 1992 election with a larger majority than John Major was able to pull off. Given Major's meteoric rise, I imagine that when Howe retired in say 1994 aged 68, that Major would have come to the premiership as he did in 1991 in our world. Heseltine was too liberal, too populist and too pro-European to command support across the Conservative Party, yet on these grounds he could not be ignored and so perhaps would have become Major's Foreign Secretary rather than Hurd, though Heseltine did not reach his peak of influence in our world until 1995 when he became Deputy Prime Minister and even then he had suffered his first heart attack in 1993 and given Labour leader John Smith's death from a heart attack in 1994, this would have ruled Heseltine out from the premiership.
I think Tony Blair still would have won the 1997 election, after a short Major government of 1994-7, though with a larger majority it would not have been seen as so 'lame duck' as Major's was in our world. People also forget that being in power 1991-7, Major was the second longest serving Conservative prime minister of the 20th century. Of course 1984-94 for Howe would have made him the longest in our alternate world. Howe would have succeeded because he was a Thatcherite but with an ability not to provoke the hostility that Thatcher especially in her last government did. I do not think the country would be any better off following a Howe government than it was after Thatcher's. To some extent he would have been constrained by her legacy, a lot of which in the economic field, had stemmed from him anyway.
The backlash which he would have overseen following the successful assassination of Thatcher would mean that he ironically could have been more liberal because he would have a more authoritarian state at his command. This certainly would have meant very little progress in bringing about the peace process in Northern Ireland. The IRA believed that the Brighton bombing actually encouraged the British government to deal with them, but they were fortunate that they did not kill a leading minister and certainly not the prime minister because any British government in the wake of that kind of damage would have found itself to compel very similarly to the US government post-September 1991 and that would have meant a severe reduction of civil liberties and broad attacks on the group of people from which the assassins were seen as coming from. Anglo-Irish relations would have been set back to something resembling the early 1970s, so delaying the kind of progress we have seen in Northern Ireland since 1998 by twelve years or so and we would only be coming to something like the Good Friday agreement now and would not see the end of Provisional IRA violence until around 2015, meaning many more people on all sides would have died in Northern Ireland and Britain. Hopefully the authoritarian crackdown following the assassination as in other countries which have experienced such things, would have restrained Blair's steps towards to authoritarianism.
The British suffer from the fact that they believe too easily that because Britain was the 'birthplace' of democracy that we are immune from dictatorship; George Orwell foolishly believed that states with a naval focus are similarly immune neglecting Imperial Germany became more dictatorial as it acquired a larger navy and such a focus did not protect Argentina from dictatorship either. If the British had experienced the post-assassination repression of 1984-5 then they might be strong fighters now for the civil liberties they still retain. Without Thatcher the UK would still have experienced Thatcherism (though it might now be known as Howeism) because that was the economic direction in which Conservatism had been taken. However, without Thatcher it might have been tempered a little with older Conservative views that would not disregard the needs of the less fortunate in society and might not have tried to shift the blame on to them because they were seen as 'lazy' and 'undeserving' and the UK might be a place in which society is so hostile to its own people. Of course for those in power authoritarianism can be addictive and we may only now be coming out of the police state into which we moved in the mid-1980s and reinforced in the early 2000s. The successful assassination of Margaret Thatcher in 1984 might not have spared the UK what it was to suffer in the following years and may have made it far worse, but what is certain it would have been a different history to the one we experienced.