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Theresa May and Thatcherism

ad_221423652_e1475423881572There is a touch of confusion about Theresa May’s political posturing. The apparent lurch ‘to the left’ signified by her abandonment of Osbornomics (and, of course, Osborne himself) for soft Keynesianism sits uneasily with a commitment to hard Brexit. The homage paid to official anti-racism is at odds with her immigrant bashing. And her fabled competence, her ‘no Flash, just Gordon’ schtick looks ridiculous when she puts off key decisions, slaps down cabinet divisions, and every time one recalls the three fools she’s placed in charge of Brexit. Is May riddled with contradictions? Yes, but the answer doesn’t lie in character flaws. One has to look to the nature of her political project, the class relationships underpinning it, and the economic and political crisis engulfing British capital and the British state.We’ve talked about Thatcherism and the settlement she imposed after the class battles of the 1980s on many occasions. As British capitalism was gripped by periodic crisis in the 70s, the old social democratic levers of managing economic turbulence couldn’t stand up to the winds howling through the global economy. Britain, like other advanced nations, faced the puzzle of stagflation – of rising unemployment and rising prices. According to received wisdom, if you cut incomes then prices would fall. Likewise, if wages rise prices go up. Capitalism wasn’t behaving properly. More seriously from the standpoint of British capital, the post-war consensus of state intervention, nationalised industry, and mass workplaces had concentrated large numbers of working people in close proximity. It meant that once the oil shock and Vietnam kickstarted inflation and workers fought to maintain their living standards, the spectre of trade union militancy threatened to cripple strategic industry and render government powerless. As the experience of Ted Heath, and the unhappy relationship between Wilson and Callaghan’s governments had with our movement demonstrated, British capital had grounds for concern.

Thatcher captured the Conservative Party for the radical right. Economically, they sought to restore the sovereignty of capital over the economy by curbing working class power first and then going for the institutional props of the post-war consensus. That was the aim, though – contrary to popular belief – Thatcher and friends didn’t have a carefully crafted plan. Her new commonsense only became so through her attacks and victories against organised labour, aided by a slavish, cheer-leading press and an array of think tanks and campaigning organisations that either lent her intellectual credibility or softened up the ideological ground for her market fundamentalism and Victorian morality. Only in retrospect does Thatcherism look inevitable, its precepts obvious when, in fact, they were conjunctural adaptations to struggle. She and her government could have been defeated on a number of occasions. If only it wasn’t for the SDP split. The Falklands War. The blunders of the Miners’ Strike. Things could have turned out much differently.

As we know, Thatcher won. But what exactly won? Thatcherism promised to make Britain great again, words similar to those we find echoed today in the land over the sea. The last hurrah for the British empire over a sheep-worried rock in the south Atlantic was a personal triumph for Thatcher, and gave her licence to wrap herself in the flag whenever she felt like it. She broke the labour movement and shackled it with the most repressive labour relations legislation seen in an advanced liberal democracy. Resources were poured into beefing up the police, the military, and the surveillance state – strangely, the one part of government no neoliberal ever wants to shrink. The city was deregulated, the nationalised industries shut or privatised, council housing flogged off, and communities full of our people left to rot. The economy boomed and enough of the boats floated upwards – some rising much faster than others as the trend to greater inequality reasserted itself. Yet Thatcher did not solve the crisis afflicting British capital, it was merely postponed. Her asset and credit powered boom turned into a bust. By the time her memory was warming the cockles of Tory hearts made bitter by the Major years, the economy took off again. Yet under Blair and right up to the 2008 crash, the character of British growth followed the pattern established by Thatcher. Sell off state assets and/or use public monies to create artificial markets. Continue subsidising the rich with low corporation tax and top income tax rates. Kowtow to the socially useless but GDP-useful city slickers. Keep house prices going and throw credit around like confetti. Meanwhile the gutting of the real economy continued apace. Neoliberalism was the commonsense, Thatcher’s settlement was preserved. Despite some welcome reforms, it was business as usual.

The structural weaknesses of the British economy were thrown open to scrutiny by the crash. From the standpoint of capital, these were the overdependence on financial and service-based industries and precious little manufacturing, the stark imbalance between the south east and the rest, short-termism, the balance of payments vis a vis the rest of the world and, for some, the dependence of regional economies on public sector subsidy. The Tory answer was to blame Labour spending for the crash, and identify closing the deficit between what the government receives and what it spends as the chief task of our time. This very simple narrative, dutifully broadcast parroted by helpful editorial offices, got traction and dominated British politics between 2010 and 2015, and helped the Tories into power. The rhetoric therefore became about rebalancing the economy. Osborne had his policy train sets in the Northern Powerhouse and Midlands Engine, and HS2 was approved with a view to spreading London’s prosperity about. Low paid workers were taken out of tax, the public sector shrunk further allowing private providers to miraculously fill in social provision they were previously “crowded out from”, and so on. I’m sure readers don’t need me to dwell on the last five or so years of failure. Time and again, short-term political interests trumped the long-term health of British capitalism. In the truest sense Dave and Osborne were Thatcher’s sons. They destroyed institutional props, gutted local government and social security, privatised whatever they could get away with, and believed that people should make their own way through the mess they made. After all, the market is the be-all and end-all and can organise everything much better than anything else. Far from addressing British economic weakness, they too exacerbated it. Though were happy to hide behind GDP figures and underemployment dressed up as record employment.

