Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Speaking Ill of the Dead

What the heck - I'm going to do a bit about Margaret Thatcher, and the main thing I want to say is that I believe she was a weak and stupid leader.
What the hell am I on about?
Weak, because all she did was go along with what was happening naturally at the time and took the credit for it. Stupid because all she had was this one simple idea and she stuck to it, no matter what anyone else said.

What was happening? I was too young at the time to really understand it, but my childhood included The Winter of Discontent, the Three Day Week, and The Sick Man of Europe. My dad was a shop steward at the Brighton B power station and I remember the strikes and works-to-rule. I grew up in one of those peculiarly pre 70s phenomena - the working-class conservative family (though my dad always voted Labour) which despite our relatively humble status, believed that people shouldn't depend on others for anything, that you get off your arse (and onto your bike presumably) and you take whatever job is offered and you are grateful and anyone who doesn't is a skiver and a scrounger. I grew up among mini Thatchers and Tebbits - most obviously my Auntie Roz and Auntie Eileen on the one hand and Granddad Joe and Uncle Bob on the other. None of them were monsters, and I was fond of (almost) all of them, but they were known for being somewhat rigid and contrarian - some might say bigoted. You wouldn't want to cross them but luckily you didn't have to take them too seriously either. Nevertheless they, and thousands like them, had the vote, and in 1979 they got into power.

Uncle Bob at least seemed interested in discussing it with me. I was in my teens at the time and not a lot of good at marshalling my arguments. Still, I had this deep conviction that there was something wrong with what he said. It was something to do with his preoccupation with money. Basically, for him, all that really counted was whether what you did made money. All the things I valued - my woolly ideals about human rights and freedom, and my worries about the environment simply didn't figure in his thinking unless somebody was making money out of it. In particular, the very vague ideas I had about my future, in ecology or art perhaps (I really had no idea) were completely 'unrealistic', if not actually laughable.
I think for him, underneath it all was a conviction that income = goodness. If you had a lot of money it had to be because you deserved it. If you were good you would succeed. Those without enough to live on were, ipso facto, bad. They must be doing something wrong. (I'm sure he would have made an exception for criminals who made their money illegally, but it was a simple and unambiguous distinction; Legal = Right.)
And I don't think it was about wealth exactly. Getting rich would have been getting above your station. No, it was about having a safe and secure job; making a living, not a profit. None of us was so much as self-employed, let alone 'A Businessman'. Thatcher's millionaire barrow boys I suspect were from a completely different kind of working class - living hand to mouth, ducking and diving, buying and selling, a bit on the side, cash in hand (Know what I mean?) They had less to lose and everything to gain. We, 'Respectable' working class, on the other hand, were risk-averse to say the least.

So in 1979, Margaret Thatcher's rather simplistic (but nonetheless 'Realistic') view of the world was put into practice. Everybody was sick of what the Unions had done to the country (because of course it was simply all their fault) and now it was time for a change.
And it worked. Things changed. What Thatcher and her government wanted to happen, happened. Whatever you say about the Tory government, they did what they said they'd do, unlike almost any more left-wing government you can point to. My point is that this is not because what the Tories did was right or good, but because it was easy.

A lot of right-wing thinkers I've spoken to think that one of the most important parts of their argument is that it goes along with human nature. Competition is natural. The accumulation of wealth and power by the few is Natural, whilst the rest of us strive and the shirkers starve. Altruism and cooperation, The Welfare State and Comprehensive Education are Unnatural. This is Pragmatism, Libertarianism and Social Darwinism, and the place that The Selfish Gene fell right into at about that time. It is simple, natural, automatic, and therefore Right. All you need to do is take away the brakes - the restrictions, the regulations and let it happen.

And Thatcher took away the dam and said 'Lo I have made water run downhill' and it was so. 
And the populace stood in awe and said 'Verily. She said the water would run down hill and look, it does. She is a genius and our saviour and there is no alternative.'

