I am old enough to remember the election of Margaret Thatcher, though I was just too young to vote in 1979. I think I can remember her arriving in Downing Street and quoting St Francis: “Where there is error, may we bring truth. Where there is doubt, may we bring faith. And where there is despair, may we bring hope.” Thatcher had worked on her Lincolnshire accent to sound more regal and the “we” she referred to was clearly intended to evoke the royal “we”. She left an overwhelming impression of insincerity.
There are echoes of Thatcher and the aspiration she expressed in Theresa May’s aim to “make Britain a country that works for everyone”. Thatcher went on to declare that there was no such thing as society, “there are individual men and women, and there are families.” Which begged then and begs today the question as to the role of government in achieving St Francis’ goals.
There are generations of young people now in Britain who have no memory of Thatcher, for whom constant references to the iron lady must be met with irritation or indifference, just another dead politician. I prefer her that way but I think she made a lasting difference to this country. In 1979 the British State went to war against its own people.
It began with the miners in an act of retribution for the part they played in bringing down the Tory government in 1973. Glasgow comedian Arnold Brown used to suggest that, in the name of balance, the Tories should appoint a Secretary of State Against Scotland. It has continued following the New Labour interregnum. During the 2014 independence referendum the UK Government’s efforts to scare potential secessionists were dubbed “Project Fear”. The same tactic was used in the 2016 referendum but Project Fear has an older and even more dishonorable history.
In order to justify austerity (passing on the costs of bailing out bankers to the poorest members of our communities through cuts to welfare spending) the then Chancellor George Osborne and Ministers in the Coalition government created the fable of a bankrupt Britain with investors ready to flee the country and the myth of the striver versus the skiver. They used government communications to divide the country against itself, to stigmitise the poor and make low paid, casual and insecure employment seem more attractive. The choice between shit from all and sundry and a shit job is Hobson’s choice but there is bound to be anger when, 10 years on, there is still no sign of those international investors stumping up and growing household debt supplementing public debt.
Osborne’s austerity goes on and this time they’re going after children with further cuts to welfare introduced yesterday estimated to push a quarter of a million into poverty. As alarming as the economic consequences of Project Fear is how effective it has been in shifting attitudes.
This week the BBC’s Panorama programme asked is the benefits cap working. After following five families over five months the programme didn’t answer its own question. If the policy aim is reduce benefit spending and help families to be more self sufficient, then it should be clear that forcing single parents into housing that is unfit for small children, forcing children into care or failing to provide adequate childcare to allow their parents to take up jobs when they are offered them is a failed policy.
But perhaps the response that the programme generated on social media is evidence that the policy is doing exactly what it set out to achieve. “Sarah is such a disgusting cow constantly shouting at her social worker who went to uni to get that job & works for a living”, or “”I have kids”, does not mean you’re entitled to stay at home with them and not work. Work from home! Or keep your legs closed!” Policy doesn’t need to work in the sense of improving conditions for those struggling to get by if enough people are persuaded to blame the victims. Perhaps that is the policy. No too much evidence of truth, faith or hope however.