Beginning to See the Light: I Didn’t Leave the Tory Party They Left Me!
‘Starved to death in a waiting room
Cheap concern and rosary beads
Did not solve screaming needs‘
In the last few weeks I have reconnected with a former colleague and old friend from late 80s early 90s, who was surprised how much my views had changed.
As you will gather from the dates this was the era of Thatcherism. This column has often criticised her policies and legacy, but it has also conceded that some of her reforms and policies were of value.
On the positive side, to me her legacy will always be bringing us out of the gloom and doom of post-war Britain. We went from a sea of grey to glorious technicolour; London was buzzing, aspiration was in the air.
The cult of Thatcher has become a millstone around the Tory’s necks, today, the policies look tired and out-of-touch, especially post-Covid.
Thatcher inherited a country so divided it was almost at war with itself. There was public uproar at the excesses of trade unions: people understood that inflation drove the endless wage demands, it was their willingness to inflict discomfort to force their own political agenda.
During the ‘Winter of Discontent’ in 1979, almost half of the hospitals in the U.K. were accepting only emergency patients, rubbish collection stopped, and petrol shortages loomed as flying pickets blocked refineries. And, it was the coldest winter in 20 years.
Central planning was being used long after it stopped delivering the benefits that drove wartime Britain. Companies such as British Rail, and British Leyland swallowed endless taxpayer-funded subsidies.
Sunak also inherits a country in crisis, the key difference this time is that, after 12-yrs of Tory governments, he can only blame his predecessors. Whereas, Thatcher had one big advantage; no legacy issues, Labour had been in power.
Sunak inherits a country with double-digit inflation, recovering from the shock of Covid, and a hard-Brexit. The latter is one of the great self-inflicted disasters of modern times.
‘Sunak inherits a country with double-digit inflation, recovering from the shock of Covid, and a hard-Brexit’
In addition, he has his own winter of discontent looming as public sector employees look set to strike. Both have the issue of inflation impacting the real value of wages, however in the 1970’s unions were in their pomp and wages increased consistently. By comparison, the last 12-yrs of Tory governments have seen the real income of the majority falling, especially in the public sector were with real annual earnings are C.6% lower than in 2010.
The average pay of an NHS nurse has fallen in real terms by 8% (£3,000) since 2010, however this rises to C.20% for some experienced nursing roles. The chancellor has said he accepts ‘the picture that the NHS is on the brink of collapse‘ but warned the struggling service will also need to play its part in helping fix Britain’s broken economy.
NHS England figures show C. 20,000 people a day are waiting at least four hours in A&E, with many others stuck in hospital corridors waiting for a bed. 7.1 million people in England were waiting for hospital treatment at the end of September, the highest since records began in August 2007.
Police officers have seen their annual gross pay fall by 14%, and secondary school teachers have had a real-terms cut of 13%.
Turning to education, the proportion of children eligible for free school meals (FSM) in England has jumped from 15% in 2019 to more than 22% this year.
1.9m children are currently eligible for FSM, however, the Child Poverty Action Group estimates that there are 800,000 children in families below the poverty line, on universal credit or other benefits that miss out on FSM.
‘The chancellor has said he accepts ‘the picture that the NHS is on the brink of collapse”
Headteachers say the effects of hunger on their students is stark. The head of a state secondary school in the West Midlands said; ‘I’ve got growing 14- and 15-year-old boys who cannot get enough to eat, their parents can’t afford the £2.60 we charge for lunches each day, and that causes all sorts of problems – stealing food, stealing money, all because they don’t have enough to eat.’
All parts of England are impacted:
- Wokingham or Windsor, where C. 10% of pupils are eligible for FSM.
- In Islington, Blackpool and Manchester, more than 40% of all children eligible. In the NE c. 1/3rd of pupils are eligible, compared with about 1/6th in the south-east.
Sunak’s position is made more difficult by the rise of the hard-right in the form of Brexit and the European Reform Group, who, whilst they aren’t a majority hold the party and PM in shackles.
The political legacy Sunak inherits includes two rounds of austerity, which have served only to disciplining the poor and protecting the rich. In addition the party has become progressively more authoritarian, e.g., the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act, banning protests and locking up those who take part in them for a year.
Sunak isn’t a pre-Brexit, liberal Tory, he was the chancellor who reduced universal credit by £1,000 p.a. just as the cost of living emergency began, and appointed a home secretary who wants to clamp down on ‘tofu-eating wokerati’ climate protesters for making too much noise.
