Monday, 4 May 2009

1979: remembering history to change the future

What a strange experience watching some of the election coverage from 1979. Was there a more consequential election in the post-war period apart from the immediate post-war election? Other than strange reminders that the Britain we see in this coverage has some distant connection with Britain today- like the fact that David Dimbleby presents the election night show then as now- it seems a distant place, one that I neither remember nor fully understand. Such a lot of discussion about 'Rhodesia', trade union leaders appearing in interviews alongside Tory politicians, Chairmen of large corporations invited in as election guests, make Britain in 1979 seem like some etiolated post-imperial, corporatist state. Hmmm, maybe that is what it was.

I do obviously remember the 1980s. My first election memory is actually the 1983 election night. I remember there being a very bleak mood in the Painter household and the strange word 'landslide' abounding. Of course, I didn't know what it meant but it didn't sound at all good. All those unemployed, the riots, things seemed to be in a bit of state and yet people were voting for this pantomime baddie in frilly blue dresses. What a peculiar way adults had of conducting their affairs. Well, at least a Liverpool league victory could always be relied on.

Growing up in a small town on the edge of Birmingham and going to school in the shadow of the Austin Rover factory as it then was, the consequences of Thatcherism were obvious. Industrial decline was an everyday fact of like. Driving up the A38 towards what was the Rover factory recently, like suddenly reaching down and discovering a limb missing, that factory is no more. It would be churlish to lay the blame for the closure of the Rover factory squarely at the door of Thatcherism but its decline was symbolic of broader industrial decline. In fact, industrial decline, certainly in the early years of Thatcher, seemed almost willful. Britain's 1979 economy had structural weaknesses with declining terms of trade; the type of industrial policy and industrial relations that were achieved in Japan and Germany never succeeded in Britain. Access to a single market such as the United States had was never there until the UK had joined the EEC just a few years previously or maybe not until the Single European Act in 1986.

To these deep structural issues, Margaret Thatcher took a scalpel. The only problem is that along with the rotten tissue she cut away much that was healthly. Communities, many reliant on these industries, still suffer today. This masochistic approach to economic management wasn't sustainable so eventually the economy was reflated, growth returned, and the first shoots of an economy based on finance, consumerism, and house price inflation was seen. That is the economic paradigm that has just come to a cataclysmic conclusion with the credit crunch.

Thatcherism was as much a cultural concept as a political one. With the economic approach came a state of mind where getting on became the dynamic; the measurement was what you could conspicuously consume. If anything, my generation was the one which epitomised this attidude. Greed was good no matter how it was financed or who you had to tread on. I have often reflected that this may have horrified Mrs Thatcher at various times. Was Loadsamoney really the vision she had for Britain when she entered office on May 4th 1979? What would Alfred Roberts have made of such characters?

This is the twin tragedy of Thatcherism. It changed Britain forever at enormous and unnecessary cost but it also consumed itself. Socially it was obnoxious and damaging. Economically, Britain returned to growth but it was unequally distributed and highly unstable. A sober England- and Thatcherism was an English ideology- of thrifty, hard-working, protestant capitalists with moral standards living in market towns with local pride and expressive patriotism, was not the nation that Margaret Thatcher left as her legacy in 1990.

Margaret Thatcher embarked on the last grand attempt we have seen at social and economic engineering. It failed. We are still searching for something to replace it. Labour in government has confronted- successfully in many ways- the more objectionable social consequences of the ideology. The current economic crisis we find ourselves in will provoke a deeper rethink. Margaret Thatcher killed the Britain that I am watching on BBC Parliament currently. It is a myth of the Right that this was entirely for the better. It was not in many significant ways.

More importantly, the social overhang of the 1980s remains both in terms of destroyed lives and a culture of individualism that is not fit for purpose in confronting the seismic challenges we collectively face. 1979 was an historic day. The reality of that history should help guide a better future.

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