Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Maggie and me

OK, I can hold off no longer. I will have to join the crowd of people compelled to say their thing about Margaret Thatcher. If Oscar Wilde was right that the only thing worse than being talked about was not being talked about, the Lady's life has been a triumph.

For someone of my age, MT loomed large over those delicate years of transition from childhood to adulthood. She was elected shortly after I'd started secondary school, and deposed shortly after I'd started my PhD. Margaret Thatcher changed my life in a sense - if it wasn't for my Dad yelling in apoplexy in front of the TV news every night as I started to become aware of life outside my street and my school, I may not have taken the interest in politics that ultimately led to me making my living teaching and writing about it. I'm sure I'm not the only one in my generation to be fully aware of how Margaret Thatcher's politics made a difference to how my life has panned out.

For the upwardly mobile classes, Thatcherism meant new opportunities to get rich, and many people of similar backgrounds to mine (lower middle/upper working class, state school, in a relatively prosperous area) have done pretty well, even without becoming bankers. So have I, by any reasonable metric. For those without the resources and access to opportunities, it meant a much worse life than their parents had had. The irony is that the social mobility people like me have enjoyed was in part the result of the social settlement Thatcher set out to destroy, and was therefore denied to those that came after. For many people in Britain now, social mobility is an aspiration but a practical impossibility. If you want to know why the lady polarizes opinion so much, the answer is not difficult to figure out.

This contradiction - dangling opportunity in front of people's noses, whilst omitting to mention only a few will get it - is both the secret of Thatcherism's success and the key to overcoming it. The story Thatcher told was an intensely appealing one to many people of low to middling social status. Coming from a family background of mostly middle to low incomes who almost all vote Conservative (out of my two dozen uncles and aunts, barely a couple vote Labour), I think I have an intuition about how this works. They see hard work giving them some reward (usually house price inflation), and are resentful towards those who haven't done so well and require help from the state. Maggie told them: don't feel any responsibility to those who didn't try as hard, you should be able to enjoy the fruits of your labours rather than sharing them out. They fail to make the connection between this self-centred view and the various social problems - crime, failing schools, stagnant real wages, growing costs of social care, traffic - which result from refusal to consider the needs of the collective.

The answer for the left is to develop a discourse which recognizes that people have a right to aspiration, choice, and personal consumption, whilst making clear that collective provision and pooling of resources is indispensable if these rights are to have any meaning. The language of the left has not managed to get away from the rhetorical drone of solidarity, uniform provision, redistribution, even though policy has moved on. We need a way of talking about things that gets us out of the trap of having to defend welfare payments of £60,000 to the Mick Philpotts of this world. That means emphasizing how collective delivery of services and sharing of resources is what allows the maximum number of people to have aspiration, choice, and - yes - cheap stuff. Quite how you do this I haven't yet figured out. I think I'm going to have to learn Swedish.