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2008: The Year of Realisation?
[Analysis] Exploding the Thatcherite consensus
John Patrick Boland (JohnBoland)     Print Article 
Published 2009-01-01 09:16 (KST)   
It was late November 1990 that the British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher announced her intention to resign after her leadership of the Conservative party had been challenged. In the subsequent parliamentary debate that followed, and despite the fact she was bringing to an end her period of 11 years in power, she claimed to have "rescued Britain from the parlous state to which socialism had brought it."

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The irony now is that Britain stands (almost) alone as we exit 2008 as the nation that many commentators believe is worst-positioned to deal with the continuing ravages of the economic crisis that has taken hold around the world in recent months. The head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Dominique Strauss-Kahn, has personally expressed worry at Britain's "disturbing" level of debt.

Eighteen years after Thatcher and her policy initiatives claimed to have reinvigorated Britain it now appears that the nation is going to be looking for someone to "rescue Britain from the parlous state to which Thatcherism has brought it."

Britain's post-Second World War consensus which held nationalization, welfare and a collective approach as its pillars lasted throughout the 1950s and 1960s before being undone by the economic ravages of the 1970s. The dislocation of that decade laid the foundations for the triumph of the ideology of the New Right and the Thatcherite agenda in the 1980s.

This agenda held as its cornerstone the watchwords of individualism, enterprise and efficiency - privatization being the distinct policy contrast with what had gone before. This approach was bought hook, line and sinker by the New Labour project of the mid-1990s and thus a new consensus prevailed over British politics ... arguably until now.

It is clear that the current dislocations that are being seen are far from being short-term as serious financial adjustments are being made and will continue to be made - possibly for several years to come. However, just as Prime Minister Gordon Brown attempts to claim that recent troubles emerged in very recent times it is important for social commentators and citizen journalists to provide additional context whenever possible.

Furthermore, elements of doubt are now being sown about the current economic consensus that put wealth creation at the heart of its approach - now seemingly at the expense of almost everything else.

The political agenda advanced since the 1980s convinced people that everyone could be a winner - or at the very least everyone could be a stakeholder. The Right To Buy scheme sold off council houses to tenants and made possible for many the dream of home ownership - but it also now leaves millions today waiting on social housing lists due to housing shortages. More damaging is the way it went toward perpetuating the myth that the economic fortunes of British citizens lay in housing and ensured the purchase of bricks and mortar came to be seen as an investment rather than simply a home.

Elsewhere, the 1980s saw a boom in share ownership as major companies secured injections of capital and ordinary citizens became aware of another way to attempt to secure further financial gain. The drawback that we are now painfully aware of is the fact that companies quickly grew responsible solely to their shareholders - wider notions of corporate and social responsibility seemed to wane in significance compared to the necessity of returning profit for the broad swathes of people who now held stakes in Britain's business activities.

The other massive concern (again, as we are now finding out) is that no one seemed to save anything or put a little bit aside for the inevitable rainy day. Consider the case of Halifax Bank of Scotland (HBOS). This is an organization that now technically no longer exists after the emergency deal that saw it become part of the enlarged Lloyds Banking Group. Yet, it recorded pre-tax profits of £5.7 billion (US$8.3 billion) in 2006 which had increased from £4.8 billion ($7.1 billion) in 2005.

Admittedly, HBOS was hit more by a perfect storm in September 2008 as opposed to a mere rainy day yet the distribution of such massive profits in the years preceding its rapid demise (with apparently scant regard for long term objectives or business viability) testifies to the culture of short term gain that is representative of the kind of society we now live in.

Additionally, the transfer of ownership of many state entities throughout the 1980s provides another classic example of short term profit over long term social safeguarding. Privatization ensured that famous British names such as British Airways, British Rail and British Telecom were transferred out of state hands to become more efficient and profitable. Of course, the long term decline in standards and service has now become the bane of many ordinary citizens' lives.

In the case of the world's favourite airline the Air Transport Users Council (AUC) reported in February 2008 that it was the second highest offender of 24 European airlines for losing passenger luggage. The infamous opening of London Heathrow's new Terminal Five in March 2008 did not serve to boost the airline's credibility either. With regard to British Rail it no longer exists - instead travelers on Britain's rail network are served by a mixed-up confusion of different companies running seemingly disconnected services across different areas of the country.

British Telecom saw initial gains through privatization ebb away as it struggled to assert itself in what became an overburdened marketplace - choice can be beneficial for a consumer but when a postcode search for telephone providers in my local area reveals 10 different companies it almost becomes disheartening trying to sift through the vast terms and conditions to establish what is actually a good deal and not ultimately an expensive con.

It is always interesting trying to reflect on historical events as and when they happen - their true significance is often not seen until long after the events have passed through the record books. That, in part, will be mankind's perennial problem - always seeing things too late.

The 1950s and 1960s saw general agreement at a high political level which took a whole subsequent decade to unravel - there were many shocks throughout the 1970s which culminated in the 1979 Winter of Discontent which shattered the "first" post-war consensus. Eerily, the 1980s segued (although admittedly not so neatly and after many bitter disputes) into the 1990s with the consolidation of a new "second" consensus - signified by the ideological development of New Labour.

Will it come to be seen that the first decade of the 2000s may actually constitute the series of shocks that shatters the "second" post-war consensus? After all, there were warning shots as early as December 2001 with the Enron fraud and corporate bankruptcy. The "credit crunch" and financial crises of 2008 are actually really nothing new in the context of our contemporary societies - perhaps it is just the culmination of our own era's dodgy decade.

©2008 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter John Patrick Boland

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