Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Are Thatcherite Attitudes Beginning to Fade?

I am not a regular reader of right-wing or tabloid newspapers, in fact I have little time for newspapers anyway as I drive around so much. When I lived in London I used to make a point of picking up newspapers of a different political slant to my own so that I was in touch with how other people saw the World. Travelling on the underground for two hours every day as I did, there were always abandoned newspapers around. Of course the bulk of the British population has always been conservative, and at times even Conservative, though even Margaret Thatcher only ever won a minority of the percentage of the votes, but because of the weird electoral system the UK has this often gave her a large majority of the seats in parliament. The bulk of the UK population is apolitical, often actually anti-political. However, this does not stop most people 'knowing what is right' and often having a far more right-wing list of policies (especially on capital punishment and immigration) than anyone in the Conservative Party would ever dare voice. As a campaign to encourage people to vote a couple of years ago, these people say 'I don't do politics', but in fact spend a lot of time ramming their political message down people's throats, yet because they see it as 'common sense' or 'simply what is right', they do not want it tarred with the brush of 'politics'. I always cringe when someone starts a sentence with 'I'm not a racist but ...' because you know a whole list of racist attitudes will follow.

The right-wing tabloid press, notably 'The Sun' and 'Daily Star' as well as the middle-ranking right-wing newspapers particularly 'Daily Mail' and 'Daily Express' have had an important role in shifting electoral behaviour especially in the 1980s-90s. When Tony Blair became leader of the Labour Party he visited Rupert Murdoch who owns 'The Sun' and the higher-ranking right-wing newspaper, 'The Times' to win his backing before trying to win public support. He knew that Murdoch's scare campaigns especially about the level of taxation that Labour would introduce had severely undermined the party's electoral chances and most certainly lost them the 1992 election which it had, up to the end, appeared that they would win.

We are now in a different world, though politically not that different. The Blair Party, which effectively was what New Labour was, stuck carefully to the Thatcher Consensus, not altering the economic pattern of little public social housing and privatised utilities and transport. The only alteration in this was the minimum wage which was set at a pretty low level, so that even those bosses who whined about it, actually found their pay bill rise minimally and because of the stimulus to consumption in so many households in the UK, domestic demand rose for certain low cost items, notably food, cheap clothing and cheap electrical goods, especially mobile phones. Gordon Brown who built his economic reputation on economic prudence did not move radically from the Thatcherite/Blairite policy, but the economic crisis of late 2008 shook the whole system up. Thatcher would have just let unemployment rocket. As I noted last year, various employers were eager to see the return of the 'whip of unemployment' and their wishes have been granted. Ironically, however, the collapse of banks notably Northern Rock and HBOS led the state to nationalise banks on a scale that would have even startled Clement Attlee the Labour prime minister 1945-51 who oversaw nationalisation of about 20% of the UK economy following the Second World War.

Through the 1990s and 2000s there were complaints about the huge bonuses and large salaries that many bosses were awarding themselves but these tended to be short-lived complaints that led to nothing. The bulk of the UK population clung to the Thatcher illusion that 'everyone can be a millionaire, so everyone's got to try' even though the bulk of the wealthy were a very narrow slice from privileged backgrounds to start off with. The assumption that long persisted was that any constraint on money making was a bad thing. Such an attitude was still around until last year. Fortunately things have changed. People realise that if the state had not stepped in then their mortgage lender in many cases would have simply folded. We have not experienced the recall of debts in the UK in the way we know from the Depression era of the UK, but widespread repossession and forced sales because the bank had collapsed rather than because the borrower had defaulted, would have been an immense trauma in the UK, a country with a society that believes its whole economic stability is based on housing. The arrogant, persistent greed of leading bankers even when they have had to be baled out by the state has slowly penetrated the strong adherence to Thatcherite values.

With house repossessions reaching 40,000 in 2008 and expected to exceed 75,000 in 2009 people have a sense, in contrast to the 1980s, that this was not 'necessary' and actually that with less greed from leading bankers and companies, they could be retaining their houses. For once the blame is being aportioned properly. I think this is due, in part, to this shock coming after years of stability since the end of the last UK economic problems ending in about 1994. When mass unemployment hit in the early 1980s, people had already had a decade of seeing heavy industry finding it hard to adapt to the move to a service economy, which became the dominant form of industry in Britain from 1974 onwards. Combined with that they had seen the impact of rising oil prices and saw an easy scapegoat in the Arab oil-producing countries. The 'War on Terror' including the invasion of Iraq had no impact on the average UK citizen and certainly nothing even approaching the scale of the collapse of the US subprime mortgage market has done.

Perhaps it is unsurprising, as 'The Guardian' highlighted this week that the British public is slowly beginning to shake off the Thatcherite mindset, or at least question some of its easy assumptions. In the budget a new top rate of 50% tax was announced for people earning over £150,000 (€166,500; US$217,500). Currently we have 40% if you earn over £37,400 and 20% for income below that with a varying amount depending on your circumstances but around £6,300 which you can earn tax free. In Sir Geoffrey Howe's first budget in 1979 the standard level of tax was reduced from 33% to 30% and the upper rate from 83% to 60% but he raised VAT (Value Added Tax, tax on purchases) from between 8-12.5% to 15% and petrol duty from 45% to 60% to compensate. Of course the monetarists believed lower taxes would stimulate the economy, though by raising indirect taxes Howe probably helped to accelerate the onset of the 1980s recession by further reducing consumption, though he would have seen such steps as anti-inflationary and one thing monetarists loathe is inflation. So, the introduction of the 50% band is hardly 'a 70s-style raid' as the 'Daily Express' portrayed it nor 'a return to the politics of envy' as the 'Daily Mail' said.

