Sunday, 28 April 2013

My Uncle's Thumb

A few years back, my uncle (who reads this blog, so my apologies if I'm getting the details of the story wrong) got a bad infection in his thumb (or finger?), bad enough that the medical professionals involved in the decision advocated amputating the thumb. My uncle is a keen (and excellent) guitarist and pianist, and the loss of a finger was a horrible prospect for him. Fortunately, a better solution was found, the infection dealt with and the finger saved.

My point? Not every solution to a problem is necessarily a good thing.

Some friends of mine (some of whom also read this blog - Hi Andy!) are going to a public debate titled 'Was Thatcherism Good for Britain?' this week. I won't be joining them, partly because it's at an inconvenient time, partly because in this city it seems very likely to devolve into a shouting match, and partly because I think they're asking the wrong question, for several reasons. I felt it probably worth saying something, then, even though I'm not going to the debate.

First off, the use of the past tense here is pretty inappropriate. Commentators seem to be more or less in agreement that David Cameron is a Thatcherite. It's pretty rare to find anyone who strongly objects to calling Tony Blair a Thatcherite, and even Gordon Brown is semi-regularly accused of Thatcherism. So it's wrong to suggest that Thatcherism is 'over', a thing of the past. The details and effects of Thatcherism may be different these days, but the ideology is still going. But OK, perhaps we can read the question as 'were the policies of Thatcher's premiership, insofar as they represented a consistent ideology, good for Britain?'

(It's worth noting that the question of whether Thatcherism is even an ideology at all is a loaded one, but I think we can worry about that some other time.)

A bigger worry from the present perspective is that there are at least three things 'Thatcherism' could refer to. The first is Thatcher's nostalgia-driven, oppressive social policy, the second is her brutal, authoritarian leadership style, and the third is her laissez-faire economic policy. Since the first gave us Section 28 and all it stood for (among other things, I'm sure, but Section 28 is the one I'm most familiar with), and the second, if nothing else, created the precedent for Tony Blair's wars and war crimes, I think it's fair to say that the suggestion that either might have been good for Britain is in exceptionally poor taste.

That leaves Thatcher's economic policies. Apart from mentioning this, I'm not going to tackle the arguments put forward by right-wing ideologues in favour of free-market capitalism (I don't really have the level of understanding I'd like, and I don't have good sources at my fingertips), but I do want to do a quick 'my uncle's thumb' argument here.

The problem that Thatcherism is supposed to have solved, economically, is the unmanageable power of the British trades unions in the 1970s. I'm not going to deny there was a problem there, although it's arguable whether the problem was the power of the unions or their failure to cooperate effectively and take a long-term view. My point is simply this; what we have now is rather the opposite - ungovernable, tax-dodging, media-controlling corporations. There's no question that the union problem has been dispensed with - the last time a strike affected me, its net effect was to spare me an exam I might otherwise have done rather poorly in.

The power of the unions, remember, was the power of the British people. The immense, overwhelming problem we have these days is a feeling of disenfranchisement and hopelessness, the feeling that nothing we can do can change public policy or wrest back control of our government from corporate interests. The unions of the 70s were an infected thumb, but are we better off without them, or did they just need a good course of antibiotics?

The stated intention of Thatcherite economics and all similar capitalist models is to give corporations more freedom - more power - so it's not like we can argue that Thatcher wasn't trying to create the current situation. Is the current situation better than it was thirty years ago? (Actually, in some ways - notably communications technology - it is, but I don't think most of those ways can be traced to Thatcher's policies, and certainly not to her ideology).

Which of course, finally, brings us to the question of what 'good for Britain' means. If we mean purely GDP, well, that fell for the first half of Thatcher's reign, but then improved sharply. If income inequality is a better measure, Thatcher oversaw the most significant rise seen in this country in the modern era (p.9 offers an overview). Thatcherites will of course prefer a GDP-based judgement; Thatcher's critics will argue that low inequality tends to better reflect quality of life. There's the question of whether 'Britain' means the British crown, the ~62 million British citizens and residents, or something more abstract.

Ultimately, while it's good to have a public discourse (possibly not face to face, given what I've said before about the effects of anger in public contexts) about political issues, there are so many weaknesses with the question offered that I can't see this particular debate being much use. I don't have time or space to give a detailed argument, but a better question might be 'Thatcher's economic policies had the explicit intent of reducing restrictions on the behaviour of corporations. Have these policies been successful, and if so what was their effect on the quality of life of the British public?' Wordier, I know, but that's the price of clarity.

1 comment:

  1. Almost right.. it was not amutation, but they did want to fuse the bones of my left middle finger together. Devastating for a guitarist. And even now my fionger has a weird kink in it where I lost a bit of bone...
    but here is the true story..