04 May 2009

30 years on

If you take a look at post-War UK politics, you can pretty much divide the last 64 years into four phases: the first one, 1945-1970, could best be described as the Age of Butskellism, where there was a broad consensus (and hardly any attempt by the Tories to roll back previous Labour policies) on economic issues. The second, 1970-1985, could be called the Age of Polarisation, beginning with Edward Heath's first attempts to govern on line that would look far more familiar to modern Tories, followed by the "Who Governs Britain?" election, the instability of the late 70s, running all the way to the Miners' Strike. It was that, and the final, crushing victory for Thatcherism that it brought, which ended that period. Since then, we've been in the Age of Thatcherism.

This is the strange thing about the Thatcher Premiership, which began 30 years ago: it straddled these two periods but the latter one could broadly be defined as hers: privatisation, the collapse of Union strength, the expansion of free enterprise and capitalism and the growing gulf between the 'haves' and 'have nots'.

So much has been written about those times, and more still is to come. Frankly, you know what I think, and there's little point in re-iterating it. But here's a thought: Thatcher believes that her policies were necessary in Scotland, dismissing the country as "subsidy-junkies". But consider this: her economic policies brought large tracts of industry to its knees - not just in Scotland, of course, but Scotland was badly hit. That triggered more unemployment, which then meant that even more people had to rely on Government subsidies and benefits. So by Thatcher's own logic, her policy was a spectacular failure in Scotland as it exacerabted the problem she perceived. And yet still, UK politics pressed ahead. Little wonder, then, that we are where we are today.

But with the thirtieth anniversary of her winning office, let's compare notes with now. Labour's in trouble; it's handling of the economy has imploded; their policy on the constitution is designed more to try and thwart the SNP than to meet any sort of belief, aspiration or need; the one opportunity to call an election and possibly get back in has been missed; while authority, support has ebbed away, infighting has begun and the PM looks out of touch. All of those things could be said about Jim Callaghan.

Thatcher, meanwhile, offered very little in 1979 except a change in Leadership. As David Cameron does now. So there's a resonance between 1979 and 2009.

But is this anything more significant? With the failure of mercilessly expanding capitalism, are we about to enter the Fourth Phase of post-War UK Politics? Certainly we're just about due for a change, but will the recession deliver it? The recession in the 80s didn't: Thatcher's response was a continuation of the polarised politics of the time, and it was Arthur Scargill's tactical failures that saw her triumph so totally in the end; the recession of the 90s didn't change anything at all; why should this one?

Perhaps, just as the political reaction to the 80s recession reflected the general thrust of the day, the reaction from the UK Government in 2009 - nationalised banks, attempted bail-outs, increased tax rates, all of which are the antithesis of Thatcherism - shows that we have changed. We are not looking at things through blue-tinted glasses anymore.

So what will the Fourth Phase look like? We don't know. We don't even know if David Cameron will continue it - this could yet be a false dawn. It could be another Age of Polarisation. Or a New Consensus could emerge. Or one ideology could emerge form the chaos to triumph, as Thatcher did.

We were in a time of uncertainty in 1979, which Thathcer took six years to end. Once again, we hold our breath.

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