An Historian

historical stuff by Gareth Millward


It’s 1981 again!


The United Nations declared 1981 the International Year of Disabled People. Around the world, events were planned to bring attention to the achievements and struggles of disabled people. Margaret Thatcher and her government decided one way to do this would be to hold a reception for important figures in the field.

Colin (now Lord) Low wasn’t having any of it.

On 12 January 1981, he wrote a letter to the Prime Minister declining her invitation. The incredible thing about it is that it wouldn’t have seemed out of place over 21 years later.

Dear Prime Minister

I am gratified that you should do me the honour of inviting me to the reception on 19th January… However, I have felt unable to accept for the following reasons:-

Your Government came to office on a pledge to safeguard the weakest in society and those genuinely unable to look after themselves, like the disabled, from the ill-effects of public expenditure cuts. Yet far from doing this, your Government appears to be seeing to it that the disabled are prime targets of the holocaust. … The Government now pays lip service to the notion of integration, but refuses to provide any of the resources necessary to actually make it possible.

Mr Reg Prentice, who is supposed to be your Minister for the Disabled, has made it abundantly clear that the Government intends to do nothing for [them], but rather to leave it all to the voluntary sector. At a time when one and a half billion pounds has just been given back in tax to those best off in our society, he also adds insult to injury – and intelligence – by telling the disabled that he is treating them as equals by treating them to equality of sacrifice. …

Your Government’s attacks upon the disabled might be easier to stomach if I believed for one moment your doctrinaire insistence that they are an unpalatable necessity brought about by inescapably economic forces. But I reject this farrago of nonsense in every particular. I am no trained economist – neither are you for that matter – but even I can see that the last thing one should do in conditions of runaway unemployment is decimate the level of demand in the economy by swingeing wage and public expenditure cuts.

This is kamikase economics…. Public expenditure is not the wicket abstraction that you paint it. Public expenditure is ‘phones and aids and home helps for disabled people, and staff to get them up and help them to bed and wash them when they need to. What I so deplore about your political style is its basically dishonest and anti-intellectual resort to simple-minded slogans that appeal to the basest and most irrational sentiments.

When your Government begins to listen to what ordinarily moderate and sensible people have to say, it will be a pleasure to talk to you in somewhat less astringent terms.

Colin Low to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, 12 July 1981.
Peter Townsend Collection, University of Essex.

And this is an edited version. The full two-page put down of the government is incredibly well-written. Anyone researching the topic could do worse than head into the archive and check it out, along with the wealth of material deposited by Professor Townsend on the Disability Alliance.

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