Austerity has often been a tool of the far-right. Perhaps our most damaging dalliance with austerity was in the 1920s, spending was cut by 20%, causing wages to collapse, and creating a decade long recession. During this time, Mussolini took power in Italy; in his first speech to parliament he said, ‘Thrift, work, discipline … the budget has to be balanced as soon as possible.’ His ministers were inspired by the spending-cut politics practised in the UK
In her book, ‘The Capital Order: How Economists Invented Austerity and Paved the Way to Fascism’, the economic historian Clara E Mattei found highlights a memo that went round the Bank of England, which said’ ‘The Italian people are the descendants of Roman slaves … Mussolini and his Fascists seized power and restored order … and the people are reduced to the servitude which had been their lot for a score of centuries.’
‘Another trait we have in common with Mussolini is intimidating and victimising immigrants and protestors’
Another trait we have in common with Mussolini is intimidating and victimising immigrants and protestors, such as the Just Stop Oil activists. Last week, the home secretary labelled those taking direct action as ‘extremists‘, causing ‘serious disruption to the life of the community‘.
Whilst Sunak is a Thatcherite, what looked fresh, new, and forward looking in 1979, now looks stale, outdated, and regressive.
People talk about shrinking the state, balanced budgets and cutting taxes. It is debateable if Thatcher achieved of these in real terms, nonetheless she realised you couldn’t do it all in one go.
In the early years what she gave with one hand she took with the other; early tax cuts were funded by increases in VAT. Basically tax on spending funded tax cuts on income
If anything, her early years will be remembered for rapidly rising unemployment, and social unrest which saw some of the worst riots of the century in mainland Britain. What saved her politically, was the Argentinian invasion of the Falklands Islands in 1982. The success of our taskforce, led to a waive of jingoism that allowed her to call a snap election in 1983 that saw the Conservative Party win a 144 seat majority.
Whilst by 1983 her economic policies were beginning to work, inflation had fallen from 13.4% to 4.6%, the decisive factor was the Falklands war, which later led former Labour PM Jim Callaghan to say, ‘I wish I’d had a war.’
With this sweeping mandate, Thatcher set about balancing the budget, aided by the revenues from North Sea Oil and privatisations, which funded Lawson’s tax cutting budgets of 1987 and 1988.
In the last 8-weeks we have seen two unelected Thatcher tribute acts misunderstand what the cult required.
‘In the last 8-weeks we have seen two unelected Thatcher tribute acts misunderstand what the cult required’
Truss just thought of neoliberalism, fixating on unfunded tax cuts, and a ‘slash and burn’ of regulation, all designed to stimulate growth. What she failed to understand is that the markets who fund governments will not support unsound ideas such as unfunded spending. Contrary to what Sunak and Hunt would have us believe, the markets didn’t refuse to fund Truss’s ideas they simply said it will cost you more.
Thatcher succeeded because the understood patience, inflicting pain before rewards.
Sunak and Hunt equally misunderstand and champion austerity for no real reason. Inflation is only an excuse, Bank of England action on interest rates, and supply-side issues being overcome will deal with that.
Sunak and Hunt are repeating the hoax Cameron and Osborne played on us in 2010. Both are controlling the narrative, and telling us that deep spending cuts are a necessity, when they are only a political choice.
The GFC was a global crisis that required governments to provide massive bailout for the banks, increasing national debts. In the run-up to 2008, Osborne had supported the government’s spending levels and pledged to match them.
After the GFC, Cameron and Osborne took the opportunity to blame Labour for the economic crisis, claiming they had ‘maxed out the nation’s credit card’ and the greatest imperative was to pay it back whatever the cost. What followed was cuts to public services and benefits, and income tax cuts that disproportionately went to the better-off.
Today, Sunak and Hunt are using the same trick. The national debt has increased as a result of the Covid furlough package, the freezing of energy bills, and Trussonomics. They can’t use the credit card metaphor as they have been in government for 12-years, instead we have a ‘fiscal black hole‘ of £50bn that needs to be filled as we are again living beyond our means.
‘the markets didn’t refuse to fund Truss’s ideas they simply said it will cost you more’
This is smoke and mirrors which make it sound as if the government has no option. What we aren’t asking is how do we know the black hole is this deep?
The hole Hunt perceives is the gap between how big the OBR forecasts the national debt will be in the future and where he would like it to be according to his own rules.
These rules are a political choice, and has nothing to do with keeping the markets happy.
Data shows that the impact on borrowing rates caused by Truss’s short stay as PM have largely fallen away. She became PM on 06/09 when the 10-yrs Gilt yielded 3.10 and peaked at 4.51 on 26/09. Currently it is 3.34%. We should also remember that we had a 75bps increase in Base Rate on 03/11.
If the markets fear anything today it is the forecast of a prolonged recession due to unjustifiable austerity.
Thatcher also understood the impact of climate change, In a November 1989 address to the UN general assembly in New York, she talked of the looming climate disaster, of the melting of polar ice, the shrinking of the Amazon rainforest, and the prospect of more frequent hurricanes, floods and water shortages.
