The Age of Austerity (aka Thatcherism Redux)

I remember the Winter of Discontent. I was nine years old and my family wondered whether we would be able to bury my recently deceased (and much-loved) grandfather. I even vaguely remember the evening when Labour lost the Commons no confidence vote that led to the 1979 election. But what I remember most about 1979 was the figure Margaret Thatcher standing in Downing Street, quoting the words of St Francis of Assisi. How hollow those words seem now, viewed from a distance of 30 years. What followed was hardly designed to bring harmony or hope to anyone.

David Cameron’s speech today to a Conservative gathering in Cheltenham promises an era of fiscal conservatism for any incoming Conservative government, vowing to “replace Labour’s spendaholic government with a new government of thrift”. To me, this sounds very much like a restatement of the public spending ethos of the Thatcher governments of the early 1980’s, reinforced by his assertion that he had ‘always been a fiscal conservative’.

This is not good news, but hardly surprising given that Cameron did not experience the privations of the 1980’s at the sharp end. No, he spent much of that time at Eton and then at Oxford, where he and his Bullingdon chums were smashing up restaurants for a laugh, just because they could. The closest he will have come to the economic and social hardship that ensued from job losses at nearby Cowley would have been the pinched and worried faces of the plebs struggling to get by in Oxford’s city centre.

The wide-ranging effects of Thatcherism are being felt even today, and not just in narrow economic terms. Huge swathes of our industrial base were allowed to go to the wall. This did not even happen in the suposedly rapacious free-market America of Reagan. Protectionism was rife and, as a result, the American steel industry, for example, enjoyed the sorts of aid that many of our industries did not.

Places like Corby and Consett are a testament to this. They used to make steel in Consett. What do they make now? Crisps. Delicious crisps admittedly, but crisps all the same. Nearby places like Trimdon could no longer support working communities once their pits closed. No one builds ships in Sunderland any more and the captial intensive regenerations on the Tyne, Wear and Tees have not come close to solving the problems that the death of those areas’ native industries created. They are now some of the most deprived areas of the country, sharing much in common with South Wales, which had been similarly defenestrated by Thatcherism.

One consequence of these acts of economic vandalism was that social structures that were sustained by these industries, like apprenticeships, were destroyed. Young school-leavers were placed into adult working environments, were shown positive male role models and given reposnsibility. When those industries, like ship building, died, those structures died with them. Thirty years on, they have still not been replaced. Successive governments have not addressed the problems, instead focusing on the narrow taks of satisfying a fickle middle class who will float between parties for the greatest gain.

This ‘fiscal conservatism’ did not extend to credit though, did it? No, the 1980’s were the era when the fetters that had held consumer credit in check were removed. This was the beginning of the era of mass consumption and the mantra of, ‘look after yourself’ (remember ‘There is no such thing as Society’, anyone?). This social Darwinism has pervaded our national consciousness since then. As a result we asa country are shallower, more venal and greedier than ever we were. The tragedy is that no government since 1979 has sought to roll back that venality, preferring to ride on the dizzying and instantly gratifying soma rush of the consumer wave.

Cameron’s promises seem doomed to repeat the same mistakes: massive public service cuts; regressive systems of taxation (including VAT); increasing unemployment and greater social inequality. What does this mean? An even more polarised society than we have now, with the richest, who fund the political system, benefitting the most, swiftly followed by the middle classes that the political class cannot afford to upset.

In the end, David Cameron’s speech does nothing to address any of these issues, merely rehashing a bankrupt and outdated view of a political mindset that became irrelevant at the same time as the Berlin Wall fell. And it should stay that way.

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