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Date: 04/05/09

Thirty Dark Years

Today marks the thirtieth anniversary of the election of Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister.

Thirty years. It seems a long time, but for those of us who were around (and politically aware) at the time, it seems almost as yesterday.

Which in a sense it is, as the actions and reactions she and her government set in train reverberate to this very day. And not necessarily in the way which is usually claimed. For the re-writing of history which has been so much a feature of recent years has all but obscured the realities of that time.

First of all, down through these past three decades, we have been fed a remorseless diet of narratives determined and designed to tell us how absolutely dreadful the second half of the nineteen-seventies were. The country was goin' to the demnation bow-wows, m'dear, wasn't it? The commie-infiltrated unions were running the country and stopping the dead from being buried, the country was bankrupt and had had to go begging to the IMF, and the punks and the wogs were running riot in our towns and cities. Weren't they?

Well, no, actually they weren't. As one who became politically aware in the middle of that decade (and culturally aware a little before that), I most emphatically do not remember the period in those apocalyptic terms. Yes, economically we had been through a difficult time earlier in the decade, with industrial strife and inflation. Most of that, however, had been under - and directly caused by - the government of Ted Heath and his lamentable booby of a Chancellor Tony Barber. It was Barber's creation - or at least encouragement - of a fake 'boom' which had fuelled inflation and caused the inevitable friction with workers in those sectors of the economy - heavy engineering and public services prominent amongst them - who were being left further behind. Add to this the consequences of the oil-exporting countries of the Middle East quadrupling the price of oil as a result of western support for Israel, and it was scarcely surprising that inflation was running at over 25% by the early months of the Wilson government.

There were still problems in industry, but they weren't just occuring (as the 'official' version of events we have been propagandised with ever since claims) in the state-owned sector. There were issues of overmanning, but it was still considered generally better for society that people be in jobs (even if those jobs may have been superfluous in a strict time-and-motion sense) than not working at all.

By the time 1978 rolled around, inflation had dropped back below 10% and was set to fall even further (bear in mind that inflation of 5-7% was not considered unusual - or particularly alarming - in all the years prior to that); unemployment too had peaked, productivity was rising - yes, even in the nationalised industries - and the balances of payments and trade were showing small but healthy surpluses. Hardly the savage and searing indictment of the failure of a firmly-regulated mixed economy which we have been told to believe it was forever thereafter.

Those who weren't around then, and who have only had the version of events as told by the punditocracy of the intervening years - and peddled from a number of apparently disparate sources (all of whom were, however, pushing the same ideological agenda) - may be forgiven for not knowing any of what I have just outlined. These facts have all been airbrushed out in an a posteriori attempt to justify what then followed.

But what about 'The Winter Of Discontent'? Well, it was a handy slogan. The unrest in the public sector which took place during late 1978/early 1979 was not, of itself, unusual, and was caused primarily by the Callaghan government not keeping its promises to some of the lowest-paid people in the whole economy. The unions - doing what unions are supposed to do (that is, defend their members rather than act as a glee club for the Labour Party or - as seems to be more than ever the case today with most of them - to be a promoter of 'cheap' loans to its hard-up members) - fought with the means at their disposal. Unfortunately, this led to things like municipal cemetaries not being staffed, which enabled the Sun and the other right-dominated rags to go happily shroud-waving and using emotive language and images in order to forward their proprietors' political and economic agendas.

Of course, none of this would have happened had not Callaghan - in an act of dithering which is impossible to forgive today, knowing what we know - chickened out of calling an election for October 1978, when the worst which was likely to happen was a very small Conservative majority; so small as to preclude the implementation of the wilder lunacies of what in those days was misleadingly called 'monetarism', the quack nostrums of the Chicago School of economists. But dither he did, the winter intervened, Callaghan didn't have the balls to face down the anti-devolutionists in his own ranks, and May 1979 saw the effective end of the Post-War Consensus.

I think it worth pointing out three things here. Firstly, for all the talk since about it being a great upheaval in British politics, it's necessary to recall just how narrow Thatcher's margin of victory actually was. Her majority was 43 seats; this was certainly larger than we had been used to in the preceding years, when Labour had governed with a sequence of overt and covert agreements with the Liberals and Nationalists, but it was hardly the swamping mandate which conventional wisdom claims (it was, for example, less than half the majority of Wilson in 1966).