To speak of May as continuity Thatcherism seems, at first glance, a bit daft. Her economic platform, such as it is, communes more with the spirit of Keynes. Your Friedmans and von Hayeks are now banished to purgatory. Leaving aside the anti-immigrant nonsense for a moment, on face value it appears to be a programme more in tune with addressing the structural problems of British capitalism. A break with neoliberalism and Thatcherism, then? Yes, and no. Certainly on the overt level of economic management it is. Mouthing one nation rhetoric is one thing, but using it as a basis to inform policy is definitely something Thatcher never did. On the surface, the philosophical objection to state intervention has slung its hook and a full appropriation of Ed Miliband Thought affected. On the other hand, it’s not. Neoliberalism is more than an economic perspective, an ideology, a technique. It is a way of being, a mode of subjection, a method of creating human beings of a certain type. At this level, the rational, entrepreneurial, acquisitive, self-interest and self-reliant individual is as much part of May’s programme as it was for Blair and Brown, for Dave, Major, and Thatcher (as well as, whisper it, Miliband’s). Her cod talk of equality and meritocracy is entirely within the envelope of neoliberal governance. In this respect, it’s a continuation, not a repudiation of Thatcherism.

Yet there are those stubborn inconsistencies. How can May see “sense” when it comes to a pro-active, state managed economic strategy and burgeoning inequality, but risk angering business over immigration controls and hard Brexit? It’s because, like Thatcher’s time in power, hers is a class project. Ultimately, Thatcherism wasn’t about fixing the economics of British capitalism. That was a secondary concern. Instead, the objective was the smashing and subordination of the labour movement, of rebalancing the tilt of class relations firmly to the right. The anti-trade union agitation and legislation, state authoritarianism, the scapegoating of minorities, the flag waving, the traditional values, all were moments and supports for Thatcher’s project. And it succeeded. This new post-social democratic balance of class forces remained the case throughout the Major years. It wasn’t upended by Blair and Brown. Indeed, they were obsequious in preserving this state of affairs. The class relations underpinning capital’s dominance were, interestingly, most threatened by Dave. His Tory party grew decadent from the standpoint of his class not just because his motley crew took decisions dysfunctional for British capitalism, but also from the point of view of the maintenance of these class relationships. Letting inequality get out of control, jeopardising the integrity of the British state for incredibly low returns, allowing a hard right party grow legs, and pursuing incredibly narrow, sectional policies so the traditional B team of British capitalism falls to the left and is in the process of becoming something else. In short, Dave’s cluelessness and negligence put the Thatcherite class settlement under threat.

Now May’s incoherence starts making sense. She’s putting the band back together. While the support of British business is unlikely to go anywhere, she can have another go at rebuilding the Thatcherite coalition underpinning the right wing balance of class forces. So the anti-Labour sections of the working class who’ve had their heads turned by UKIP, and the right leaning sections of small business and the managerial middle class. What they crave is the stability and security of a firm hand. The politics of May’s economics is protecting them from the headwinds of global competition, while giving their children a route to a more stable life free of housing and job worries. The crackdown on immigration is to show she’s doing something not just about the competition and resource pressures from increasing numbers of migrant workers (exacerbated by the government’s scrapping of the Migrant Impact Fund to begin with – some might say deliberately and with these consequences in mind), but also to ease those troubled by the appearance of Polski Skleps, the sounds of strange languages down the town centre, and the very idea people are coming over here and stealing our jobs and sponging off social security simultaneously.

Following the ideas of Stuart Hall, for whom Thatcherism was a hegemonic project that prosecuted class struggle economically, politically, and ideologically, May’s project falls short. It’s a patching up operation doing what it needs to do to ensure the balance of class forces remains on the right. While it can rely on the media to carry on carrying on churning out the anti-working class, anti-migrant, anti-socialist – especially now it has a lightning rod in the shape of Jeremy Corbyn – her political project could so easily come unstuck. While she affects as a competent, authoritarian figure, during her first 100 days in office May has demonstrated a pronounced tendency to dither, delay, and duck out when things get tough. Qualities one does not associate with competence and getting things done, so perhaps it’s accurate to describe her emergent doctrine as ‘May-beism’. The second is Tory disunity. When Johnson, Davis, and disgraced trade minister Liam Fox aren’t publicly scrapping in the press, it’s briefing against Philip Hammond. And, on his part, briefings against hard Brexit fanatics in the Cabinet. Compounding that are europhobic back benchers who think the complexity of withdrawing from a bloc we’re economically integrated into is a case of backsliding political silly buggers. And then there are those defenestrated Cameroons like Nicky Morgan and Anna Soubry happy to make known their unhappiness. The third is the politics of managing Brexit, of having a strategy, rolling with the punches, striking a deal (or a transitional deal), and everything that comes with it.

