The Center Is Right
Margaret Thatcher: an image, an ideal and an obelisk at odds with her frail disposition today. Although Thatcher, like we all do aged, her will never rusted. Despite the narrative, Thatcher alone, although incredibly influential, is and was not the only figure of significance in the modern rise of neo-liberalism in its current iteration. As with any movement, she was the key figurehead. She was and remains the point of reference in most discussions regarding British politics.New Labour emerged amidst a Thatcherite toned fallout in the shape of John Major. Historically the narrative goes, Labour required a rebranding after the party’s 1970s collapse and Thatcher’s evisceration of the Trade Union’s in the 1980s. These two things are not untrue, and yet, like many things they neglect the wider panorama that history can proffer. Thatcher’s rise and Labour’s fall are linked in illustrating a pendulum swing economically, politically and within British media.
Before Labour’s crash, Britain – like much of Europe – had been riding a wave invigorated by the winds of the Second World War. The strong grass roots spirit that had taken root during the war years (ironically, resurrected unsuccessfully by the current government) continued into the post-war years. Shared rations can be seen as a prescient metaphor for the formation of the community-based Welfare State and National Health Service. The rebuilding effort across Europe also culminated in the formation of a macro-community in the form of the European Union (as well as the Council of Europe).
There is a long list of tangible benefits provided by effective community. The United Kingdom, and other EU nations at the time, sought to not only make war history on the continent, but sought with this lofty goal to understand one another. Within the UK, the same could be said of the spirit fostered by the war effort. Governments had been intermingling in coalition and, not unlike today, the pretext was to bring Britain through tough times.
The difference in comparison to today lies in the source of the will for such a change. In post-war Britain a true grassroots will for community, one fuelled by an empathy of the shared horrors of war, propelled the welfare schemes and ideals currently being dismantled today. The country can be said to have experienced a sweep to the left. Labour’s fall quashed much of the good will and coupled with economic hardship sparked what has been a tailgate spin to the right.
New Labour’s resurrection was indebted to Thatcher, the concept of economic responsibility associated with the propping up of big business in the wake of British industry’s extinction. The death of Britain’s industry, considering the cheap labour costs of many developing nation’s economies, was likely an inevitability. Yet, New Labour despite a great deal of social spending, were in many ways a centre right party. The two integral pieces of evidence to this claim lie in: Labour’s courting of Private Financial Initiatives and the party’s utilisation of performance contingent benefits.
PFIs have woven deep into the DNA of public services, and under this current Conservative government, they have been a keen tool in the retooling and/or disintegration of public services as we know them. The three mainstream parties have, in searching for the ’squeezed middle’, abandoned (and in the case of the Tories demonised) the working class. The demonisation, in methodology, has taken the form of draconian cuts to, and lofty performance goals for, benefits.
Perhaps most importantly, the mandate for this demonisation of a significant proportion of the population – who also happen to be the most impoverished – is provided by the strength of the media, who have had a mammoth role in Britain’s rightward shift. Sections of the media, despite frequently misinforming and illegally reporting, have thrived with the growth of right wing rhetoric. The media’s close communion with Westminster makes much of the current rhetoric unsettling, particularly when considering the pithy approach taken by politicians in lieu of the Leveson enquiry.
The significance in all the above is that, within society, although big business continues to thrive, society has grown increasingly fractious. Two referendums in Scotland and potentially in the rest of the UK, threaten to reverse much of the tangible post-war progress in favour of the reactionary. There are no easy solutions as all three major parties veer rightwards, but one would hope that it does not take anything as heinous as a war to restore some semblance of balance in the UK political system.