Secondly, although it was always going to be the case that electing a woman as Prime Minister was going to be a break with tradition, many who voted for the Conservatives in 1979 were nevertheless under the impression that it would still be nothing more than a return to the Tory governments of the previous two or three decades - one-nation Conservatism, a bit like Heath or Macmillan but with a more dynamic tinge. What seemed to have passed most such voters by was the seismic change which had taken place in the party since the last time it had held office. The Conservative Party had always been about business and wealth foremost, but since the end of World War II it had nonetheless - albeit with varying degrees of conviction - gone along with the spirit of 1945 and its wish for a fairer society. Although Thatcher's campaign in 1979 had sought to play on that notion to a large degree (right up to the point of her mumsy-ish quoting of St Francis on the steps of Number 10 on the day of her 'coronation'), the Conservative Party by then was a very different - and more vicious - beast than its earlier incarnation. For it had been taken over by the swivel-eyed acolytes of Friedman and Hayek, calculating machines made flesh who believed that people were only as good as their economic utility and that nothing, but nothing - not social concern, not fairness, not even a sense of propriety or human decency - should be allowed to stand between a thrusting entrepreneur and the full enjoyment of profit. What the Chicago School had hitherto only been able to force upon the populations of military dictatorships in Latin America was now to be applied to a nominal democracy for the first time.

The third, comparatively minor, point, is that - despite having elected her - people didn't really take Margaret Thatcher that seriously. This was partly down to the misapprehensions about her and her party to which I've just referred, but it was largely due to the continuing refusal of the vast majority of men to take women seriously at all when they were trying to gain important positions.

So that was the political and economic hinterland of 1979; but what of the society of that time?

I'm not going to become all misty-eyed about it, because it wasn't even on the way to Utopia. There were still regressive attitudes to be found at all levels, towards women, the disabled, ethnic groups, gays and anyone who was (in some formally undefined, but generally understood, sense) 'different'. The Police were still wont to brutalise anyone (particularly in the aforementioned categories) they knew they could get away with brutalising. The extreme right was on the march, having been able to recruit from the first generation of youth with no direct knowledge of World War II and its aftermath, and there were behind-the-scenes plots from 'respectable' far-rightists to go so far as to seek to overthrow the democratically-elected government.

I know my environment at that time was not 'typical', in that it was not metropolitan or even particularly urban, and I wasn't a member of a vulnerable minority. But I was working class, I did live on a council housing estate, and I did attend a comprehensive school. All I can say is that it was still an environment where you could leave your door unlocked (to do otherwise was considered to be a sign of standoffishness), street violence was all but unknown (unless linked to a football match), public drunkenness was fairly rare, and drug-taking was largely a middle-class activity and confined to cannabis and the odd tab of acid if you were really daring. But then, we had nearly full employment, and changing jobs tended to be done only by those who wished to do so and was comparatively easy to do.

There were bugbears, of course. Sundays were deadly dull days on which not only did nothing happen, but hardly anything was permitted to happen (and this wasn't just in Wales, either), and culturally there was a quite stifling, if well-intentioned, paternalism prevalent. But we had the coming of a new music scene which was stirring things up, and new plays, TV and radio programmes which were opening the doors onto a broader view.

On the whole, though, our society was stable, peaceable and more noticeably equitable. This, of course, did not stop the ideologues of rampant individualism filling the pages of the newspapers and magazines with stories about how we were in deep crisis, how it was all the fault of the debauched, liberal nineteen-sixties, and how we needed to bring back the birch, the rope and National Service to put things right. All this, together with the deliberate mis-portrayal of our economic circumstances, combined to create a feeling of near-panic in sufficient of the populace to convince them that it was necessary to throw over ways of doing things which had served the vast majority of the population pretty well for over thirty years, and replace them with something which was little more than theory and experimentation.

And so it came to pass.

Another thing worth pointing out was that, right up to the early part of 1982, the Thatcher government was seen as being likely to serve only one term. The deliberately-engineered recession caused by what the IMF and World Bank now call 'structural adjustment' in our economy had created runaway unemployment, the social effects of which had become bloodily apparent in Scotland, Wales and the North of England; the 'short, sharp shock' retributive theory of 'Laura Norder' had set the police increasingly against those more marginalised elements in our society who had nothing left to lose but to seek to defend themselves; and the callous indifference of most of the new rulers to the effects of their policies. All of these were combining to create potential grounds for either the people to replace the government, or for the government to replace its leader and some of her more poisonous ideological baggage.

As we know, it didn't happen. Courtesy of a cabal of blundering thugs in Buenos Aires, some dodgy manouevering behind the scenes at the UN and - most of all - a campaign of the most tooth-rotting, jingoistic, flag-waving from the government and its acolytes in the gutter press; this combined with the inept leadership of the main opposition party and the creation of a spoiler party (nominally centrist, but effectively a re-hash of One Nation Toryism), led to the landslide victory of June 1983, a 144-seat majority, and the cementing-up of the entrance of the tomb of the Consensus.

