Monday, 8 April 2013

Reflections on the Thatcher era

I sat through the extended BBC news bulletin on the death of Margaret Thatcher and can’t say I really learnt anything much I didn’t already know. One of the problems with such huge figures is that their lives have already been so analysed and picked over that there is nothing much left to say when they finally pop their clogs.

For me, the announcement of the Iron Lady’s demise actually provokes surprisingly little emotion. If I do feel anything, it’s probably at a personal, sentimental level. It’s about the people I knew and the places I visited as a left-wing teenage activist in the 1980s. Memories of a time in which in which Thatcher was dominant and omnipresent. A malign force which banded us together. There was a great camaraderie among activists involved in organisations such as CND and Anti-Apartheid, although on occasions it seemed like the camaraderie of the damned. Maggie really did go on and on and those years passed excruciatingly slowly.

The first demonstration I ever went on was against the war in the Falklands. A friend and I came back from Trafalgar Square clutching a placard, having listened to worthy speeches from the likes of Tony Benn and Dame Judith Hart, who’d been ministers under Harold Wilson. I remember the turn-out being pretty dismal and the fact that people were shouting the slogan “Falklands, Malvinas... they are Argentina’s!” Even as a 14-year-old, I realised this kind of pro-Argentinian posturing would get the campaign nowhere and I certainly didn’t join in. But I had been outraged by the jingoistic fervour stirred up by the tabloid press in favour of the war and was glad to be able to protest.

Within a year, I was actively involved in CND and took charge of running a street stall for the campaign in a south-western suburb of London. This involved stocking up on endless supplies of badges. If you didn’t wear a badge or two at that time, you weren’t a committed activist. I guess the modern-day equivalent is adding some kind of ribbon to your Twitter profile.

It’s important to remember what those years were actually like. People would literally spit at me in the street for selling those CND badges. 1983 was the year Peter Tatchell unsuccessfully fought a by-election in Bermondsey and was subjected to an outrageous campaign of intimidation and abuse, simply because he was gay and left-wing. In fact, the climate was poisonous. And by the time another year had rolled by, the miners were on strike.

My personal view is that this period was an epic low point for the UK. Probably the lowest point since the days of the Blitz. We were a nation in flux, caught between the stifling collectivism and union domination of the 60s and 70s and the brutal free-market philosophy of the new right. When these tectonic plates crashed against each other, all hell broke loose.

As Thatcher worked to destroy the National Union of Mineworkers, she simultaneously pursued a campaign to abolish the democratically elected Greater London Council. Although Ken Livingstone had a much better understanding of the way in which the world was changing than Arthur Scargill – and managed to fight a much more sophisticated campaign against Thatcher – he still ultimately lost the battle. Britain’s first woman Prime Minister seemed to be all-powerful. Perhaps even superhuman, given her remarkable ability to step out of the Grand Hotel in Brighton alive after the IRA bombed it in October 1984. (I was in Brighton a week later and saw the hole they blasted in that building. To this day, I find it hard to understand how she survived.)

And the conflict went on. Riots in 1985 on Broadwater Farm in Tottenham and a number of other locations around the UK. The print dispute at Wapping a year later. I remember going down to the picket lines on a couple of occasions and pushing against lines of riot police in the dark. I think there was some vague idea of stopping ‘scab’ lorries driving in and out of Rupert Murdoch’s newspaper plant, but it shows you just what a crazy time this really was. Here was a middle-class boy from the suburbs, travelling across London with fellow students from his further education college and risking getting hit over the head with a police baton in support of a completely doomed cause.

That was the 80s in a nutshell for me. Lots of very good, well-meaning people doing their best to stop the bad guys prevailing. But losing. Time after time after time.

It wasn’t until the late 80s that the tide started to turn for the left. There were two major issues on which they were more in tune with the public mood than Thatcher. The first – a warm-up, if you like, because it was international rather than domestic – was Apartheid. Thatcher’s support for the bankrupt racist regime in Pretoria ran counter to most people’s ideas of basic justice. There’s no doubt that popular campaigns to boycott companies which invested in the South African regime helped to play a part in its ultimate downfall. By the time Botha resigned in 1989 and De Klerk took over as leader, the writing was on the wall. Thatcher had invested a lot of time and political capital defending the indefensible. But she looked more and more isolated and out of touch on this key international issue as the years rolled on.

Then came the poll tax. Don’t be fooled when people tell you that Europe finally finished Thatcher. Europe was the rift that was starting to tear the Tory Party apart, but it was the popular anger surrounding her local government ‘community charge’ that really acted as the trigger for her downfall. It gave those people such as Heseltine, who opposed her views on Europe, an opportunity to attack. At last, the Iron Lady could be shown to be seriously out of touch. Someone who was no longer a winner, but a liability.

Perhaps one day I’ll be an old man and people will talk to me about the 80s as a period of long-distant history. My own memories will probably not be as sharp as they are today. But my over-riding image will, I think, be of a nation at war with itself. Driven apart by ideology and locked into a cycle of endless, unproductive battles.

We can argue until we’re blue in the face about how far Thatcher’s policies were necessary and inevitable. But the manner in which she pursued those policies was brutal. So when she’s given her ceremonial send-off, I won’t be yelling through a megaphone from the side of the street, but forgive me if I don’t get my flag out.

