Thatcher’s legacies

CC Image courtesy of roberthuffstutter on Flickr

CC Image courtesy of roberthuffstutter on Flickr

In a week that has seen a number of events to discuss the legacy of Thatcher it seems timely to offer my own reflection. This year marks the 30th anniversary of my participation in the Greenham Common protests against Trident. It was a moment in time in which the threat of nuclear devastation was portrayed as imminent and real. Public health broadcasts told us to ‘duck and cover’ in the event of nuclear attack (apparently all we needed was a table to hide under and a stockpile of tins and we could survive the fallout and ensuing nuclear winter). As incredible as this seems now, at the time the fear of nuclear war felt very real. While perhaps today that threat is as real as it was then, societal fear has been refocused away from an identifiable and external threat to unknown and unidentified perceived threats within our own communities.

From a feminist perspective the legacy of Thatcher is a paradoxical one. Even for those that reject her political ideology, becoming the first woman to hold the office of Prime Minister could be seen as a cause for celebration. No matter that in order to do so she adopted intrinsically ‘male’ characteristics (notably the dropping of her voice an octave) while clutching a handbag to demonstrate that she really was a ‘lady’ (all be it one made of iron).

During the late 1970s and 1980s the alliance of Thatcher and the right wing press worked to undermine a movement that was built on the collective spirit of women working for peace. Derided as ‘dykes in dungarees’ the Women’s Peace Camp at Greenham, and by extension the feminist movement, was relegated to the ‘loony left’ fringes of political and social debate. It seemed not to matter that those who devoted themselves to this cause were an eclectic mix of women, from a variety of socio-economic backgrounds, ages and sexualities, whose collective endeavour was to secure a peaceful world for future generations and move away from the (in)security of bi-polar ‘realpolitik’. The attack on the women’s movement from the right relegated it, and feminism with it, to the outer reaches of political debate. This paved the way for the tawdry reconstruction of feminism as ‘girl power’ a decade later, where liberation was to be achieved via a celebrity wedding and a push up bra. So much for Thatcher’s feminist legacy. Even for those who contest the idea that patriarchy is quantifiable, the fact that of the 650 MPs in the House of Commons only 147 of them are women is an important empirical argument. Perhaps this is something that will be reflected on by the (all male) panel that discusses Thatcher’s legacy today.

Three decades after Thatcher procured Trident II, to replace Trident I, it still exists. Only the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Green Party are opposed to its replacement by a new system, with debate centred on opportunity costs in relation to social spending (running to tens of billions of pounds). However a strong argument still exists in relation to the notion of security through nuclear deterrence. Our seas are constantly patrolled by Trident submarines. “Each submarine carries an estimated eight nuclear missiles, each of which can carry up to five warheads – 40 in total. Each warhead has an explosive power of up to 100 kilotons of conventional high explosive. This is 8 times the power of the nuclear bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima in 1945, killing an estimated 240,000 people from blast and radiation.” (CND 2013) The potential for ‘mishap’ should make us stop and think, let alone that the idea that the world is made secure by the threat to annihilate millions of children, women and men and to destroy the planet.

The Women of Greenham Common understood the contradictions inherent in this conceptualisation of security. I was part of that demonstration and of a broader network of radical activist students that resided in UK universities and schools in the 1980s, but are much less visible now. Universities have seen a change in their character, led by restructuring on a national and global scale, and with that much of the terrain and spirit of student politics has changed. This is but one of many regrettable legacies of Thatcher.

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Free events next week

Wednesday 15th May 14.30-16.00 Leeds Metropolitan University: Rose Bowl 515

Politics and Applied Global Ethics Seminar:  “Trilemma Forcefields in the Eurozone Crisis: Neoliberal Mechanism

Designs at the Breaking Point”, Gary Dymski, Professor and Chair in Applied Economics Leeds University Business School

Wednesday 15th May 6 pm Leeds Metropolitan University: BPA 101

Leeds Taking Soundings and Politics and Applied Global ethics presents

‘The Thatcher Moment’

This is a  round-table discussion about the significance of Margaret Thatcher’s legacy.

Matthew Caygill, Pamela Fisher and Alex Nunn (all Leeds Met University) will  each speak for up to 15 minutes.

Friday 17th May 1100-1230 Leeds Metropolitan University Rose Bowl, Lecture Theatre B

Mrs Thatcher’s contested legacy: the Prime Minister who “made our country great again”?

A panel discussion followed by Q&A With

Alec Shelbrooke MP (Conservative, Elmet and Rothwell)

www.parliament.uk/biographies/commons/Alec-Shelbrooke/3997

 Fabian Hamilton MP (Labour, Leeds North East)

www.parliament.uk/biographies/commons/Fabian-Hamilton/415

 Paul Blackledge, Professsor of Political Theory, Leeds Metropolitan University

www.leedsmet.ac.uk/research/paul-blackledge.htm

To book please visit:  www.leedsmet.ac.uk/employability/guest-speakers.htm

These are all free and all are welcome to attend.

