The British ruling class reacted with great enthusiasm to Augusto Pinochet’s 1973 coup. It was, it thought, an appropriate answer to an attack on its class’s interests in Chile. Ten days after the seizure of power, Tory foreign secretary Sir Alec Douglas-Home sent a telegram to key embassies. It explained, “For British interests, there is no doubt that Chile under the junta is a better prospect than Allende’s chaotic road to socialism.
“Our investments should do better, our loans may be successfully rescheduled.” In the Commons debate on 28 November, Tory MP Sir Robin Turton intoned, “I am surprised that no one has mentioned that in September, three days before the coup, there was a three-day general strike declared by the workers of Chile. Things had come to such a pass that something had to happen.”
Without any real evidence another Tory, John Temple, claimed there had been an “enormous influx of Marxists from other countries” in the days before the coup. He detailed how “the military, who have always been strictly non-political, took very swift, decisive and fairly violent action”.
He added, “But there was no doubt that their action was fully justified.” Temple then went into the supposed testimony of people caught in the crossfire. He said a friend had thrown himself to the ground as “any sensible person in such a position when a military coup is occurring” does.
Temple went on ludicrously, “Some of the correspondents mistook some of the people who were lying on the ground for dead, when they had not been harmed at all.” In an echo of today’s debates, Harold Soref MP, a notorious racist, said, “I am apprehensive about the Chilean and other South American refugees coming to this country.
“Those who seek to come to this country as political refugees are not Chileans but originate from other South American States. In the present climate of revolutionary activity in Britain today, it would be courting disaster to bring more people here who might constitute a security risk.”
A Labour motion—“That this House deeply deplores the armed overthrow of democracy in Chile, and condemns the continuing murder, torture and imprisonments carried out by the military junta”—was defeated.
It wasn’t just MPs. The Times wrote, “Whether or not the armed forces were right to do what they have done, the circumstances were such that a reasonable military man could in good faith have thought it his constitutional duty to intervene”. Ian Gilmour, Tory shadow secretary for defence, wrote a book soon after the coup.
He said, “Conservatives do not worship democracy. For them majority rule is a device. Democracy is a means to an end not an end in itself. And if it is leading to an end that is undesirable or is inconsistent with itself, then there is a theoretical case for ending it.”
And the right didn’t just celebrate Pinochet’s coup in words. It boosted the idea that instead of compromising with workers’ organisations, it was time to confront them. This fuelled Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan’s attacks on unions and the “social democratic consensus” that emerged from the struggles of the early 1970s.
Ruling classes with their backs against the wall abandon all pretence of democracy and dump the parliamentary game. They did it in Chile, they would do it here too.
Many workers campaigned against Pinochet, sought to break links with the new regime and welcomed the 2,500 Chilean exiles who eventually settled in Britain. Just a few days after the coup 5,000 workers marched in London against Pinochet. “We condemn the collusion between the capitalist forces inside and outside Chile to defeat the democratic will of the people of Chile,” announced Labour’s Judith Hart.
At Rolls Royce aero engines in east Kilbride near Glasgow, workers took action. John Keenan, a union rep at the plant, told Socialist Worker, “The factory committee voted unanimously to condemn the coup and to support the Chile Solidarity Campaign. A union member was checking paperwork on one of the engines he was inspecting.
“He discovered it had arrived from Chile and that there were other Chilean air force jet engines. He came to the works committee and told us no way would he touch any Chilean engine. The works committee recommended that the workforce refuse to work on any Chilean engine. It asked that every shop steward hold a section meeting to argue for our recommendation.
“We were later to discover that the Chilean air force had gone to court and had been granted an order for the engines to be released. While our AUEW union had a good formal policy on Chile, the executive council member for our district instructed our works committee to lift the boycotts.
“Clearly he was coming under pressure from the company and his cronies in the Labour government. We decided to call a mass meeting of the whole workforce. It voted almost unanimously to continue the boycott.”
While he was under house arrest in Surrey in 1999, the former Chilean military dictator Augusto Pinochet received a fine malt whisky from an old friend. “Scotch is one British institution that will never let you down,” read the accompanying note from its sender—the former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher.
Thatcher was appalled that the Labour government had allowed the arrest of Pinochet while he was in London for medical treatment, overriding his diplomatic immunity. “I don’t know when or how this tragedy will end,” Thatcher told the 1999 Conservative party conference to warm applause.
“But we will fight on for as long as it takes to see Senator Pinochet returned safely to his own country. The British people still believe in loyalty to their friends.” The Labour home secretary Jack Straw released Pinochet in March 2000 on medical grounds without him facing trial. Straw had overruled a House of Lords decision to extradite Pinochet to face trial in Spain.
Protesters told Socialist Worker why they were marching