And fourth is the future of the Conservative Party as a viable caretaker of the Thatcherite class settlement. Triangulating to win back the sorts of constituencies Thatcher had in her handbag is one thing. But holding onto those who quite liked Dave’s Notting Hill Toryism is another. More difficult is the party’s demographic time bomb. The media weaponry arranged in defence of the settlement is growing less effective. The age ranges who lap it up are disproportionately middle aged to elderly. They’re the ones most likely to vote, of course, but they’re not going to be around forever. A generation is rising that is at the sharp end of inequality, debt, and insecurity. They’re socially liberal and hate the idea that Brexit is going to rob them of even more opportunities, the rights and the perks those older voters have denied them. Their displeasure is taking on flesh in the Labour Party and SNP, and to a lesser extent the Greens and LibDems.

Winning over this hard-pressed but socially liberal generation of networked workers is a tough ask for the Tory party, and especially Theresa May’s project as constituted. Hence why hers can only be a holding operation. It can win back the kippery and chauvinist sections of the working class, middle class, and small business by peddling the politics of the past, thereby possibly securing elections wins in the near future. Beyond that, as attitude survey after attitude survey show, all three of these constituencies are in historic decline. Winning the future is beyond May’s politics and, possibly, the Thatcherite settlement itself. It is therefore down to us – the labour movement, the left, everyone who supports socialist and progressive politics – to define that future and make it ours. Because if we don’t, someone else will.


  1. Richard MacKinnon says:

    When I read over long articles that I find disagreeable I jump to the end and read the conclusion, 9 times out of 10 my prejudice is confirmed. In this piece by Mr Burton-Cartledge I was not disappointed. “It is therefore down to us – the labour movement, the left, everyone who supports socialist and progressive politics – to define that future and make it ours. Because if we don’t, someone else will”.
    Please for my benefit, Mr Burton- Cartledge, things are slow today, indulge me, define the future?

    1. Imran Khan says:

      It’s called rhetoric Richard. For most of the left the Tory victory in the last GE and the Brexit result are portents of an impending fascist coup not the results of the will of the electorate.

      1. Richard MacKinnon says:

        Thats democracy for you Imran. Politicians need to be reminded sometimes, they are servants of the electorate and their job is to deliver the wishes of the electorate. In the case of Brexit, they would be better advised to get on with the job they have been elected to do.

  2. john Reid says:

    thatcher would have won despite the SDP split, and the Falklands, IT WOULD HAVE TOOK Labour to have accepted the policies the SDP had on unions privatisation, deregulation, which were similar to the Tories, as for the miners strike, it could have gone for another year, but it would n’t have stopped the government giving in saying htat they’d subsidise the pits they wanted to shut,a nd kep them open,and it wouldn’t have stopped other pits later on beign shut,or reversed any of the current union laws, and even if the gov’t backed down said go back to work, we need the coal, we’ll not shut those selected pits, do you really think, that the tories would have fallen at the next election,and even if people who would have been put off by the tories giving in to the NUM, would they have voted Labour, NO, they’d have voted SDP

    1. Karl Stewart says:

      Nonsense, Thatcher won in 1983 because of the Falklands, everyone knows that. Before it, she was the most unpopular PM since records began and she’d never have turned that round. I can only guess you’re too young to have been aware of that.

      The reasons why of Labour polled so poorly, however, were only partly due to the Falklands, and the way that it highlighted the weakness of the unilateralist policy. The big reason was we had the worst leader ever. Michael Foot was unable to string together a coherent sentence, he was utterly incapable of leadership, was clearly unfit for office and was only there as a cobbled-together compromise between competing wings of the party.

      Voters took a look at Foot, and collectively said: “You cannot be serious!”

      But Labour’s domestic economic policies were extremely popular, robust and absolutely solid. With a serious party leader, and without unilateralism, Labour would have romped home – even with the Falklands conflict as well.

      What Labour needs to do now is set out a similarly robust economic and industrial strategy.

      1. john P Reid says:

        the tories were 5% ahead in the polls of labour a week before the falkland,s labour just won’t accept we would have lost due to our policies before, and blame the falklands, I was old enough

  3. john Reid says:

    the like to the all that is solid article dismissing the far left,saying it is’ capitalism in the UK that’s responsible for the RIGHT, bieng the ones who are racist ought to read this

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