Gordon Brown did try a 'windfall' tax last year on power companies, who as I noted at the time, were making ever larger profits simply by raising prices and blaming the rise in oil prices. The reduction in their charges were very slow and piecemeal when the oil price came down. However, Brown, possibly thinking back to the windfall tax of 1949 introduced by Sir Stafford Cripps. He was unable to pull it off. Cripps and the rest of the Attlee government found they were unable to shift British industry the extent to which the country needed it moved, but they certainly had greater power in altering the economy than Brown has. He was told bluntly that any such tax would simply be passed on to the consumers he was trying to help. Thatcher delivered all power over our energy and its price into the hands of wealthy business people most of whom are from outside the UK, and of course, the French government who own most of EDF.

What is interesting is that surveys show that the right-wing press have got it wrong. You have to be well over 40 to even have a dim memory of the 1970s and a lot has happened in the economy since then. Of course business people always complain tax is too high having no memory for when it was much higher and yet businesses still prospered. There have always been very rich people in the UK even when taxes were far higher than now. Greed persists. However, the public tolerance of it seems to be waning and even readers of the right-wing newspapers that have condemned this move, are actually behind it. To some degree people see it as a fair punitive measure. The economic historian E.P. Thompson (1924-93) despite being a Marxist noted that through history the British people have not sought revolution, but the 'moral economy', i.e. what they see as 'fairness' in terms of prices and pay. He shows examples of bread riots in which the people did not take the bread home and eat it, but set up stalls to sell the looted bread at a fair price. Despite Thatcherism, this basic attitude continues even though it is hidden among all the extreme right-wing complaints about immigrants being to blame for everything. The other thing is how far away the wealthy and ultra-wealthy are from the general public.

Back in 2003, 'The Times' defined a 'Middle Englander' also known as the British yeomanry, and other such phrases as someone earning £60,000 (€66,600; US$87,000 at current exchange rates) per year. Interestingly, 80% of the UK population earns less than the average annual salary which is now around £26,000 (€28,800; US$37,700) the average in London is about £31,000 and that is the highest paid area of the UK. For single people (many of whom are retired), the average is only £16,000 (10.6% of the salary that will get this new level of tax). So this suggests that the 'middle' ranked person of 'The Times' is actually in an elite of around a sixth or seventh of the population. I earn £39,000 now, so I am in the elite of a fifth of the population, but I end the month with £100 in my bank account, minimal savings, a 12-year old car and will probably have my 3-bedroomed semi-detached house repossessed when I am made redundant this Summer. So, even among the broader elite, economic times are hard. There are 350,000 people in the UK earning over £150,000, so it is unsurprising that the 'Daily Mail' has been told despite all its whining that there is not going to be a strong Conservative Party response to the new tax band, though that does not stop buffoons like Boris Johnson, Conservative mayor of London being indignant about it.

For all the assumptions that the Conservatives are easily going to win the next election, they ought to be careful no to be seen as too associated with big business and greedy bankers and opposing the 'fair' penalties imposed on them. I think the assumption of Labour's fall is very lazy and has been being talked up since Brown became prime minister, based on very little. Brown has worked hard to minimise the impact of the recession on ordinary people and it seems they are beginning to notice that. In addition, despite me commenting on this for the past year or so, the Conservatives still have not come forward with any clear policies and certainly no clear way of doing anything about the impact of the recession. Many people are likely to fear they will simply repeat Thatcher's attitude of holding up their hands, saying they can do nothing about it, and even worse, that it is 'good' for the population to go through this. As we have seen since 1873 and 1931 the Conservatives always struggle with any ideas when hard economic times come and ironically, as later Conservative prime minister, Harold Macmillan did in the 1930s start flirting with state-backed initiatives of greater control over the economy.

I am heartened that the British public, in part, is beginning to shake off the easy, nasty assumptions from Thatcherism. Of course, the right-wing elements remain. Driving through rural Dorset recently I heard how antagonism to migrant labourers is rising as unemployment increases. We can expect that alongside the desite for a moral economy will be the less moral attitudes of hunting out scapegoats too.

Just to wrap up, I am always stunned when I start doing research for a posting the extent of madly extreme views I come across, for example someone arguing that the British tax system is far too complex with its different bands and that there should be a single flat percentage of tax for income tax! This is illogical as all of us have to spend a large chunk of our money on the basics like housing and food, so if we become very wealthy we may have a larger house or more houses and more cars, etc., but all of us only actually need one house, so the wealthier have a great deal more 'slack' in their income that morally they should give back to the society they are draining from in order to make their wealth. However, ideas such as a single band of tax show that clearly there are some corners where Thatcherism continues to thrive.

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