The lesson, if it still needs pointing out, is that what is Natural is not necessarily Right. Sometimes it is, but not always. And doing what is unnatural, is almost inevitably Not Easy. This is why the more left-wing administrations always look so confused and compromised.
It isn't Easy to do The Right Thing, and it often ends in chaos and corruption, but to just give up and do the wrong thing just because it's easy is unforgivable. And that's what she did, and what my family allowed her to do, and I'm deeply embarrassed for the lot of us.


Vincent said...

Very interesting Steve, and I'm glad you're back.

I'm one of those deep-dyed conservatives but by no means an uncritical Thatcherite.

the working-class conservatism you mention would have naturally arisen from experiences of the War and the Thirties. There was no Welfare State, but the workhouse was still in operation. The implications of the Beveridge Report had not yet unfolded to what we see today.

Working class self-reliance had nothing to do with capitalism, in fact. I've been reading a lot lately about Eric Gill, the sculptor and type-face inventor. He was a Catholic and a Distributist, believing in self-sufficient communes which lived primitively and did things by hand. Thatcher's form of capitalism was inspired by Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek. She did not succeed in all she attempted to do there. It's clear that in fostering unlimited opportunity for all in entrepreneurism and so forth (something new on the scene in those days) she also fostered monsters who should have been ruthlessly controlled with stringently applied rules.

But she was a kind of revolutionary, and revolutions generate casualties.

Margaret Thatcher thought for herself and didn't do the easy thing. I think you have that idea of "natural" quite wrong there. She went against the flow. It's true that she had a simple vision. It's true that her legacy includes as much bad as it does good.

But people judge her as if they were personally affected by her actions, and that she was personally to blame. Which would make her into a dictator, which she certainly was not. If she dominated her Cabinet, that's the fault of her Cabinet. But they were ordinary men, and she was a phenomenon in need of stronger colleagues.

These are just some thoughts inspired in response to yours.

The debate goes on, filling the airwaves. A healthy and much-needed thing. It's all too easy to hate or venerate. What's needed is to think deeply. We can do that!

Steve Law said...

Hi Vincent - always good to hear from you.
Yes - my family's 'conservatism' came from a very different place from modern free-market capitalism and had a lot more in common with the old fashioned Tory values (nation, family, the natural order and knowing your place in it). You may remember i wrote at length about the contradiction between old and new conservatism here - [http://comradedilettante.blogspot.co.uk/2011/11/and-wisdom-to-know-difference.html]
The view I describe here of what is natural (or human nature) is absolutely not my view (which would take another full-length essay to expound.) The view expressed here is the view I was brought up with and which was widely echoed by conservatives in the media at the time.
I think its essence - Survival of the Fittest (or 'I'm all right, blow you Jack', as my dad would have had it) is the path of least resistance for human society if you simply take away the restrictions and regulations and i think that is indeed the 'revolution' that Thatcher and her administration allowed to happen, allowed, in turn, by my relatives and working class people like them all over the country.
The extent to which she can be singled out for personal responsibility depends on the extent to which you subscribe to The Great Man in History theory, which would be yet another essay that i won't be writing.

Vincent said...

Now you've got me wasting time, but I mustn't blame you for the following rant.

Yes there was in Margaret Thatcher a certain childish naivety, or to put it another way, she was out of touch with the common people for whom she thought she was struggling. Apart from the monetarism or free-marketeering---that was one area of policy about which I agree with you---another of her big things was enabling people to buy up their own council houses and thus take a pride in them and be less like passive children dependent on the State.

Her naivety was not to see how every freedom she achieved for “the people” would be abused by some, whether in the City, the council estates or anywhere else. She wasn’t cynical or hardbitten. She was a grocer’s daughter and thrifty housewife at heart, keeping lots of tinned food in the larder just in case. She was fiercely intelligent but needed critical input from others. I learn from those others that she appreciated their arguments and followed them, even though in public she appeared arrogant and know-it-all.