This was when the froth-lipped fundamentalists knew that they could really let rip with all the most extreme and coo-coo of their ideological wet dreams. They perceived themselves as now being invulnerable and invincible, and set out to demonstrate it. Their first recession having been reduced by the necessity to tread warily, the second was more ferocious still, in extent and in depth. I well remember the mother of a dear friend of mine, when I was first introduced to her in about 1980, saying to me that she was all in favour of what Thatcher was trying to do. She and her husband had a business in the construction trade. By the mid-1980s, the business had hit the rocks and they had lost much of what they had worked hard to build up. I won't tell you what her view of Thatcher was by that time. Because, although Thatcher and her followers made much play initially of being on the side of small business and the local entrepreneurial class, this was not what they were about for long. For what Thatcherism really stood for was for the expansion of big business. And so it proved. Executives were parachuted in from large private corporations to run (or, rather, to run down) major national assets such as the coal and steel industries. Other industries, such as telecoms, which were deemed not to be expendable, were split up and sold off, with much yatter about a 'share-owning democracy'. Given that the vast majority of shares continued to be held by other large companies or the banks, this was bollocks on stilts, but the public was still convinced by it; we had entered the Age Of Advertising - The Message Was All.

No-one and nothing was to be allowed to stand in the way. Coal miners trying to save their pits, and hence any hope for the economic future of their families? Denigrate them, smear their leaders, treat them to a reign of paramilitary rule by police bussed in from elsewhere. Other workers trying to organise to defend themselves from a similar fate? Render their unions toothless, sequestrate their assets, use the welfare system to force them into capitulation and allow your friends in business to blacklist the organisers. People trying to live independent lives by travelling the country and not contributing to the profits of corporations? Ban them, herd them into fields, beat them up, yea even the pregnant women, babies and dogs thereof, and smash and burn their vehicles. There Is No Alternative! There Is To Be No Alternative!

And so we were turned into a society at war with itself. Except that, famously, there was 'no such thing as society' anymore. In a mindset reminiscent of that most wibbling of charlatans, Ayn Rand, it was declared almost to the sound of trumpets that only the individual mattered.

It is difficult to convey to people who either weren't there or weren't adversely affected what it felt like to live under such a régime. It really did feel to many of us that we were living under a form of Occupation Government. It wasn't just the torrent of propaganda from the expected sources - the government and a press which seemed to have combined into one thundering orifice called the Thatscherische Beobachter - but the underlying assumption in just about every public pronouncement on just about any subject that not only was this The Way It Was but that it was The Way It Must Be. Those who were not 'One Of Us', whether by fortune or inclination, were to be marginalised, whether they be clergymen who pointed out that the policies being followed sat ill with their promoters' claims to be Christians, writers who tried (however half-arsedly) to express the rage and despair felt by the unheard, or those who campaigned for a more humane way of organising our world. All that was needed was to point the snarling mongrels of the Sun at them, to smear them as 'communists' or 'artsy-fartsies' or 'lesbians', and 'normality' could quickly be restored.

There was a bestial, snarling, in-your-face brutalism about the level of public discourse in a time in which someone was judged by their income, where you were nothing unless you had the latest whatever, and where only losers took the (deregulated) bus. For all the snazzy fonts and colourful advertising, there was a void within, a hollow from which all thought - it seemed, all humane considerations - had been evicted, to be filled only by stuff. Acquisitive consumerism was the means to the Perfect Life: if you refused to join in, you were an object of suspicion; if you couldn't join in because you lacked the means to do so if not the will, then tough shit - you were an unperson.

Some of our best institutions were maimed in the name of all this. The BBC was branded as pinkos and traitors by odious lizards like Norman Tebbitt (we'd gone from a government full of Freds a decade before to a government of Normans), its attempts to report accurately on the rotten core of the government and the governing party were met with police raids, court cases or threats to its continued existence. Even ITV, which one would have thought was the Thatcherites' preferred media model (except, of course, that it was regulated, a word which became an insult in the contemporary lexicon), was not to escape; Thames Television's Death On The Rock, which exposed the government's lies regarding the killing of three Irish people in Gibraltar, was one of the motives behind the 1990 Broadcasting Act, which enabled the regulators to remove the company's licence to broadcast a few short years later. Our public health system, public transport, education; all were infected with the voodoo of 'market forces' which meant that 'the bottom line' (a hideous phrase seldom heard before, but parrotted ever since by those who want to make it appear that they know what's what) of profit and loss was considered more important than what those services were actually supposed to be there for. In short, we came to know the price of everything, and the value of very little.

