Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Thatcher Failed To Make It Personal

Whether you loved or loathed her, you have to be impressed that 23 years after she was hunted out of office Margaret Thatcher's funeral is as divisive as a Poll Tax riot.

Clearly Britain has failed to 'move on' from the Thatcher years, which suggests to me that the work she started was on the right track but is seriously incomplete. I mean, if her policies had been just plain wrong-headed or disastrous, Britain would have dropped them like hot coals - or the notion of 'light touch' banking regulation. Instead, we're still trying to balance Thatcher's blast of economic reality with its personal and social impact.

Whatever your politics, it's clear from all the recent commentary that Thatcher was focused solely on improving the way the failing British economy 'works'. She spent her energy arguing relentlessly with people about the nature of the problems, their causes and the improvements that should be made to resolve them. The resulting policies obviously appeared 'right wing', but this was largely by comparison with the dogmatic lunacy espoused by the economic lemmings in charge of the Labour Party and trade unions at the time. Their policies seemed predicated on the private sector operating as a charity for the public sector, rather than economic sustainability. Thatcher's opponents were not arguing either on the same rational terms or with the same rigour. Her disciplined approach ruthlessly exposed dogma, from both left and right, and homed in on the most feasible economic solution. Then she rammed it home...

While Britain's reward was increased productivity and employment, far too many of its people were ill-equipped to cope with this fairly brutal brand of politics. Thatcher is infamous for the quote that "there's no such thing as society" which is often unfairly given without the qualification she gave it. But even the full quote reveals a serious flaw in her approach:
"They are casting their problems at society. And, you know, there's no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look after themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then, also, to look after our neighbours."  Women's Own, 1987.
Thatcher's words "and then" raise the issue of when, which we naturally interpret as 'when we have enough for ourselves'. But enough is never enough. Our society is obsessed with personal rights and entitlements, rather than the duties and obligations which must be performed if those entitlements are to be delivered. After all, who ultimately bears the responsibility for delivering everyone's rights and entitlements if not each of us personally? Thatcher was right to the extent that the state cannot perform our personal obligations for us - ultimately, it can only act as a facilitator for our own endeavours - but it was a mistake to assume that society would automatically benefit if each of us looked after ourselves as a first step. Perhaps this was as much a flawed belief in the 'efficient markets hypothesis' as that of Alan Greenspan (and Gordon Brown) a decade later.

At any rate, we are now faced with the fact that, in Thatcher's own terms, we are not looking after a fairly large number of our neighbours. While it's worth noting that Thatcher's governments produced consumer-oriented legislation such as the first Data Protection Act (1984), the Hospital Complaints Procedure Act (1985) and the Consumer Protection Act (1987), it took British society several more decades to establish even a basic sense of 'customer service', and most of the UK's institutions are still not designed around the 'customer'.

In my view, we will continue to struggle with significant social imbalances until we grasp the idea that society and the economy only 'work' if each of us - whether acting as individuals or employees of corporations or the public sector - acts in ways that are sustainable for both ourselves and society at the same time. It's not a matter of looking after ourselves first "and then" our neighbours, as an afterthought. Our activities have to be aligned to be sustainable. And only by focusing on our duties and obligations to everyone else will we secure our own rights and entitlements. That is the fundamental concept behind what I would call “the Personal State”. It's time we built it.

Image from DelhiNewsRecord.

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