It’s a misunderstanding to interpret her “revolution” as a removal of restrictions. She assumed that if people had more freedom (were no longer stifled by the State, or repressive trade unions) they would naturally work for good. David Cameron had exactly the same idea with his Big Society, a label which conveniently tried to undo the damaged reputation which Maggie got from her remark “there is no such thing as society”.

So when we speak of “natural” in relation to this matter, I think it likely that Margaret, you and I might agree on one thing: that the common sense of the people, in aggregate, is good, if the people act directly from within their own lives, and are not subservient to Big Brother, Nanny State and so on. Common sense of common people is a wonderful starting point and it fuelled the Communist Revolution in Russia at first, when there were idealists on every street corner. But that morphed into a monolithic one-party state.

Let me try again. What Margaret, you and I might agree on is that people should not be lulled into a child-like state by having everything done for them, and never having to work or run their own lives because of a generous flow of benefits. The task of the government, national or local, is to foster a climate in which human beings can flourish through responsibility.

It is not all about fairness and equality. Though desirable, these things don’t exist in nature. I’ll try to clarify this point. As humans we have a duty of kindness to animals, even though animals, in our view, may be cruel to one another. We have a duty to treat one another equally, and to support those who cannot support themselves. It is not the human duty to eliminate cruelty and inequality from nature. It is not the government’s duty to cushion its population from the effects of Nature. It is not the NHS’s duty to push the bounds of longevity ever higher. It is not anyone’s duty to eliminate “postcode lotteries”.

And I agree with you that it is not all about money. Thatcher was wrong in that. Politics is a lot worse now than in Thatcher’s time, in the sense that everyone must now bow to imposed notions of justice and virtue. Example: poverty is now officially defined as relative poverty. You are poor if you are so many percentage points below the mean. If you stay still while everyone else gets richer, you’ll eventually end up in poverty, via this definition. So the slogan “abolish poverty!”---they usually say “abolish child poverty!” because who can argue with that?---means abolish inequality of income. (“Absolute” poverty is another thing entirely of course.) So we have parents who don’t give their children enough food, though they are fully equipped with smartphones, trainers, Sky TV and whatever it is that costs money these days.

Vincent said...

I have to share this with you, Steve. My local Conservative MP has a blog, on which he's posted a 3-minute video explaining Milton Friedman's economic ideas, doubtless intending that his readers will approve them.

So much did they have the opposite effect on me that I told him that if they in any way represent Conservative policy today, I can not ever vote Tory again.

I said it in different words, and it awaits moderation on this site:


Do I have to learn to love Ed Miliband now?

Steve Law said...