Put briefly, it was a dark, hostile, hateful decade. I remember that in 1987, to mark the twentieth anniversary of the release of Sgt. Pepper, Channel Four had a programme about the Sixties which contained both filmed reports and round-table debates. At the end, Anthony Wilson (who was hosting the show) went round the table for each member of the panel to sum up what each thought of the Sixties. I only remember two of the participants: one of those obnoxious young Thatcherites who, being seventeen, didn't even remember the Sixties but who, being seventeen, nonetheless had Views on the matter; and the other was the great John Peel, someone who had been there, and had seen events from both sides of the Atlantic. Tory Girl (who's probably running a small hedge-fund somewhere now) went first, and went into the Authorised Version about how awful the Sixties were, how liberal permissiveness had destroyed decency, and about how socialism had ruined society. After her clockwork had wound down, Wilson turned to Peel, who had been listening with ever-increasing agitation to this wretched clone-child's wittering. Peel said something like, "When I hear stuff like that, and when I see what's going on around me today, I only wish I had the courage to become a terrorist, because I think that's all I've got left!". I - an unemployed graduate sitting at home wondering if my next Giro would last the full fortnight - literally stood up and applauded. It was that sort of a time.

But so it went on unabated: the asset-stripping of our country and the handing over of control even of our energy and water supply to merchant adventurers from outside; the running down of more and more of our basic wealth-producing industries (and the communities for which they provided work); the monomaniacal pursuit of the vision of a 'property-owning democracy' (in which only those who owned - or thought that they owned - property counted for anything); the removal of all meaningful regulation on speculation and share-trading; the sheer wilfulness of being unable to see that a form of tax (the so-called 'Community Charge') which forced the poorest to pay the same amount as the richest was about as iniquitous a measure as could possibly be devised ("Of course it's fair!", drawled the noxious Nicholas Ridley, the minister who implemented it, "How can it not be fair when the Duke and the dustman pay the same amount?"); all of this continued all but unrestrained right up to the end of the decade.

Thatcher's defenestration in late 1990 - welcome as it was - was small comfort. It was never going to be the end of an ideology which - as with all theories not grounded in the real world - had hardened into something approaching a set of religious dogmata. Those who had been central to its imposition were still there, and were likely to gain enhanced status now that the Great She was no longer there to cast her shadow of domination over them. Although the face of the policies was slightly humanised by the amiably gormless visage of John Major, we were merely entering a different part of the dark forest. Instead of the rebarbative rent-a-quote MPs of the Eighties - Peter Bruinvels, Anthony Beaumont-Dark, David Evans - we now had their equivalent at ministerial level - Michael Howard, Anne Widdecombe, Peter Lilley. The casual viciousness was much the same, whether it was Howard's removal of the right of silence of arrestees, Widdecombe insisting that a female prisoner was shackled to the hospital bed while giving birth, or Lilley's 'little list' of entire categories of people he wanted to debar from the welfare system.

It was to be another six and a half years before they, too, were gone. But anyone sufficiently deluded to believe that the election of a man who had torn the Labour Party rightwards in the previous three years was going to change anything fundamental about the 'givens' of the way in which things were done should have had the scales fall from their eyes soon enough. The virus of Marketism doesn't kill its host; it merely causes a permanent modification of the host's behaviour so as best to benefit the virus. And so, the marketisation of public services (either by direct sell-off, by the importation of private sector managers and management techniques, or by handing large sums of public money over to private companies to guarantee their profits twenty or thirty years hence) has continued, at an accelerated pace in many instances. Added to this has been a new strain of the disease - managerialism - which has meant that most of the much-vaunted increased spending in the public sector since 1997 has gone not on providing better front-line services, but on employing an ever-larger cadre of management whose sole purpose is to monitor everything right down to the paper-clip level, and to tick the appropriate boxes (or to ensure that others tick them). This is the inevitable result of the setting of 'targets' for overtly political purposes: after all, if you set targets, you have to be able to measure them, and you can't do that unless you fill in all the sheets. And someone has to collate all that information for £35 000+ p.a., don't they?

Overlay all that with a level of social authoritarianism which has long been at the Fabian heart of the Labour Party, and which it now felt safe to impose (feeling that if the public sat quiet for Thatcherism and all that it did, it would sit still for anything), and we find ourselves where we are today.

We are a disordered country, in a way that we weren't thirty years ago. We are now in the second generation of people who have grown up scarcely knowing what a proper job (or any job at all) is, who have never known what it really means to be a functioning part of a successful community. And, as an inevitable consequence, we have more mental illness, more alcohol dependency (and its associated violence), more drug use and more completely wasted lives than we could ever have imagined thirty years ago today, when our land was led, as eager as a Labrador puppy, down the path of a vicious socio-economic experiment which has consumed the lives and the value of millions of us and our neighbours.

And yet there are still many who are willing - as does the appalling Bruce Anderson in today's Independent - to vest Margaret Thatcher with the mantle of Greatness, to say that she was always right (except when she wasn't vicious enough). All I can say is to adapt a famous phrase relating to an earlier decade:

If you remember the Eighties with affection, you weren't really there.