Monday, 23 January 2012

“I blame Thatcher”: Britain and the hangover of Capitalism

As part of the "Wroclaw, the heart of Europe" series, whereby people write guest articles on this blog (thus bringing me some extra readers!), thereby using the internet for dialogue about issues not often shown in the mainstream media, here is the latest installment (the last one is here), by Roy who writes at, a blog about spirituality, postmodernism and 1980s culture.  It's a decent read.

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When we hear news stories from countries that were formally part of the Soviet Union, we often rationalise their economic and political turmoil as consequences of swift regime changes in the 1990s. We assume that everyone in those nations suffers from a form of post traumatic stress disorder having lived under totalitarianism for, in some cases, almost their entire lives, and that this explains why they are not open to western liberal ideas that we take for granted.

Yet very rarely do we ever consider the consequences of Cold War capitalism on our own western society. For over thirty years "East" and "West" built up increasingly pointless arsenals of nuclear weapons with which they could obliterate each other in the event of a conflict escalating. Both sides would never have admitted to being the trigger-happy one, and many people doubt they would ever have seriously been considered as a form of conflict resolution, yet their presence left an indelible mark on our national consciousness and it is intimately connected with the way we remember World War II.

George Michael and WHAM! were standard-bearers for the new capitalism, but what price did Britain pay for the Club Tropicana lifestyle?

Growing up, my childhood was full of warlike imagery, as I am sure was the case across Eurasia. In other countries, particularly post-Soviet ones, these were images of missiles, parades of soldiers emphasising the strength of the regime. For Britons, however, we were bombarded with stories of domestic strength despite chaos on the ‘Home Front’. Between 1939 and 1941 over 41,000 Britons died in bombing raids carried out by Luftwaffe planes, and millions were left homeless. That is a tragedy I seek not to belittle, and it is understandable that we Britons would wish to try and find a way of comprehending, even rationalising what happened. However, from this a myth has grown of a nation united in solidarity to defeat the foe, a little island facing the ‘Bosch’ in a David-Goliath battle.

From the classic sit-com "Dad's Army"

In Britain there has been much talk recently of the ‘Big Society’, a Britain in which more people take voluntary  responsibility for the provision of amenities previously funded by the taxpayer. While many have been sceptical of a plan that allows the government to cut public services accordingly, the leitmotifs of this philosophy hark back to the fiction of a wartime Britain united in community fervour, when you gathered with the family in your Anderson or Morrison shelter and sung songs, knitted socks or read a copy of the London Illustrated News waiting for the bombs to stop falling, in which you took in neighbours whose houses had been destroyed.

While solidarity no doubt occurred as people had to work together, what was at the time a horrific and terrifying time of tribulation has perversely become a model for how Britain and Britons should ideally behave. There was a common goal to unite around and a conveniently unambiguously ‘evil’ enemy in the shape of Nazism. When the war ended with Britain sustaining approximately 1% of war casualties, not only had Britain been vindicated as a nation, but also as a moral entity. This was important because at this time Britain also stood for an empire as well, and these virtues of Britishness had been spread round the world. 

Within thirty years of the events of World War II, Britain’s self image of nationhood was under threat. Unemployment hit record levels under both Callaghan’s Labour government and then Thatcher’s Conservative regime. The optimism of the 1960s, which gave Britain a fleeting cultural renaissance with the ‘Mersey Sound’ and ‘Swinging London’ as exportable commodities, had died away and there was a genuine feeling of national decline. In this period, war films such as The Great Escape, The Longest Day, Bridge over the River Kwai and A Bridge Too Far were box office draws, three hour long epic tales of British ‘grit’ and determination in the face of incomprehensible evil. In Bridge over the River Kwai, Japan’s brutality is directly contrasted with the civilised British adherence to law as Alec Guinness’ commanding officer is hit for pointing out an article of the Geneva Convention. Nationhood in War films is easy to define.

Then in April 1982 Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands, and Britain witnessed a unique moment of national unity. Almost all are united in support of the Falklands War, which is the only conflict of the past thirty years Britain has been involved in that has been morally comprehensible: Islanders want to remain British and are invaded by Argentineans, so we protect them. 255 British and over 600 Argentineans died to make national unity possible, and hundreds more were injured in the sinking of HMS Coventry and HMS Sheffield, not to mention the ARA General Belgrano, still a controversial act of war.

Thatcher in Conservative Party Conference mode, probably between 1982-1987

When the General Election came round in 1983, the Conservatives won a resounding victory, giving Margaret Thatcher a democratic mandate to begin her reforms of Britain in earnest. Markets were loosened up, the Trade Unions were emasculated through often brutal strikes, industries and businesses operated by the government were privatised and the phrase ‘council housing’ was turned into a by-word for poverty. Yet most Britons have a complicated relationship with Thatcher, for as much as she is reviled by those whom she left to flounder (the City of Liverpool being the most prominent example) most Britons benefited materially from her actions. This, however, had consequences that remain painful to this day.

Allowing people to buy their council homes and invest in shares gave people the chance to accumulate wealth on a new scale, and many ventured into this new capitalist paradise with glee. Shopping centres were developed and ‘credit’ lost the stigma it once had. Former Liverpool Council Deputy Leader Derek Hatton is a good example of how this system corrupted all. A controversial figure effectively declaring war on the government in Westminster during his time as a councillor, in 2008 it was revealed he was now a property developer in Cyprus. The journey from Militant Trotskyist to Capitalist was always Thatcher’s aim. 

British Gas released their shares as part of a huge 
publicity campaign, led by the slogan 'If you see Sid, tell him

Hatton is aware of the hypocrisy of this action though. In a recent radio interview, he pointed out that Thatcher’s legacy will always be the fact she allowed Britons to be greedy. The three decades leading up to the Credit Crunch in 2008 were a time of wealth and prosperity, but one that is now seen in a different light.

Margaret Thatcher always claimed she believed allowing people the freedom to make money would make them better people, though David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ gimmick is essentially an attempt to patch up the damage done to British society by three decades of unbridled capitalism. The riots that took place in many of Britain’s major cities last summer were just one expression of how capitalism has destroyed the fabric of British society. Many were dismayed as an act of protest at the shooting of Mark Duggan became a ‘smash-and-grab’ exercise in looting. All comparisons with the morally justifiable Brixton riots of 1981, which were a genuine reaction to police brutality towards afro-Caribbean communities, were lost as images of hooded youths stealing pairs of trainers filled the papers.

The 'Keep Calm and Carry On' range of merchandise

So Britons should be careful when looking at post-Soviet nations and judging them too harshly for laws which are perhaps distasteful to western sensibilities. These attitudes will fade with time and integration, though what we as those who suffered from an unbridled capitalist regime for so long must do is be willing to speak to those in nations that are far more foreign to us than far-eastern nations are. 

Open and honest dialogue might allow us to learn something from the natural repulsion to inequality and unfairness that a lot of people from formerly Soviet countries have, as well as the desperately sought after feeling of community that Britons so desire. Either way, it is as much of a national trial to come to terms with capitalism as it is to come to terms with communism. As liberating as it is to say “I blame Thatcher”, she did not force us to enter into the capitalist world, she merely opened the gate and let us run. The sooner we are honest with ourselves about what we let ourselves become the better.

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