Ah the time-wasting part of life. Partly I stopped trying to write this blog because it took up too much of my time (and wound me up too much) That's why it has become an 'occasional' column, as it were.
Naivety and being out of touch. No, for me she was absolutely in touch with the common people (or at least, the common people I grew up with) which was pretty much the point of this blog entry. But her naive idea that you can run a national (or indeed a global) economy on the same principals as a household economy is just weird (What if one of your children fails to make a return on your investment? Do you close them down or give them the sack?) Actually maybe the economy should be run more like a family - because it's not all about profit. A lot of things are worth having just for the sake of it.
Selling council houses i'd have had no problem with if they'd built (at least) as many as they'd sold. Interestingly, my dad's parents (who probably also voted Labour) had a council house all their lives and never had any trouble taking pride in the place. Grandpa was for ever making alterations. I think what stops people taking pride in their home is if they're forever moving from place to place, either because they can only get short term lets, or because their property is just an investment or because they keep having to move to find work - three trends that have increased since the eighties.
The prevalence of Dependence on the (Nanny) State is also, I think, wildly overstated. But that will take another essay. I do believe in the importance of personal responsibility, self-reliance etc. It's one area where I would agree with the Conservative view (and I always understood and broadly agreed with the concept of The Big Society). I'm just not sure if the free market society they've built has had the desired effect. Are people more responsible and self-reliant now than they were then? I'm not convinced. Is being dependent on the logic of the markets or the whim of the share-holders more empowering than being dependent on a democratically elected government or union? (I would agree that it was right to make the unions more democratic, but not to so thoroughly trash them. The workers should have a say that the bosses are compelled to take seriously.)
"She assumed that if people had more freedom they would naturally work for good." I have masses to say to that. Watch this space.
"people should not be lulled into a child-like state by having everything done for them, and never having to work or run their own lives because of a generous flow of benefits. The task of the government, national or local, is to foster a climate in which human beings can flourish through responsibility." I would agree, but again, I think the problem is massively overstated.
"It is not the NHS’s duty to push the bounds of longevity ever higher." Absolutely. But I think the demand to be saved from death at any cost comes from a Sense of Entitlement which became widespread in the free market revolution of the 80s. Likewise the expectation of being allowed to retire at 65, no matter what the average life expectancy is. I had an argument with left-wing friends on this one. They called me a monetarist. I used the word 'entitled'. It got nasty.
I agree 100% with what you say about Relative Poverty. It's an insult to all those far too numerous people around the world in real 'absolute' poverty, some of whom of course, in desperate need, are attacked for becoming economic migrants, thus adding injury to insult.

Steve Law said...

This was sent to me from Dennis in California. I've had to radically shorten it (I didn't realise there was a character limit):-
Just about everything you describe about the people you grew up among and their attitudes could equally apply to the people I was raised among. Although “bigoted” is not something that comes to mind for most of mine. At least not in a mean spirited way. They did pretty uncritically accept a lot of the racial stereotypes that were standard at the time, but it was a sort of “gentle” bigotry (if that’s not a contradiction). They accepted that other groups were peculiar, but there was no particular hostility about it.
And there was also the general feeling you mentioned that people who had money had it because they were in some way superior to those who had less -- either smarter, more industrious, etc. And that that was right & fair. But they definitely didn’t feel like your uncle that the poor were in some sense “bad”. They’d had too much experience in their own lives of real old world poverty. They never stopped considering themselves as the poor even when it was no longer too accurate economically. There was nothing shameful for them about being “The Poor”... (i.e. “ordinary people”, everybody who was working class, worked with their hands, “The Middle Class” was people with some education or authority, gave orders, didn’t work with their hands, teachers, priests, the local grocer, etc), and “The Rich” (basically those who didn’t need to work for a living). But they did make the distinction you describe between ordinary, “honest” poor folks who worked hard, or tried to, and bums who wouldn’t. But that was a far cry from Social Darwinism or dog eat dog mentality. That kind of thinking only became respectably fashionable around the same time as in Britain, during the Reagan years over here. And chiefly among a younger generation of hotshot up and comers. Those older generations that switched over to the conservative revolution did it in large part I think because they really believed the bullshit the Republicans fed them about protecting the traditional values, religion, family, hard work, respect for authority, patriotism, blah blah blah...

Incidentally, I love your biblical passage! Very apt.

Steve Law said...

Just one quick comment.
In fairness I'd say my folks' 'bigotry' was more UKIP than BNP.
For those not familiar with UK politics - the BNP (British national Party) is arguably the nearest thing we have to a fascist party. UKIP (UK Independence Party)is in effect Old Conservative and has a serious problem with immigration and the EU. Some say UKIP is just BNP Lite. Both, to my mind fall into the age-old trap of blaming Johnny Foreigner when things get tough.

Steve Law said...

Just as a parting shot, I'd like to add that joining a Trades Union seems to me like the very opposite of passive dependence.
I can also say that it was being able to rely on a Student Grant (back in the 80s) and a bit of housing benefit here and there that allowed me to really explore my possibilities without being perpetually worried about the money. Ultimately I failed but I gave it a damn good try and I don't think I could have without that safety net being in place.