Maps and directions are here: http://www.leedsmet.ac.uk/about/files/campusmaps.pdf

The Six Legacies of Thatcherism

I spoke recently in Manchester at the April meeting of the Transpennine Working Group of the Conference of Socialist Economists (http://csetranspennine.wordpress.com/) and will do so again on the 15th May to the Leeds Taking Soundings group (http://www.takingsoundings.org.uk/), on the legacy of Thatcherism.  The result is a longer than expected draft paper on the subject (click here to read).

The first point made in the paper is that Thatcher’s legacy is easily over-stated, by both supporters and detractors.  The basic gist of the over-statement of Thatcher’s legacy is that she was responsible for neo-liberal reform in Britain, that either (to supporters) transformed UK competitiveness and overcame structural barriers to continued capitalist growth; or (to detractors) destroyed the industrial base, led to rising inequality and left the UK with intractable social and economic problems.  The paper rejects this analysis, arguing that neo-liberal reform in the UK started a long time prior to the Thatcher government’s of 1979-1990 and has continued apace since that time.  In this context, it is necessary to understand the particular contribution of Thatcherism as a ‘first phase’ in neo-liberal reform, concerned with deconstructing the social and institutional structures of post-war social democracy.  The succeeding part of the project, pushed through by New Labour was concerned with a ‘second phase’ in Neo-Liberalism, designed to recreate new social and institutional structures to contain some of the problems associated with Thatcherism/first-phase reform.

In this context I identify six major legacies from Thatcherism:

  1. A crisis in the neo-liberal project – by 1990 the most immediate legacy of Thatcherism was a crisis in the neo-liberal project she promoted.  The extension of market discipline had created long-term structural unemployment, rising inequality and the weaknesses in economic strategy undermined rather than strengthened the UK position in the international economy.  Rising social divisions, crime and fear of crime and a housing market collapse undermined Thatcher’s weak political coalition.
  2. A transformation in party politics – the way in which New Labour confronted this challenge completed the transformation of party political choice that had been underway since the Labour government of 1976 chose to implement neo-liberal reform under advice from the IMF.  New Labour uncritically accepted the discourse of globalisation as a structural reality and set about the promotion of social justice as a subordinate concern to the prior objective of ensuring the competitiveness of ‘capital operating in Britain’ (to use Jessop et al.’s phrase).  New Labour would extend privatisation into parts of the welfare state not touched by Thatcherism and would pursue a more comperehensive strategy to promote competitiveness, leaving inequality unchecked.
  3. The neo-liberal individual – Thatcher is often associated with the controversial statement that ‘there is no such thing as society’.  Ofcourse, this is a vacuous claim, but New Labour was in fact responsible for the pursuit of some of the individualism that Thatcher is more commonly associated with. Underpinning New Labour’s pursuit of neo-liberal reform was a concern to activate the unemployment, promote upward mobility and to inculcate a more competitive work force. The aim of the (mainly supply side) policies associated with this was to drive down competitiveness to the level of the individual. This was attempted however, in a much more sophisticated way than those under Thatcher. To see the results of this walk into a primary school classroom and look for evidence of targets, read a primary school report to identify an individual child’s targets and strategies for improvement.  Look at the desparate scrambling of University departments to make their graduates employable.  Talk to parents and listen to politicians.  The currency of the day is a logic of individual competitiveness expressed as a preference for aspiration, ambition and struggle for advantage in a social hierarchy that is much more unequal than it was in the 1970s. Whether we like it or not, we are all neo-liberal now.
  4. Widespread engagement with the financial markets – A simple point to make.  Think credit cards, mortgages, life insurance, pensions.  The breadth (i.e. the sheer proportion of the population) and depth (the extent to which our current and future livelihoods) of dependence on the financial sector is far greater than it was in the 1970s and this is directly attributable to policies of financial deregulation; the promotion of individual home ownership; the cheapening of wages etc.
  5. The fractured and unconscious working class – recent opinion polls undertaken for the British Social Attitudes Survey show a weakening of solidarity over time. They demonstrate a decreasing preference for welfare and increasing tendencies toward harshness in the welfare regime, and this is progressively more entrenched for younger age cohorts, with those born during and since the 1980s being the least generous in their disposition.  This tendency not only took shape in the Thatcher period in office, it accelerated during the rule of New Labour.  It is part of the explanation for why the current government is able to cut welfare benefits and increase (already harsh) conditionality at a time when we know poverty is accelerating and opportunities in the labour market are relatively scarce, and even working families are dependent on welfare because of the low level of wages.
  6. The economic position of Britain – I don’t make the argument fully in the paper but a sixth legacy relates to the repositioning of the UK economy in the global economy. It includes de-industrialisation, which again proceeded apace during but also after Thatcher’s decade in government, and has left the UK stuck with many uncompetitive, low pay and low skill equilibrium industries. This enhances our vulnerability to global market competition, and further exacerbates the problems above.  If I develop the paper further, I’ll be sure to include a fuller analysis of this.

If you are interested, and you want to know more, then come along to Taking Soundings on the At 6pm on Wednesday 15th May 2013, in AG10 Broadcasting Place, LMU, Woodhouse Lane, Leeds.