Tuesday, 9 April 2013

The Dangers of Hagiography

Ronnie and Maggie – Source: White House Photo/Ronald Reagan Presidential Library 
With the announcement of Baroness Thatcher's death comes the inevitable ideological contest over legacy. While academics (you know, those pesky latte-swilling pinko lefties) seem to waver between Attlee, Lloyd-George and Churchill as Britain's greatest 20th century Prime Ministers, Thatcher certainly rates highly in popular polls, in no small part due to the relative recency of her premiership. To a great many of her acolytes, she was a great leader who reformed and revived a dying Britain. Still, as Britain's most divisive post-war leader, a great many Britons are struggling even today with the consequences of her policies. 
There can be no doubt in anyone's mind that Margaret Thatcher fundamentally changed British politics forever. What had hitherto been a relatively traditional Westminster system (1939–1945 notwithstanding) became a political system dominated by the strong leader. Thatcher's domination of her party and her Cabinet became a model for future British political leaders and parties to the extent that Tony Blair was often referred to as "Thatcher Lite" by his internal party detractors. Thatcher, and geopolitical events of the 1980s, helped usher in an era of "dry" neo-liberalism that so effectively killed off the left that it has never truly recovered in Western democratic opinion.  

What will undoubtedly be lost in the opinions of Thatcher's acolytes is any prospect of negative consequences from her neo-liberal policies. To many of them, Thatcherism holds only strong, positive connotations, but there are still Britons living with the negative consequences of these policies. 

For example, those in public housing would view Thatcherism as largely ruinous. Prior to 1979, public housing wasn't just for the unemployed and those on welfare, but was occupied by those on middle incomes also. According to Anna Minton's Ground Control, a book about the transformation of Britain from public space to gated community, the government built more than 100,000 public homes and the private sector 150,000 homes before Thatcher came to power. While the number of private sector homes has remained virtually steady since, the government has left the building market, resulting in a massive shortage of housing for those not only those on low incomes, but for young professionals also. Many Britons on benefits now live in conditions that would be described in any other non-Western country as "slums". 
Source: Time Magazine
Thatcher's policy of giving public tenants the 'right to buy' their properties at discounted prices, while popular with those who could afford it, helped create areas of poverty where no tenants could afford to purchase their homes. Local councils were forbidden by the Thatcher government to reinvest the funds from the sales of public housing into building more public homes, thus the cycle of misery continued for many as the available public housing stock has plummeted. As Minton states: 
"...first under the Conservatives and then more aggressively under successive Labour governments, the market began to enter every aspect of housing policy, each policy change bringing with it its own impenetrable jargon."
Quango, quango, quango.

This is not to say the social housing experiments of the 1950s and 1960s were successes. On the contrary, many were dismal failures. After looking suitably dystopian as the home of A Clockwork Orange's Alex, many have been rightly condemned. But Thatcher and post-Thatcher policies on housing have been equally ruinous. Low income households are now left to fend for themselves in a private rental market whose growth and certainty was based entirely on easy liquidity of the pre-financial crisis market. This growth has now ceased, leaving many Britons in a parlous state. None of this is an argument against the market, merely that it has failed in providing adequate public housing. Just don't mention the concept of market failure to the IPA.  
Robin Hood Gardens, Poplar – Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/arthurjohnpicton/7523857268/
What should be of more concern to Tories and Labourites alike are the consequences of continued unrest in something as fundamental as the housing market. Housing is a rudimentary need for humans and one which affects individuals' pride. In poorer areas of Britain, desperate citizens are turning to the far-right, with the British National Party popular amongst some voters. While mainly having an electoral effect in council votes (and peaking in 2008–09), it remains a destabilising undercurrent on Britain. This is why it's confusing that political leaders were so shocked and confused with the 2011 riots. It's a bit like Andrew Demetriou wondering why AFL teams might need to use performance enhancing drugs when his organisation has helped monetize every single element of the game (a sports reference for those of you who need it).

The danger with hagiography is that we, the Gen Ys who were not alive, or not of voting age during the reign of previous leaders are left with the impression all was well and good with the world under a past leader, in this case, Margaret Thatcher. By all means, mourn the death of a stateswoman who played a crucial role in Western politics. Mourn the death of a leader who stared over the precipice of history as the Iron Curtain was torn down. 


But do not forget she was a divisive leader who transformed Britain both for better and for worse. Breaking the unions and restoring the British economy was not without its human consequences. She was a strong leader, a conviction politician for whom the times suited. The problem with strong leaders is that they are inflexible and unyielding and when the times do change, they are unable to. Any one who says otherwise risks overlooking the substantial policy shortcomings Britons face today. In the coming days of memories and recollections, this should not be forgotten.

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