Thatcherism is Alive and Well in the UK

by October 6, 2015
filed under Activism


Let us step back in time to the late 1970s when Margaret Thatcher, the leader of the Conservative party (otherwise known as the ‘Tories’), was elected Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. Her victory came at a time of great industrial unrest, with powerful trade unions locked in constant struggles with various government policies over wages and workers’ rights. While many people were (rightfully) thrilled at the thought of Britain having its first female Prime Minister, it quickly became clear that she was far from interested in women’s rights, whilst in broader society her belligerent approach to industrial relations would make her a divisive figure. Her win, without a doubt, was the watershed for a period of radical political and social change. She followed a policy of ‘Monetarism’ – seeking to control spending in order to lower inflation – that involved higher interest rates and taxes. While this did reduce inflation, it also saw a spike in unemployment that reached three million, an all-time high, and sent the country into a deep recession. Public services, such as hospitals, transportation and schools were running on empty. Industrial strife turned into open and ugly conflict with the miners’ strike of 1984. Eventually, 150 coal mines were closed, devastating entire communities. Three decades later, there are constituencies, especially in the north of England, that are still recovering from these crippling events.

In the 2010 UK General Election, no party got enough votes for an outright majority win, so the Conservatives, as the party with the most votes, formed a coalition government with the smaller Liberal Democrats. This has meant that David Cameron, the leader of the Conservative party, has been our Prime Minister for the last five years – but he’s had to work alongside Nick Clegg, the leader of the Lib Dems. Clegg claims to have acted as a ‘brake’ to countless Tory bill proposals – although not in the case of two important areas: An increase in student tuition fees and, critically, Cameron’s decision to renege on a promise not to re-organize the UK’s National Health Service (NHS).

But fast forward to right now. The UK just held an election, and Cameron won by a small majority. He’ll be Prime Minister for another 5 years, but this time it’ll be without the buffer of Clegg. Mark my words: History is about to repeat itself. We need to brace ourselves for another five years of Thatcherism.

Within 24 hours of the Conservative’s re-election, Cameron slashed a disabled work access scheme, a fund put in place to help employers and employees cover costs of disabilities that might be a barrier to work. Within days, he’d appointed Michael Gove as Justice Secretary – a former Murdoch journalist who, when in charge of Education, was almost universally despised by teaching professionals for his simplistic, 1950s ideals and confrontational style. In his new role, Gove’s main focus is to repeal the Human Rights Act. That’s right – according to Gove, some people don’t deserve rights. Cameron then appointed Mark Harper as Chief Whip – the same Mark Harper who, as Immigration Minister in 2013, approved and launched a flurry of lorries with the slogan ‘Go Home or Face Arrest’ painted on the side, which were then pointedly driven around areas where immigrants and ethnic minorities were known to be living. A favourite of mine, though, is the new appointment of Caroline Dinneage – an MP (member of Parliament) who voted against same-sex marriage – as Cameron’s Minister for Equalities. Yes, you read that correctly. An MP in charge of equality, who voted against equality.

So, what does the UK have to look forward to next? More privatization of public services, of course. Under earlier Tory Governments, we’ve already said goodbye to all our main utilities such as energy, water and railways – all of which have been sold to (mostly) foreign investors and unaccountable hedge funds. Only last year, Her Majesty’s own dear Post Office was flogged-off at well below its value (no surprise there). Perhaps most worryingly though, the NHS – something millions rely on for high quality, free-at-the-point-of-use healthcare which they could not otherwise afford – is having key services put out to ‘competitive tender.’ Sections of it have already been sold off, such as blood transfusion services and some local GP clinics, and ‘unsocial hours’ payments – extra money for nurses that work on Saturdays and Sundays – are next on the cut list. So try not to get ill on the weekends.

So why, then, did people vote Conservative? Surely those with even the briefest knowledge of the UK’s political history would steer away from voting Tory, considering how much of our country was decimated under Thatcher? Well, two things are worth noting at this point: 1) most people didn’t vote Conservative (only 24% did so – but then we have an arcane voting system, and that’s a different article altogether); and 2) almost all who did vote Tory, live in the more prosperous south of England. Other parts of the UK, most notably Scotland, voted against the Tories in vast numbers. In other words, our non-proportional ‘first-past-the-post’ voting system is deeply flawed. But like I said – that’s a different article altogether.

