A Sociological Autobiography: 24 – Maggie Thatcher, Milk-Snatcher

By | February 5, 2014

When Margaret Thatcher was Education Secretary under Heath (and he was always to feel that she should have remained ‘under him’, hence the record-breaking ‘great sulk’), she abolished free milk in primary schools. To us babyboomers this was a deeply symbolic act, bucking the ethos and thrust of the welfare state. It was a marker of what was to come.

The 1980s bore witness to events beyond my excursions into print and the ups and downs of teaching. There could have been no greater or more ironic contrast between Thatcher’s citing of Francis of Assisi and her regime. Like child-like comrade-in-arms Ronald Reagan in a Republican USA she embraced and extracted every last ounce of flesh from what I have come to call ‘financial capitalism’. She may have been opinionated and strident, but to an observant sociologist she was less the author than the product of macro-change. She surfed the waves of a structural shift while others within the orbit of her regime and gaze drowned rather than waved. I shall return to this imminently.

Documents released a few weeks back, in January 2014, have exposed Thatcher’s lies about the non-political character of the miners’ strike: she personally micro-managed events. Not that those of us versed in the sociology or politics of the times had fallen for her propaganda. It was to be comprehensively exposed in Seumas Milne’s The Enemy Within: the Secret War Against the Miners, the first edition of which was published in 1994. The Thatcher government and MI5 had, he found, used phoney bank deposits, staged cash drops, forged documents, exercised unremitting surveillance and deployed agents provocateurs to ensure the defeat of the NUM. ‘King Arthur’ Scargill was in retrospect proved right; but – far more significantly – when it mattered he was neutralized and scuppered by the Tory media. The miners were Thatcher’s prize and iconic scalp. What she did to them she was then free to do to other unions and workers. I thought then and feel I can affirm now that the Thatcher legacy has been unambiguously regressive. The only positive comment I can make is that – unlike Blair – she delivered what it said on the tin. You got what you voted for! She did not rescue the British economy, rather she offered it up to stronger and rival, post-national forces; she initiated a series of de-regulations that squandered domestic manufacturing even as they privileged banksters; and she held workers to account for not inheriting or marrying capital.

Now here is a little sociology, forged in the 1980s but refined later. Thatcher, I have said, surfed structures that were not of her devising or making. She was a beneficiary of the transition to financial capitalism that antedated her premiership. She functioned on the cusp of a structural shift from one phase of capitalism to another that happened to be expedient for her; and she cashed in all she could. Her ideology, later characterized as ‘Thatcherism’, had its origins in the liberal capitalism that preceded the second world war, albeit tempered by Hayek and her shy, halting and politically inept mentor Keith Joseph. Markets are all, she announced, skipping Adam Smith’s nuances. She went as far as she could in her breach with the postwar, cross-party consensus. The insertion of a nominal ‘internal market’ into the NHS on the advice of American policy analyst Eindhoven impacted most on my own interests. But she could not then accomplish what her successors could. Instead, she prepared the ground, not just or mostly for John Major, but more significantly for New Labour and the beyond-the-pale Tory-Liberal Democrat coalition post-2010. New Labour was her immediate accomplishment: Thatcherism begat Blairism. She openly asserted her aspiration to destroy ‘the left’, and in this she was remarkably successful (though she would not have been in the absence of friendly structural change).

Her destruction of the left and promotion of buck-stops-here, corporate management and a ubiquitous neo-liberal individualism insinuated itself into my own life. In many respects she haunts Britain still. I witnessed in my daughters’ school friends and occasionally amongst work colleagues too a novel and growing ego-centred instrumentalism. Thatcher preached a self-centredness that in its predictable effects rewarded the ‘haves’ and stalled the ‘have-nots’. How expedient to deny the existence of society! You’re on your own: you succeed or fail by your own talents and endeavours; the British dream. It was and is precisely in terms of the structures and relations comprising society that Thatcher could have been held to account. After all, the best predictor of one’s success was and remains the success of one’s parents. ‘Success’ here translates into the accumulation of wealth and capital (idiomatically, ‘loads of money’). Little wonder the 1980s were a tough head-down time for sociologists and other social scientists. At the Ministry of Education Keith Joseph insisted on the renaming of the Social Science Research Council (SSRC), which became the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). There must not be scientific opposition to government policy! The government set its sights not only on the social sciences but also on the large population-based data-sets that were its bread and butter, fortunately to limited effect.

By the late 1990s I had found my own way of epitomizing the switch to financial capitalism. It involved above all else, I came to argue, the unfolding of a fresh class/command dynamic. Social class is objectively more important in financial capitalism even as its subjective importance has diminished. What does this mean? In a nutshell, the ownership and deployment of capital counts for more now, but in our individualized and relativised (some would say ‘postmodernised’) culture, class is less salient for identity-formation or our sense of who we are and cam become. Class constrains and enables us more not less; but we are less reflexive about it, and in any case any opposition must reckon with a culture of post-grand, pick-and-mix petit narratives (as Lyotard put in). The superfluity of ‘choices’ we are now faced with are essentially rhetorical. It is an ideology-based rhetoric that keeps us spending money we haven’t got on things we don’t want.

Thatcher, in short, was at the centre of a national or state power elite (reflecting relations of command) significantly more responsive to the class interests of a small hard-core of increasingly transnational financiers, businessmen and rentiers who formed a cabal within the capital executive (reflecting relations of class). I often quote the American historian David Landes’ observation that ‘men of wealth buy men of power’, adding that they get more for their money in financial capitalism than hitherto. I would now argue that the power elite of the state and the cabal within the capitalist executive comprise Britain’s increasingly integrated and prosperous governing oligarchy. But I am getting ahead of myself once more. All this can wait awhile.


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