The Blog

Margaret Thatcher and the New Precariat

The curious thing about Thatcher was not so much that she was divisive, but that in a funny way she actually united people around the idea that politics and economics were important again.

We are led to believe that these are conservative times, but the Conservative Party have not won a plurality of the vote in over twenty years. For a quarter-century their leaders have faced wars of attrition, of one sort or another. This is a worse run of results for the Conservatives than during Liberal Governments of the early twentieth century. The last time the Conservative Party performed as badly, nationally, they were being beaten by the Whigs.

Margaret Thatcher has become part of the modern creation myth of the Conservative Party. Year-Zero starts and ends with the Blessed Margaret for the party that supposedly values history. All parties do this, build myths to justify their present. Tony Blair built a reputation as the man who tamed Labour by taking on Clause Four, a largely symbolic act that meant little to those outside of the Labour Party (would Prime Ministers Kinnock or Smith really have nationalised the banks?) But he flogged that horse for all it was worth to convince the country that a man without a day of ministerial experience had the battle-scars worthy of a world leader.

Camborne Conservatives, who are an ever-shrinking part of the actual Conservative Party, have never bothered to think about their own creation myth beyond a rather vague feeling that Thatcher was always right, Brown is always to blame, and Blair and Major never existed. As this data shows, inequality jumped vividly and dramatically in Thatcher's Britain, more so than in Reagan's America which pursued similar policies during the very same years that Conservatives claim Thatcher was saving the country from national ruin.

Britain had a broadly similar income distribution before 1979 to Germany and the Netherlands, but then in the 1980s and 1990s became more like the US and Canada. Despite being locked into the wider Euro-crisis, Germany and the Netherlands have fared better in the Great Recession than the UK. Dutch public debt was 70% of GDP in 2012 and German unemployment was 5.4%. By comparison, British public debt was 90% and unemployment 7.8%. A widely-reported survey has identified a class of people as the 'New Precariat', neither rich nor poor, but for whom social mobility has permanently stalled. This new class is Thatcher's legacy.

It is not that the figures are disputed by Conservatives, they just don't think that they are relevant. The mind-set, based on a Thatcherite-pastiche of growth being the only economic output that matters, considers inequality, at best, to be a regrettable but unavoidable by-product of economics, and probably a sign that swathes of the population just remain morally weak.

Because the myth that Margaret Thatcher saved the economy is unquestioned (and as a result unfleshed-out) Conservatives are sleepwalking, again, into a decoupling from the electorate whose buttons Thatcher was so adept at pushing. Will Hutton and Polly Toynbee both make the point that those seeking to canonise Thatcher and use her death to sanctify present economic policy are conspicuously silent about how Thatcherite economics, largely unchanged under Labour and certainly not in the last three years, failed to prevent an economic stagnation that is already longer than the Great Depression.

Pre-emptive outrage at those celebrating the death of Thatcher (which was actually surprisingly muted) and predictable BBC-bashing by the Mail and Telegraph for reporting the news of other people being rude about Thatcher, rather than actually being rude themselves, smacks of a prickly, defensive, conservatism characteristic of the American Tea Party who bully away until they are called on it, at which point they play the victim card. And it certainly seems like using a dead pensioner for short-term political advantage rather than properly defending her legacy.

Conservatives have never accepted the premise that prosperity depends on more than just economic growth. The experience of Canada, Scandinavia, and increasingly several US States are just ignored. The sanctification of Thatcher takes up an extended news-cycle in which the Government can avoid talking about their lack of a plan to re-balance the economy away from the forces of finance and towards the forces of production.

Camborne have been glad to jump on the bandwagon of Thatcherite salvation, hoping to bask in some reflected glory, because they think that her legacy somehow validates their vague, muddled idea (I hesitate to say 'ideology') that market efficiency is only ever compromised by government.

The show-down with the miners, who were characterised as luddites who wouldn't accept that the world had changed, is somehow recruited in the cause of legitimising modern Conservative economics. But market forces didn't close down the mines - government policy did. The logic of market forces, the right keeps reminding us, is that if there is a problem the market will fix it. If closing the mines creates one problem you create an equal opportunity in the shape of a large pool of unused labour with particular skills, all conveniently located in one place. The market will respond to these opportunities to create new work in more specialised (and therefore more profitable, better paid) industries.

The communities of South Wales and South Yorkshire may have a different take on whether call-centres, government offices and supermarket jobs count as market specialisation. The decline was not managed by the benevolent invisible hand, it was managed by the clenched fist in the shape of police power and the soft cushion of unemployment and - this was the real change - incapacity benefits. Thatcher intervened in the market just as surely as if she had continued to subsidise coal forever.

In the Iron Lady film, Thatcher (Meryl Street) berates colleagues for not knowing the price of a tub of margarine. Whether this is part of the Thatcher-myth or not, I can't say. The idea of a Prime Minister who built her reputation on being the most serious person in the room instructing civil servants to brief her daily on the price of domestic groceries is slightly incredible. What is less plausible still is either Cameron or Osborne being concerned about the price of margarine, or even being canny enough to try and create the myth. This Government is Karaoke-Thatcher, it follows the rough tune but it is clearly not the real thing.

Thatcher's record is cited both by those who believe that inequality is bad and by those who think that free market economics is the only way to make everyone richer. The curious thing about Thatcher was not so much that she was divisive, but that in a funny way she actually united people around the idea that politics and economics were important again. As the cuts bite, and it begins to dawn on Camborne that thirty-year old myths aren't the same thing as actual ideas, they may begin to wish too that Thatcherism was being buried along with its namesake.