Thatcher’s legacy

2011-08-12 00:00

BRITAIN has experienced its share of race riots and civil unrest over the years, but events since the mayhem in Tottenham last weekend have moved with bewildering speed. Parts of London look as if the Luftwaffe has returned. Predictably, the trouble has spread to other cities and even the cathedral city of Gloucester has seen looting. This appears to be a low-level civil war with a segment of the youth overturning every facet of civilised behaviour in defiance of authority.

The reactions are predictable. Those on the right decry lack of parental control, and demand robust policing and heavy jail sentences for the guilty. Those on the left deplore budget cuts, urban neglect and the decline of social services. Both are correct, but they lack historic perspective. Even informed comment seems unwilling to cast its mind back just a few decades. Take a bow, Margaret Thatcher, your true legacy is here at last.

Thatcher and her radical right-wing, neoliberal supporters claimed they stood for traditional values, often harking back to Victorian times. They lied and British voters, not renowned for their powers of intellect, took the bait. Thatcher was no Victorian. She despised the social consciousness that eventually led to the welfare state, just as she deliberately demolished other symbols of the old Britain: the coal-mining industry, the trade unions, the railways and strong local government.

Authoritarianism and the taste for the sort of business that is indistinguishable from greed were her forte. Unsurprising, perhaps, from the daughter of a Grantham grocer who reputedly watered down his customers’ milk. Many of Britain’s institutions succumbed during the eighties to managerialism and privatisation. Yuppie culture was celebrated: make as much money as you can as quickly as possible by any means and damn the consequences. Young businesspeople became accustomed to earning in their 20s more than professionals took home after years of hard, dedicated work.

Far from upholding tradition, Thatcherism fatally undermined many of the ethics and assumptions that had sustained national stability and identity. Her supporters’ patriotism extended little further than the thickness of their wallets.

This was Britain’s lowest hour, but her Conservative Party is not without its more thoughtful elements and she was duly consigned to the political wilderness after the famous rebellion of middle England. But by this time, globalisation was on the rise, so the ghost of Thatcher continued to haunt the land.

Fast-forward to the present. The world is about to enter another economic recession. Capitalism, wherever it is practised, including in its rawest form in Communist China, has grown increasingly rapacious. Its needs are simple: growth, cheap workers, consumers and profit. Individuals are needed only for what can be extracted from them: labour and consumption. More and more people have benefited from this system and the middle class has grown by leaps and bounds. But so too have those the system does not want.

There is no escape from individual responsibility and conscience, nor should any excuses be made for sociopaths who ruin the lives and livelihoods of others. The feral groups of mindless British youth communicating via illiterate text messages courtesy of the latest technological irrelevance (what law-abiding person needs encrypted messaging?) need to be taught a lesson appropriate to thugs and bullies.

But they are just as much Thatcher’s descendants as the yuppies. They too want a share of the goodies for minimal effort before they have made any contribution to society. Instead of inflated dividends at the expense of workers’ wages, they use a crowbar and break into Kumar’s electronics shop or Smith’s corner store.

Britain’s strength in this situation is that it has a very strong, cross-racial civil society. People are banding together to protect themselves and their property just as they did 70 years ago against another group of Nazis. A particularly perceptive piece by Jonathan Freedland in The Guardian has pointed out that Britain is a highly centralised state politically in which the main source of local authority is the police. Thatcher again: because much of municipal government was Labour (or Liberal in the case of Liverpool) controlled, she deliberately undermined it out of ideological spite. If the inevitable official inquiry comes to the conclusion that local civil and political authority needs strengthening, it will be on the right track.

And before South Africans get too smug, it is only because geographic apartheid still works that this country has not seen similar events. The issue by the Department of International Relations of an advisory warning against unnecessary travel to Britain is gross hypocrisy.

In Britain, present sociopathic behaviour is restricted to those intent on seizing a slice of materialist, consumer society. In South Africa our roads, and sometimes our homes, are invaded by people of similar temperament every day. We would be safer on the streets of London or Manchester than driving to work in Pietermaritzburg.

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