One of the worst, long-term effects of Thatcherism was the devaluation by the Iron Lady of ‘self help’. Up until her premiership, those Labour, Liberal, Tory, Marxist and Anarchist stalwarts had achieved much of their success by way of self-help.
On the left, some had been aided by family money or social position - the Foots, the Benns, the Blairs, the Toynbees. But then there were others, like the Alan Johnsons of the world, who pulled themselves up by their bootstraps.
In one fell swoop, Thatcher’s insistence on self-helping your way through life became both politically and philosophically toxic. She changed the argument on the right and amongst reactionaries, and equally, she changed the argument amongst liberals and progressives.
Hence, when someone like me advocates self-help - something that I used to get out of poverty, crime and racism, something I’ve advocated for decades - I run foul of the Thatcherised left of British politics.
To coincide with the New Year, when more of us think about our bodies than possibly at any other time, I took a novel look at the NHS.
Over the years, I’ve spoken to countless GPs, nurses, surgeons and doctors. They complained that they really needed to be helping those with problems from birth, accidents of social circumstances (code for ‘poverty’) - but that their resources were being ‘drained’ by otherwise healthy people who were taking up precious services.
This isn’t just the appalling scenes you may see in A&E during the early hours of Saturday morning, of drunks and the drugged. It’s that otherwise healthy youngsters are taking in too much sugar and other market-created junk into their systems, perpetuating a ‘terrible destructive cycle’ that cuts lives short by decades, as confirmed by the Royal College of Obstetricians and Child Health earlier today.
Last summer, a doctor pointed out to me that c.40% of all people who end up being admitted into hospital have nutritional issues, often made ill by their diet.
It’s why my novel look involves a plea: a pledge to yourself, a commitment to volunteer for the NHS by staying healthy. You might call it ‘self health’. Your way of being more useful to yourself, and, if you can, to help ease the over-pressured NHS.
My pledge triggered a mini-storm online. Some took the opportunity to make the vile suggestion that self helpers like me somehow blame the poor for their poverty. Because thanks to Thatcher’s devaluation of self help, anyone who dares talks about self helping is advocating Tory thinking.
Too often, a kind of protectional arm is proffered around the poor by those who want us to leave them alone. In the case of my pledge, all I’d suggested was that we could help more people, long-term, if the hail and hearty could look after themselves - an issue long-championed by NHS bodies across the nations.
I was born two years before the start of the NHS. I was five when I first went to school. We were given milk, cod liver oil capsules and did hundreds of hours of compulsory exercise each year.
This was in a Notting Hill slum where (on average) eight families shared one toilet. There were no bathrooms, no heating and precious little money. Yet the Welfare State had fashioned an idea that we - yes, even we - had to do our level best to prevent ourselves falling ill.
The NHS was created on the basis that there would eventually be more and more healthy people, with the ill, sick and dying buttressed by the health and financial contributions of others.
But social medicine went out the NHS window years ago, and it wasn’t replaced by anything other than a vastly bigger health service which now struggles to get you back to health. ‘The NHS gives you health. You don’t. That’s their responsibility.’
My big problem with what you might call ‘protect the poor projects’ is that they look down on the poorest amongst us as if they’re a separate species. They don’t think anyone should raise the question of self help (much less, self health).
But what about allowing - or even empowering - the poor to join us in our plenty? Where are the campaigns for that? Where’s the outrage, protest and rallies to conquer the root causes of poverty, long-term?
Allowing Thatcher to get away with it, as she pulls our progressive strings from beyond the grave, isn’t something I’m willing to subscribe to. Let self health rule where it can, and let’s spend more time and money on those that desperately need the State, and that desperately need the NHS.
I caused my first Twitter flurry last week. I hope to cause more in my defence of the poor. Not to be poor, but to find escape routes out of the oppressive limitations placed on them by a preventable poverty.
The Big Issue Group’s mission is to dismantle poverty by creating opportunity through self-help, social trading and business solutions. As well as The Big Issue Magazine, they have a social investment arm, Big Issue Invest and an online shop selling products with a ‘social echo’. Lord Bird also launched his bill in the House of Lords in 2016, aimed at helping millions of renters get fair access to credit. For more information, visit www.bigissue.com