Monday, 15 April 2013

Margaret Thatcher is dead. But our necrophile politics isn't

I was going to compile a collection of Margaret Thatcher myths which have sprung up like mushrooms after a shower in the past week. But Red Pepper got there first. It’s a good article but some points need elaboration or contestation.

The most egregious Margaret Thatcher myth is that she liberated the consumer. Just ask private renters, whose ranks are swelling daily, if they feel cherished (or even acknowledged) as consumers and brace yourself for an expletive-laden reply. The much-vaunted privatisation programme didn’t liberate the consumer. It created cartels or monopolies and captive markets, exploited by victorious corporations. There was a timely article in the Guardian newspaper on Saturday about how the six big energy suppliers in the UK have doubled their profit margins, on the back of bloated consumer prices. Thatcher privatised gas and electricity and their cost to the consumer has more than doubled in the past five years.

Rail privatisation – actually enacted by her successor John Major, though Thatcherite through and through – has resulted in ballooning taxpayer subsidies and the highest ticket prices in the world. Water bills in England and Wales are to increase by 5.7% this year. In Scotland, which retained state ownership after Thatcher privatised water in the rest of the UK in 1989, there will be no increase.

Another trademark Thatcher policy – bus deregulation – led to competition for a short time, swiftly followed by a small number of companies – in many towns, just two – becoming dominant and hiking up fares. The technical term is oligopoly.

There are five large bus companies, four big banks (too big to fail but getting bigger anyway), four big supermarkets, four big accountancy firms, and six big energy companies. There’s a pattern here. Competition in capitalist economies inexorably leads to takeovers and concentration, thus negating the original competition. It’s illuminating that the answer of the Right to the failures of privatisation and finance is more competition. Smaller banks, for example, giving the consumer more choice. To start the process again in other words. Unfortunately the end point will be the same.

It’s worth noting in passing the argument of David Schweickart in After Capitalism that worker-controlled firms would preserve genuine competition because they would be less inclined to grow and absorb the competition. Less competition means less of its opposite, monopoly.

Tell Sid he needn’t have bothered

The Thatcherite dream of a share-owning democracy – encapsulated in the ‘Tell Sid’ advertising campaign – is now so contradicted by reality that it is not even espoused by the Right. Turn up to a shareholder meeting and get outvoted, by a factor of 10,000-1, by a hedge fund based in Dubai. Although it is ironic that the value of shares, for the ordinary punters that do own them, has been maintained by huge state subsidy – otherwise known as Quantitative Easing

But on one point the Red Pepper article is wrong. The author – Alex Nunns – argues that Margaret Thatcher didn’t make people richer. The rich got richer and the poorer got poorer. But spiralling inequality and rising overall wealth are not mutually exclusive. Both happened in the 1980s. Some people, not just the already wealthy, did get richer and progress. Real wages rose.

Margaret Thatcher was immensely and deliberatively destructive. It wasn’t just the mines. Between 1980 and 1983, capacity in British industry dropped by a quarter. There were deep recessions and massive spikes in unemployment twice under her premiership. But there was also something to put in the place of that which was being destroyed. Privatisation, finance and a property boom. “What is the explanation of this curious combination of the permanent unemployment of 11% of the population with a general sense of comparative prosperity on the part of the bulk of the population?” asked the Fabian, Beatrice Webb, in 1925. There was something of that “curious combination” about the 1980s, and that goes a long way to explaining why she won three elections, albeit on a little more than 40% of the vote.

Enemies without benefits

But now, it seems to me, the current Thatcherites in power in the UK are entirely negative. There are unmistakable Thatcher re-treads – the ‘aspiration’ rhetoric, supply-side, tax-cutting and red-tape shredding, solutions as the panacea for economic stagnation, and a ‘Help to Buy’ scheme for council house tenants where once there was the flagship, ‘Right to Buy’ scheme.

But these pretences can’t displace the fact that only 20% of council tenants are in full-time employment, real wages have been stagnating or falling since 2003 (in that way, Britain is completing its Americanisation) and renting a home, as opposed to taking out a mortgage, has become common practice. A new source of growth and economic expansion – which Thatcher had up her sleeve – is nowhere on the horizon. You can’t do Thatcher twice. There’s no such thing as Big Bang mark 2.

Thatcher’s acolytes in government are, in some ways, more punitive than she ever was. The sanction regime for unemployment benefit claimants is more ruthless than anything seen in the 1980s. There are food banks all over the country now. I don’t recall them in 1988.

In truth, Margaret Thatcher’s vision of popular capitalism has died.

What we have in its place are necrophile politics and economics. Social attitudes – in terms of sex, sexuality and culture generally - have moved on in the last thirty years, but politics and economics are stuck as if in a time-warp. Even Franklin Roosevelt reaction to the 1930s Great Depression – funding huge cultural and conservation schemes – seem somehow more modern, and alive, than the current forlorn hope that the ill winds will eventually blow themselves out if we all work harder.

Whilst this once formidable Tory trailblazer is dead, her ideas are more resurgent than ever,” wrote Lynne Segal in another Red Pepper article. Despite flurries of resistance, she went on, “the left has yet to strike any real chord with the broader public.”

That is true, sadly. We have Thatcherism by default because there is no agreement about what to put in place of its rampant failure.


  1. Thanks for this great encapsulation. Measured and full of killer facts!

  2. Quick, contract it out again before anyone notices:

  3. Just to mention, the poor did get poorer under Thatcher - the incomes of the bottom tenth fell by 6 percent, according to Ian Gilmour's book Dancing With Dogma. And even discounting this, don't just write off the increase in relative poverty. Poverty is a meaningless term unless it is relative to something. For example if the whole of society moves to a model where food is sold frozen and refrigerated in supermarkets, but your income hasn't risen as fast as everyone else's and you can't afford a fridge, then you've got a real problem and it's no consolation to think that technically you've got more money than you did ten years ago. Poverty has to be defined against the standards of a specific society.

    1. Thanks for commenting. I agree with everything you say but I didn't suggest the poor didn't get poorer under Thatcher. I said that average incomes rose. That's not the case now - the average employee is now being paid 10% less than they were in 2008. I think that's a watershed difference between now and the 1980s and mirrors what has been happening in the US for a lot longer