The Growing Costs of Thatcher’s ‘Miracle’

<i> George Black is an associate editor of the Nation</i>

It is technically accurate this month to speak of the Thatcher decade in Britain. But is it also accurate to speak, as the prime minister herself would wish, of the Thatcher revolution? On that, the jury is still out.

There are several ways to characterize Thatcherism. At the most obvious level, it has transformed the physical landscape of Britain. In part, this means the much-described cleavage of the “two nations"--a prosperous south of Perrier-drinkers and Porsche-drivers, a blighted north of silent smokestacks and idle shipyards and collieries. But even there, nothing is static: In the last two or three years, new money has begun to leave its mark on these areas, too, with new gourmet restaurants and multiplex cinemas opening in grim northern cities like Bradford and Sheffield and derelict industrial plants spruced up as tourist attractions.

More strikingly--and much of this would have happened under any leader, given the sweeping scale of economic change in the 1980s--the Thatcher decade has loosened many of the ancient fixed definitions of social status in this most class-ridden of societies. The old industrial working-class that formed the backbone of the opposition Labor Party is a shadow of its former self; at some point in the 1990s non-unionized part-time women workers in the service sector will become the largest single element in the work force. Those old class rigidities made British life comprehensible, if not always pleasant. The new fragmentation of British society, rooted in increased consumer power, the two-income family, mass immigration and dramatic deindustrialization, replaces these old rigidities with a pervasive sense of rootless individualism.

That, in turn, is a key to the essence of Thatcherism: its moral or ethical dimension. In the late 1970s, the old Keynesian vision of society--largely embraced by both Labor and Conservative parties--crumbled. Into the vacuum came the aggressive values of a new prime minister who championed a fresh ethos of self-sufficiency and social atomization. When the maxims of Margaret Thatcher are compiled, they are sure to include her assertion that “there is no such thing as society, only individuals.” This new creed was relentlessly hostile to those who sponged on the welfare culture, and equally indulgent of the crude, clawing greed of those who took the prime minister at her word when she told them to make it on their own.


In its single-mindedness, Thatcher’s social philosophy has a distinctly authoritarian tinge. It is not content with the traditional Tory goal of beating Labor at the next election; instead it proposes to expunge socialism from the political map, to portray European social democracy, like Soviet and Chinese communism, as a bizarre historical aberration that flowered briefly in the mid-20th Century and then collapsed.

How far has Thatcher succeeded? Almost totally, one would have been tempted to reply, when she swept back into 10 Downing St. for the third time in June, 1987. But today, quite abruptly, there are signs of slippage that may be more serious than the midterm doldrums British governments traditionally experience.

The third term always promised to be Thatcher’s most difficult. It was one thing to persuade voters to turn their backs on the moribund state bureaucracy of the 1970s, with its dole queues and hospital waiting lists and abusive public-sector labor unions. But it is quite another to cut into the sinews of public services that still enjoy broad support. Plans to reform the National Health Service are widely mistrusted; so is the continued drive for privatization, where the latest targets are government job-training agencies and the provision of drinking water.

There is growing apprehension, too, about the social costs of Thatcher’s economic “miracle.” In a metaphor that might have been designed by her political enemies, the passenger ferry that went down in the English Channel in 1987, killing 188 people, was named the Herald of Free Enterprise. Since then, the catastrophes have come thick and fast: 167 workers killed when the Piper Alpha oil platform in the North Sea exploded; another 31 fatalities in the horrifying subway fire at Kings Cross station; three fatal train crashes in swift succession, and, most recently, the Sheffield soccer stadium disaster. In each case, the roots of tragedy could be found in private avarice, underinvestment or a cavalier disregard for safety standards.


Anxieties about the consequences of the Thatcher program have begun to show up in surveys of public opinion. A series of polls in February and March showed Labor and the Tories in a virtual dead heat. But does the opposition have anything better to offer? Or is it true, as the favorite slogan of the Thatcher era proclaims, that “There Is No Alternative”?

Here is where Thatcherism can claim its greatest victory--in redefining the terrain of political debate. No opponent will argue any longer for a return to large-scale state interventionism. David Blunkett, the Labor Party’s spokesman on local government affairs and a figure considerably to the left of party leader Neil Kinnock, speaks regretfully of the self-inflicted damage that the party sustained because of slowness in distancing itself from the giant, impersonal state corporations of classic Laborism: “When people weren’t allowed to paint their own council (publicly owned) houses the color they wanted, that was just appalling,” he said. “People have to be protected as much from the state as they are from big business.”

The left-wing insurgency that tried to remodel the party earlier in this decade now seems adrift, its leaders recast as prophets in the wilderness. Tony Benn, whose unsuccessful drive to capture the party’s deputy leadership came to embody the campaign of the radical left, now complains that he can no longer even gain access to television--except via the religious shows. The debate about alternatives to Thatcherism is, in all but name, a debate about the marketplace, and the degree to which the market’s undisputed ability to generate wealth and service the consumer can be harmonized with a sense of social fairness.

Socialist politics here have long tended toward an almost snobbish disdain for wealth creation. That was something for the enemy to worry about; the task of socialists was to ensure that the goodies were distributed equitably. “Terms like ‘enterprise’ and ‘incentive’ have always been dirty words to the left,” said Mary Rogers, joint chief executive of Greater London Enterprise, a body that directs private venture capital into small businesses, with a preference for those run by minorities and women. “But we have to provide a positive example, that the left can be about efficiency, production and competence.”

As Margaret Thatcher celebrates this 10th anniversary in power, the Labor Party this month is due to unveil the results of its long, introspective “policy review.” If and when the party is returned to power, it promises to deliver a program of “supply-side socialism” that will invest heavily in high-tech industry and retraining, a bid to make British exports more competitive in the unified European market after 1992.

The party’s retreat from the old language of social solidarity is part of a general European trend. The reshaping of the European left is likely to sideline both the giant industrial unionism of the past and the Rainbow Coalition radicals who hoped they might provide an alternative. Instead, the contest will be between centrist market economics, as practiced by nominally socialist governments in Spain and France, and the “new revisionism” of figures like Oskar Lafontaine of the West German Social Democratic Party, who reject old left models in favor of a new cocktail of free-market policies and social responsibility, with a nod in the direction of feminist and Green concerns.

Whether, in the narrow British context, this means the triumph of the Thatcher revolution--or simply an accommodation to the harsh realities of the new global economy--remains an open question.