Interestingly, most people I’ve talked to who voted Tory – the ones that didn’t flounce off in a huff the minute I whispered ‘privatization’ – have expressed to me that above all, our economy is what matters to them most. And sure, the Tories proposed more cuts than any other party – which in theory means a better economy, right? Wrong. The Tory narrative is that Labour ‘crashed the economy’ and ‘maxed-out the credit card’ (they didn’t; it was an international banking crisis, not profligate spending which raised public debt) and that the way to fix things is to cut, cut and cut again. The argument – which is pure Thatcherism – is that you can equate a national economy to a household budget. It’s a simple concept that makes for an excellent sound-bite, but it’s far from truthful; few real-world economists would suggest that you shouldn’t borrow to invest for the future. So it’s cuts vs. tax rises and borrowing for investment. And don’t forget where all of these cuts are taking place: Our public sector. The reason for this? The rich, who are the most likely to vote Tory in the first place, don’t rely on public services the way the poor do. The rich don’t need public transport, free healthcare, in-work benefits, low tuition fees or food banks – the poor do. And the poor – who, by the way, is anyone who makes less than £100k a year – make up the majority of our society. (Cameron, of course, knows nothing about being poor. He was in a club at university where to join, you have to make an outrageous statement of your riches – most popularly, burning a £50 note in front of a homeless person). What Tory voters fail to realize is that without public investment in our society, there is no economy. We need to care about society. We need to care about communities. How can anyone possibly justify condemning millions to ‘zero-hours’ jobs, two-tier healthcare and a severe housing crisis, all in the name of an economic revival that benefits only the rich? Talk about cognitive dissonance.

The mainstream media is also undoubtedly partly responsible for the Tory win. Printed news outlets and their online equivalents – 80% Tory-supporting – railed belligerently and noisily against the opposition, guns blazing, picking up on anything and everything that might make them look bad. As the Cameron campaign toured the country, he made frequent slip-ups, blundering through speeches (“This is a career-defining election… sorry, I meant country-defining”), and was criticized by fellow Tories for running a ‘lacklustre’ campaign. Despite these shortcomings, however, he managed to escape unscathed from any real media scrutiny. Meanwhile, the leader of the opposition, Labour party leader Ed Milliband, couldn’t even eat a snack in peace without being ridiculed. An image of him hastily eating a sandwich, bacon falling from his mouth, was plastered all over the front pages, and became an internet meme within hours. This was blatant character assassination by the Tory media.

Voting for the Conservatives will not ‘save our economy’ for ordinary people. Britain’s economic growth actually halved in the first three months of 2015. Tax avoidance rose to a whopping £35 billion last year, but of course, Tories were busy using immigrants, low earners and those who are on benefits (benefit fraud, by the way, makes up a mere 0.7% of all UK welfare claims) as a scapegoat to hide the bigger picture – the bigger picture being that big corporations are the ones responsible. HMRC has reportedly been sitting on a list of 1,000 UK tax evaders for the last five years, yet only one person has been prosecuted. Meanwhile, MPs continue to claim expenses on absurdities such as duck houses, lavish breakfasts, light bulb replacements and horse manure. All true stories. Google it.

Cameron’s proposed cuts of £12 billion will create extraordinary human damage. It’s all very well to stroll along in your Burberry coat and Hunter wellingtons in wealthy Southern England, cutting things left, right and centre in the name of ‘fixing the economy thanks to Labour’s mess’ – but you’re hitting vulnerable people who are already on their knees. As a nation, we’ve forgotten our common humanity. The attitude of this country is now, apparently, ‘every man for himself’. We’ve been divided between the rich and the selfish, and the poor and the helpless.

Three or four years ago, the Conservatives divested the responsibility of providing universal healthcare from central government to local arrangements. Profit-based business interests are slavering at the prospect of cherry-picking those NHS services that require the least expenditure – leaving what remains to the shrinking publicly-run core. Fast-forward a few years. Someone gets diagnosed with cancer, and they’re handed a bill. They’ll see the number at the bottom and their stomach will drop. Their mouth will dry up and their hands will start to shake, and they’ll slowly begin to realize that they cannot afford their own treatment. Now imagine if that person is a child.

Give it time. People will eventually sit up and realize that cutting people where it hurts is not the answer – but by then, it’ll be too late.

Published in the Summer 2015 issue of FLURT.

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