Planned Ruination: Thatcher's Britain

By Buchanan, Keith | Monthly Review, February 1988 | Go to article overview

Planned Ruination: Thatcher's Britain

Buchanan, Keith, Monthly Review


Numerous thinkers and writers have long criticized the whole basis of the society of "always more," the society which places the whole emphasis of human life on having rather than on being. Such criticisms indeed are an explicit element in most of the world's great religious and thus long antedate the modern "Age of Affluence," which rests obscenely on the (planned) deprivation and misery of three quarters of humankind.

Politicians, however, have always been aware of how people's needs--as well as the craving for novelty--could be manipulated so as to obscure the real issues at stake and to block any movement toward those changes which in seeking to improve life for the ordinary man and woman, might involve a challenge to established power.

The latter half of the twentieth century has seen a remarkable growth in the techniques and scale of such manipulation, especially in the so-called "developed" societies. This manipulation has been directed toward expanding the market for the products--both goods and services--of the "trash culture" so that the most trivial luxuries of the wealthy have gradually become the "needs" of the middle class and the upper levels of the working class. It has also given politicians an almost limitless power of playing on the urge to acquire such "needs." awakening those tendencies to greed and grab which had long been restrained by the forces of class solidarity and by simple human decency.

The outstanding example of the cold and calculated exploitation of these latent antisocial tendencies in sectors of the electorate is provided by Maragaret Thatcher and the British Tory Party. The success of such a "program" (if indeed it can be dignified with such a term) is apparent from the recent general election results. To begin to understand the nature of the game, we have to sketch as background the impact on British society of the two preceding terms of Tory management.

The Thatcher Touch

Since Margaret Thatcher first came to power in 1979, the number of people living below the official poverty line in Britain increased from 6 million to 11.7 million by 1986. Employment in manufacturing industry has decreased by almost 2 million, while the number employed in the service sector has increased by 746,000; as a writer in the Guardian (London) put it tersely, there has been a "passage from an iron and steel economy to one of hamburgers and chips." In fact, as an industrial power Britain has been surpassed by Italy and has now been caught up with by Brazil. The former "workshop of the world," as it once proudly called itself, has become "a nation of bar staff and car park attendants, of messengers and porters, apprentice hairdressers and tele-sales people, security guards and drivers, theater ushers and automatic car-wash attendants." And for the eight million who are employed on a part-time or temporary basis or who are self-employed there is only partial social security coverage--and these eight million amount to one third of the total employment.

These economic conditions are inevitably reflected in the rundown of the social infrastructure. Lord Scarman, who examined the social roots of the inner-city riots which have been a feature of the Thatcher era in Britain, commented that the country was headed toward "a slum society." It is estimateed that the homeless now total 250,000, some 4 million houses do not measure up to minimum standards of health and safety, and that an additional one million houses are simply unfit to live in.

Britain, which led the developed world in health care a generation ago, now has one of the worst health records among the developed countries, devoting a smaller proportion of its resources to health care than any European nation except Greece. And the economic collapse of many areas of Britain is a major factor behind the deteriorating health situation; in one of the most deprived areas of the Northeast, for example, deprivation explained 80 percent of the poor health. …

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