Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Collectivism and Thatcher's "Classless" Society in British Fiction and Film

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Collectivism and Thatcher's "Classless" Society in British Fiction and Film

Article excerpt

There was a square of cardboard in the window where the glass had been smashed. During the night one corner had worked loose and scraped against the frame whenever the wind blew" (Barker [1982] 1999, 9). Like many other novels of the early 1980s, Pat Barker's Union Street (1982) begins with a description of a crumbling home, making manifest the predicament of characters whose security and stability are under attack. The wind here freely enters the Brown household, circulating ominously throughout this novel and its successor, Blow Your House Down (1984), whose very title unites reader and character, suggesting the precarity of the dwellings and, by extension, the economic situations of the women both novels take as their subjects.

Throughout the Thatcherite 1980s, representations of such class-based collectivism were on the decline, even in texts with like themes: "He was going to be alone, there wasnt going to be no cunt, no cunt, he was going to be fucking alone, that was the way he was going to die, he fucking knew it, it was a fucking racing certainty" (Kelman [1991] 1998, 264). This concluding line from James Kelman's 1991 story "By the Burn" resembles the pessimistic endings of Barker's novel, and again a working-class character struggles with social invisibility, but it shifts from an accessible collective to a highly personal and individual isolation. In the move from female to male, from indoor to outdoor, from an ensemble to a lone protagonist, we can trace a transformation in public discourse about the "underclass." Certainly many eras have been a backdrop for similar concerns, but the Thatcherite rhetoric of the 1980s stands out as one of the most potent impositions of an ideological worldview onto the forms and themes of fictional texts since socialist realism.

Thatcherite shifts in discourse have been particularly pronounced in representations of class status. In keeping with Margaret Thatcher's remark that "class is a Communist concept. It groups people as bundles and sets them against one another" (1992), John Major began his regime with a call for a "classless society" (quoted in Oakley 1990). Tony Blair remarked in September 1999 that "the class war is over" (Blair 1999). Gordon Brown told his party in 2007 that "a class-free society is not a slogan but in Britain can become a reality" (quoted in Crow and Pope 2008, 1045). Finally, in a BBC interview in 2008, David Cameron felt compelled to proclaim that he didn't "believe this is a class-ridden society.... I think that's a load of rubbish" (quoted in Behr 2008).

These oratorical gestures illustrate how successfully Thatcher reconceived the representations of class politics and of capitalism in Britain, something perceived by her opponents even during her tenure. Stuart Hall, for example, noted in 1988 that Thatcherism "has succeeded, to some degree, in aligning its historical, political, cultural and sexual 'logics' with some of the most powerful tendencies in the contemporary logics of capitalist development" (1988, 276). The Iron Lady's ability to control the terms of debate was something Labour needed to emulate if it were to survive, he argued, including recognizing the "decomposition] and fragmentation]" of "class as a unified political force" (281). Michael Rustin's analysis of the "unfinished business" of modernizing the British economy took a similar stance, observing that "the motive force of the changes taking place lay in the spheres of class relations and class strategies, not technologies" (1994, 74). As David Cannadine puts it, "As a result of her policies and her rhetoric, Thatcher thus went a long way toward achieving her ambition of banishing the language of class from public discussion and political debate about the structure and nature of British society" (1999, 14). (1)

That there has been an extension of the economic mind-set of the 1980s into more recent decades is no surprise. What has been largely overlooked, though, is how thoroughly even fictional texts sympathetic to social and economic working classes have been shaped by Thatcherite linguistic frameworks. …

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