The Unfinished Revolution
April 11, 2013
The picture on the right is from the Nineties, and I'm rather fond of it, because I manage to look both goofy and shifty but Mrs Thatcher's cool is undiminished. I don't know why the harp was there, but, when she was a little girl, my daughter asked if the lady in the photo was a famous harpist and I was singing with her. Sadly not. I'll be talking about the Thatcher years on The Hugh Hewitt Show today (Thursday), but meanwhile, I thought it would be worth dusting off a piece I mentioned the other day, written for the Telegraph on the 25th anniversary of the Iron Lady's arrival in Downing Street:
Just after the Fall of Thatcher, I was in the pub enjoying a drink with her daughter Carol after a little light radio work. A fellow patron, a "radical" "poet", decided to have a go at her in loco parentis, which is Latin for "in the absence of her loco parent". After reciting a long catalogue of Mrs Thatcher's various crimes, he leant into Carol, nose to nose, and summed it all up: "Basically, your mum just totally smashed the working classes."
Carol was a jolly good sport about it, as always. And it has to be said that this terrible indictment loses a lot of its force when you replace "Vatcher" - a word the snarling tribunes of the masses could effortlessly spit down the length of the bar - with "your mum".
On the other hand, he had a point: basically, her mum did just totally smash the working classes. Today, if one hears the term "working class", one assumes the speaker is Billy Bragg or some other celebrity nostalgic speaking for himself and a handful of other firebrand romantics. But 25 years ago the "working class" still had the numbers, and nary a day went by when the evening news didn't include some menacing scene of big burly blokes striking for their right to continue enjoying the soft pampering working week of the more effete Ottoman sultans.
All aspects of life, from cars to newspapers, seemed at the mercy of this demographic. If one heard that, say, Teabags (the Technical and Engineering Association of Beverage Administrators and Grumpy Servers) were shutting down every British tea room, one would expect to switch on the news (assuming that the news wasn't on strike) and see big burly blokes in Lyons Corner House pinnies jostling with coppers outside ye olde tea shoppe in the Cotswolds.
All gone. The "working class" has itself been largely privatised, and thus dispersed - or, if you prefer, liberated. In Saturday's Telegraph, the various commentators on Mrs T's silver jubilee took it as read that Carol's mum had totally smashed the working class. The point of dispute was whether this was a good thing. Some thought it was: Lord King was happy to be free of a country run by the now forgotten Longbridge shop-floor colossus "Red Robbo". Some thought it a tragedy: Billy Bragg felt Thatch had destroyed "the feeling that we were all fighting together to make our society a better place". And some thought it was a ghastly social faux pas: Philip Pullman bemoaned contemporary Britain's "moral anarchy, a public life of profound vulgarity, a morally squalid press", etc.
I hear quite a bit of that these days - almost like a local version of East German "ostalgie". Old British friends say to me, well, say what you like about the 1970s - nothing worked; if you wanted to buy a new car, it was as if post-war rationing was still in effect - but all the same life in the village seemed a lot more pleasant back then. There's something to this: the benign side of oppressive statism is often a kind of public restraint. And more than a few folks seem to feel, with the benefit of hindsight, that it's better to have unionised thugs nutting scabs on the picket line than freelance yobs in hideous leisurewear infesting ersatz-American high streets catering to their every frightful whim from one end to the other. For the modern liberal, this is a new dilemma: an underclass that's too rich.
No society stands still. Forget all the strikes in that "winter of discontent", and try to remember how well Britain worked when things were going well. In a "globalised economy", would you still want to be trying to get an extra phone line from the old GPO? Would you want them regulating your access to the internet? The things that don't work in post-Thatcher Britain are not in those areas where she followed her market instincts, but in those where she didn't. Not her fault, of course. She had a lot else to worry about - the Cold War, the Argies - and she had a cabinet which, whether as manifested by grandees such as Ian Gilmour or bruisers like Ken Clarke, was always at least two thirds unsound.
But the result is that the Thatcher revolution is uncompleted. Nobody in 2004 seriously thinks the Government should run airlines or that working people should live their entire lives in state housing - though what now seems obvious to all required extraordinary political will by a few 25 years ago. And, on any honest account of 21st-century Britain, most of the problems derive from the unThatcherised sectors, in which the post-war, centralised, bureaucratic conventional wisdom still holds.
By the 1990s, for example, the most prominent and enduring example of a pre-Thatcher, bloated, useless, unproductive, overpaid, closed-shop state monopoly was the British police. They're the Red Robbos of the age, in terms of both their willingness to take umbrage at constructive suggestion and the zealousness with which they guard their turf. Localised policing accountable to local electorates would be a logical extension of Thatcherite economic policy - a recognition that giving citizens more personal responsibility isn't something that applies just to their housing and consumer choices but also to their civic life. If you have one without the other, you end up with the sad state of affairs in so many crime-ridden leafy villages and middle-class suburbs: a materially wealthy society of frustrated and impotent citizens.
Mrs Thatcher privatised British Telecom, British Airways, British Leyland. But we still have a nationalised British political culture: the reflexive gripe that, if something's wrong with your local hospital or your local school, it ought to be fixed by some secretary of state in a Whitehall department. It never will be. But the way to get some dynamism and creativity into the system is to denationalise the problems, and make them local issues to be solved locally, in a thousand different ways. As Mrs Thatcher recognised, the British are an inventive people. Unfortunately, though she freed them to apply that inventiveness to their economic life, they're artificially prevented from applying it to everything else. It's time to complete the revolution.
The Daily Telegraph, May 4th 2004
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