She said, ‘squabbling over who is responsible or who should pay‘ was a self-evident path to catastrophe: what was needed, she told her audience, was ‘a vast international, co-operative effort’, with no refusers or deniers. ‘Every country will be affected, ‘and no one can opt out.’
Today her supposed acolytes are in denial.
Sunak did a U-turn in bothering to attend Cop27, but contributed nothing of any substance. High profile right-wingers such as Kemi Badenoch and Suella Braverman, have sceptical views about their government’s ostensible net zero target. Both Truss, the former PM and the current incumbent are hostile to solar farms, and the climate change minister no longer attends cabinet meetings.
Rather than turning away from fossil fuels we are doubling down issuing new licences to oil and gas prospectors in the North Sea, whilst blocking new onshore windfarms. The ban on fracking was based on electoral reasons not for its negative climatic impact. Their excuse: we are in a crises and climate action must be relegated to the margins.
Globally, prospecting for oil and gas is increasing to an extent that could result in 115bn tonnes of climate-heating CO2 being pumped out, equivalent to more than 24 years of US emissions.
Since 2020 C.96% of oil and gas companies are reported to have spent $160bn dollars into exploration, none of which is compatible with the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) route to reaching net zero emissions by 2050 and limiting the climate crisis.
Worst still, the majority of the providers have increased their expansion plans by 20% since 2021, despite the IEA saying that no new fossil fuel projects should proceed if the world is to tackle global heating and its impact.
Another key issue from Cop27 was the need to channel finance to developing countries suffering the worst effects of climate change. This was gleefully seized upon by the right, their fawning press, and empty vessels such as Farage. In true populist fashion it was the establishment and ‘paranoid fantasies about the British government sending ‘untold billions’ to undeserving governments that should actually be thanking us for the wonders of industrialisation.’
In summary the Tory’s left me, I didn’t leave them. Much changes in 40-yrs, and solutions and policies need to reflect that.
We have continued to flounder because we are past-master in failure, we glory in it. But don’t worry we can point to a glorious past, we are the ultimate regressives, returning to the 1930’s. 1
‘Final in a fade
Watch her slowly die
Saw it in her eyes
Choking on a bed
Flowers rotting dead’
A very personal piece from Philip this week, and all the more powerful because of it. I’m going to let his preamble do the talking, because it is so authentic, and all the more so because I recently had the pleasure to meet the ex-colleague and friend he references, and that makes his story all the more poignant:
‘This week I deliberately decided to ignore the budget, I mean, what’s the point? We are in a mess in general, but focussing on finance, we are paying the price for 12-yrs of continuous Tory mis-government, including two bouts of austerity and Brexit. Even given the black swan events of Covid and the war in Ukraine things shouldn’t be this bad.
As you will recollect from our meeting with my old friend mentioned in the article, he was surprised how much my ideas had changed. He was right, they have changed, because the world has changed and what is required must be in-step with that.
I have chosen to compare the times when he and I worked together with today. Whilst there are great similarities such as inflation, and strikes., there are great differences.
The 70’s saw the demise of state planning and big government, in place of free-market thinking and small government. The latter is as out-of-date today as the former was in 1979.
The underlying driver for Brexit was Thatcher’s deindustrialisation of the north and midlands, the red wall, which was the foundation stone of the disenchanted seduced by Brexit and levelling-up.
Economically, the Tory’s have stayed rooted in the past, with samo, samo. The only area they have progressed in is that of “politics”. By that I mean the political game, how to exploit voters. Even then they have revisited the past, having much in common with Fascist era Italy.
Within this I include clever use of the media and electorate. They have become masters of taking control of the narrative with short, sharp catch-phrases. “The credit card is maxed-out”; “taking back control; “£350 a week more for the NHS”; “Getting it done”; “Levelling-up”; “£50-bn black hole.”
It’s all meaningless rubbish and lies, but tell a big lie often enough and it becomes people’s reality, the truth.
This is the lesson Labour needs to learn. Not to lie, but to be smart, simple messages that people can grasp hold of. The other point Labour needs to learn is that the Tory’s alone represent the right, the left is populated by Labour, LibDems, and the Greens. Together they can defeat the Tories, individually they can’t.
The longer the Tory’s remain in power the more this country will wallow in our collective failure. In the words of Liz Truss, “they are anti-growth”.
Lyrically we pay tribute to the late Keith Levene, who I came across several times in those heady days of 1976. An early member of the Clash, he found fame with Public Image Limited and their first 3-albums form an important part of the soundtrack of post punk. There was much to choose from, but I have picked “Annalisa” from the debut album, and “Swan Lake” from the follow-up, Metal Box.
RIP Keith. Enjoy!
Philip is a great believer in meritocracy, and in the belief that if you want something enough you can make it happen. These beliefs were formed in his formative years, of the late 1970s and 80s