Saturday, 6 April 2013

Welfare, Philpott and the dangers for Labour

I remember going on a media training course well over 20 years ago, run by a lady who was a hard-bitten Fleet Street hack of the old school. The kind of person who could type 40 wpm with two fingers, while chain-smoking Silk Cut. She started by explaining that there were only three things that qualified a story as news: sex, death and conflict. How salient her observation seems to be in the light of the extraordinary case of Mick Philpott – ‘Shameless Mick’ as he’s branded by The Daily Mail – whose conviction for the manslaughter has thrown up a generous helping of all her three criteria.

Philpott would have been big news at the best of times. But these aren’t the best of times in the UK. On the week his trial concluded, the government introduced cuts in welfare benefits which are going to leave a lot of people poorer. Amid the polarised debate, the trial set another sinister fire raging in pubs, workplaces and social networking sites. Just how far was Philpott’s lifestyle symptomatic of a wider malaise? To what extent was his life a morality tale which underlined the bankruptcy of the welfare state?

When George Osborne and David Cameron joined sections of the right-wing press in suggesting the Philpott case raised serious questions, the left reacted vehemently. They correctly pointed out that one violent, misogynistic man with 17 children is hardly typical of most welfare recipients. The vast majority of people on benefits and tax credits are everyday folk, who happen to be poorer than others. They are us. There but for the grace of God. If any one of us happens to lose our jobs or fall sick, we then become the ones reliant on support.

Actual levels of recorded benefit fraud are pretty low. And for every extreme example of someone milking the system, there will be countless examples of others playing by the rules.

I don’t disagree with any of this. Indeed, I’ve seen at first hand the wider effect of government austerity measures, as my wife – who works in the voluntary sector helping the elderly and people with disabilities – is currently in a dispute with her employer about the erosion of her terms and conditions of employment. It’s not only people on benefits who are suffering, but many of the lower-paid workers (often women) who are there to support them. They are victims of squeezed budgets, outsourced contracts, redundancies and wage cuts.

Where the left has to very careful is in being seen as a defender of the status quo. In other words, there’s a massive trap into which Eds Miliband and Balls might all too easily walk: saying that there is nothing wrong with the structure of the current benefits system, that no improvements can be made and that we can learn nothing from extreme cases. Owen Jones, for instance, who is one of the most visible and articulate defenders of the current system, has drawn an analogy with Harold Shipman. We don’t blame doctors as a whole for the crazy antics of one mass murderer, so why should we draw general conclusions about the welfare system from the state-subsidised life of one outlandish and terrible individual?

This sounds a superficially plausible argument, but once you start to pick it apart, it’s riddled with holes. The Shipman Inquiry made a number of recommendations for improvements in the light of the case. Better training for coroners. More control over access to controlled drugs by doctors and pharmacists. It even drew wider conclusions about the role of the General Medical Council and the way in which medics are overseen. It is possible to recognise that the vast majority of doctors are not like Harold Shipman while realising there was a system in place which had allowed Harold Shipman to exist. Perhaps we shouldn’t care about phone hacking? After all, it’s only the extreme actions of a few rogue tabloid journalists and it would be wrong to tar anyone else with the same brush? It’s an argument which goes absolutely nowhere intellectually.

God knows Philpott’s motives for having so many kids. (Or – given his reported personal hygiene habits – the willingness of so many different women to accommodate his desires.) Some people have speculated it was about controlling further the women whose lives he dominated and although I’m not a psychologist, that seems pretty plausible. Perhaps his motives were not – as the right-wing press likes to suggests – to bring in more money. But the left cannot shy away from the fact that more money did flow into the household with every child. And given the man’s violent history and conviction for attempted murder, doesn’t society have a right to draw the line somewhere?

Owen Jones says there are fewer than 200 families in the system like this. But this is a little disingenuous. He’s taking 10 children as the benchmark. There are actually 40,000 families in receipt of benefits who have over five kids. So is it a taboo subject to ask whether the state should support people so far, but no further?

This is the profound danger for the left. Dismissing every question as an attack on the welfare state or part of some right-wing ideological agenda. Of course, the Coalition government is ideological. They do intend to do real harm to the poorest in society, while disgracefully supporting tax cuts for the super rich, including members of the Cabinet. We should feel rightly angry about this. But anger alone and defence of the status quo will lead to disaster, just as surely as it did in the Thatcher era.

I spent the whole of the 1980s marching for causes that failed to resonate with the majority of the population. Meanwhile, the Conservatives won large majorities in the 1983 and the 1987 elections. It was only when the left was better in tune with the views of the public that it managed to score victories. Apartheid was one example. Perhaps the most obvious one though was the poll tax, which led to Thatcher’s downfall. She misjudged the public mood very badly and paid the price.

Are politicians there to lead or to follow? The truth is they need to do both. This is what makes politics such a difficult balancing act. Labour can lead the debate on welfare and help to defend the most vulnerable in society. But not if it fails to recognise where most ordinary people are right now. Not if it fails to read the polls which show support for the welfare state in steady decline since the early 1990s. It can only succeed if it creates its own positive vision for change that resonates more strongly with the electorate. At the moment, there is no sign of this happening. And that’s the worst possible news for the people who rely on the welfare state the most.