In the archives of Newsweek magazine is a 2,000-word article credited to Margaret Thatcher, published in April 1992, and headlined “Don’t undo my work”. It is an amazing thing: a vulgar rendering of the basic argument of Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man, mixed with the pain of a once-powerful politician who now had precious little to do with her time, and outrage at the European Union’s Treaty of Maastricht. “I set out to destroy socialism because I felt it was at odds with the character of the people,” she wrote. “We were the first country in the world to roll back the frontiers of socialism, then roll forward the frontiers of freedom. We reclaimed our heritage.” In its final flourish, she refers to herself in the third person: “Thatcherism will live. It will live long after Thatcher has died, because we had the courage to restore the great principles and put them into practice, in keeping with the character of the people and the place of this country in the world.”
Up – or down – in the hereafter, what must she make of the strange point reached by the country she once ruled? Britain’s exit from the EU is an essentially Thatcherite project, which may yet result in the kind of laissez-faire dystopia she and her followers always wanted. But at the same time, we have seen something they thought they had ruled out for ever: the revival of an unapologetically socialist Labour Party, which is seemingly backed by a convincing majority of people under 40, and is possibly on the verge of taking power. Meanwhile, no end of wider developments – from the crises of such outsourcing giants as Carillion and Capita to mounting public unease about corporate tax avoidance – suggest that a sea-change is coming. Perhaps, in the midst of Brexit’s mess, we might be starting to wake up from what some people see as the 40-year nightmare of neoliberalism.
But what if Britain was never that neo-liberal, and there was not much of a nightmare in the first place? This is the argument attempted by Andrew Hindmoor, a professor of politics at Sheffield University. He wants to discredit an oft-told story: that “Margaret Thatcher’s election in 1979 marked the start of a still-continuing fall from political grace”, manifested in “dizzying levels of inequality, social decay [and] rampant individualism”, and the surrender to free-market ideology of the Blair-Brown governments.
His contention is that “neoliberalism has had a surprisingly limited impact on our collective understandings of the world around us” – and that the realities of inequality, privatisation, and the shrinking of the state have not turned out to be as awful as some people think. He wants to nudge Corbynite readers away from the idea that the New Labour era represented a long period of political drought. Britain, in his reading, has obvious problems but is hardly the scene of a disaster – and the people he maligns as left-wing “miserablists” ought to recognise it.
At a time when polarised argument on social media has obscured the fact that politics is usually cast in shades of grey, his nuanced case ought to be welcome. Indeed, as a trigger for thinking deeply about what has happened in and to this country – particularly since the mid-1990s – the book just about does its job. Part of its argument is based on a familiar script, and a list of (mostly) undeniable New Labour achievements: “significant public expenditure increases, the introduction of tax credits, a minimum wage, devolution, and freedom of information”.
Hindmoor also eloquently sets out evidence that public opinion, in so far as it is measured by pollsters and academic researchers, is now more socially liberal than it has ever been, and also full of the kind of left-of-centre thinking (redistribution of wealth, nationalised utilities) that Thatcher thought she had expunged. From time to time, all this skirts close to the blindingly obvious, but it’s at least built on solid facts about the country’s recent history. Hindmoor’s problem comes when he pushes his arguments into much more contentious areas, and everything threatens to unravel.
Whether his points are always sincere or sometimes part of an academic thought experiment is unclear. Among his other arguments, he underplays the severity of post-2010 austerity by citing both slight increases in real terms in overall public spending, and the Conservatives’ failure to convincingly cut the deficit. But neither detracts from millions of people’s experience of cuts, whether through the NHS crisis or the savaging of services provided by local councils – something he half-acknowledges before dropping a real clanger. “The costs of austerity have not been loaded on to the poorest and most vulnerable,” he writes, which is most of the way to being absurd.
Elsewhere, Hindmoor claims that in education policy, “academisation [sic] is not a form of privatisation”, on the basis that schools run by independent trusts are funded by government and subject to Ofsted inspections. He apparently refuses to entertain the idea that if schools are snatched away from elected local authorities and put in the unaccountable hands of often questionable organisations (some of which are now in grave financial difficulties), something significant has happened. In an equally flimsy treatment of the health service, he says that there should be an argument “whether the contracting out of NHS services to private companies is… tantamount to privatisation”, which is some logical somersault to attempt. And he has almost nothing to say about what has happened to the benefits system, in which a once collectivist, benign set of institutions and arrangements has been replaced by a machine that represents individualism – or, if you prefer, neoliberalism – at its nastiest.
A section about inequality is stuffed with graphs and desiccated numbers that ought to strengthen his case, but end up adding to its weakness. “The UK is a country in which a significant redistribution of income still occurs,” Hindmoor says, which is true, but still leaves open the question of whether “significant” equates to “enough”. His evidence for an upbeat verdict largely rests on a rather laboured concept – also used by the Office for National Statistics – which includes basic public services in its definition of “final income”. The problem there is that you end up trying to make a positive case for the state of the country based on the continuing availability of free roads, schools and hospitals, which strikes me as an argument built on somewhat lowly aspirations.
His reliance on macroeconomic statistics, moreover, cuts him adrift from reality. Inequality is not just about numbers but people’s sense of opportunity, having a stake in the future and connection to the rest of the country. In the end, even Hindmoor does not seem convinced. “Inequality did rise significantly in the 1980s,” he writes. “Wealth inequality is growing. Social mobility is poor.” The abiding impression is of someone needlessly tying themselves in knots.
Does believing that Britain has been repeatedly pushed in the wrong direction over the last three decades make you a “miserablist”? Not at all. Like many others I think Thatcherism wrought damage that has never been healed, and that New Labour swallowed far too much of its legacy and set precedents for subsequent Conservative politicians. The invasion of Iraq was probably the single biggest policy disaster in post-war history, and compared to the hallowed Labour government of 1945-51, the Blair administrations’ institutional legacy – beyond Sure Start centres, which are now being closed at speed – was pitiful. At the same time, I well know that Blair and his colleagues improved the country in lots of ways, and it would perhaps be nice to go back to the halcyon period of 1997-2003. But that is now impossible, thanks to a range of watershed developments that point to the need for something very different.
Hindmoor’s text only briefly touches on them, but in case anyone hasn’t noticed: wages have been stagnating for more than a decade, near-zero interest rates have not triggered any surge in investment, unsecured private debt is at its highest level since the 2008 crash, and the idea that profit-making corporations are the answer to the modernisation of the state looks increasingly threadbare. Put another way, an era that began in the early 1980s may well be in its death throes, a realisation etched on to the upbeat faces of the people who now crowd into Jeremy Corbyn rallies, and rarely look like “miserablists”.
For many reasons, their politics is not really my thing, but I can see why their movement fits its time, in a way that this book’s glossing-over of deep political and economic failures does not. Its author should maybe bear in mind the closing lines of Thatcher’s Newsweek piece: “You always have people who take the soft option. The apparently easy way out is the way that gets you into deepest trouble. The lesson is, you don’t soften fundamental principles. You positively push them forward into the future.”
John Harris writes for the Guardian
What’s Left Now? The History and Future of Social Democracy
Oxford University Press, 285pp, £20
This article appears in the 15 Feb 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist