18 April, 2013

We're all Thatcherites now - or The Road to Hell.....

“When you got nothing, you ain’t got nothing to lose”
Bob Dylan: “Like a Rolling Stone”

And so the funeral is over. The beatification of Margaret Thatcher and now, with her death, the deification process is almost complete. As the right wing press, the establishment, the Tory party, big business and the rest scramble to retell their personal anecdotes, to relate her good deeds and her great wisdom and to be, for one last brief moment in time, associated with her golden radiance we are witnessing in this a country an outpouring not dissimilar to that following the death of Diana. The only differences being that Diana, whatever her failings was viewed widely as a much loved person whereas Margaret Thatcher was and remains deeply disliked by much of the population. The emotional outpouring following the death of Diana was scorned by much of the broadsheet press and the upper echelons of British society. Tony Blair was and has  been frequently been castigated for coining the term “people’s princess”; the thousands or millions who wept as her cortège passed and Elton John sang for her at her funeral service were increasingly labelled immature and overly emotional. And when the flowers were cleared from the streets, when the handkerchiefs had been dried out and, with the passing of the years, we looked at the old footage it does indeed all look a bit pathetic and rather silly.

Tabloids whips up the Diana
And yet, here we go again – but this time it is not children and would be princesses that are getting worked up and emotional. It is not the immature and not very bright of society or those who wear their heart on their sleeves. It is not the tabloid readers whipped up into a frenzy by Rupert Murdoch’s headlines extolling Diana’s all embracing love for all on the planet – the disadvantaged, the young those suffering from Aids, the limbless and the rest – who are weeping. No, it is the staid, the stiff upper lipped, the Times and Telegraph readers and those in power who are weeping and beating their breasts – in short the very people who looked on and shook their heads when in September 1997 much of the population went on a “grief-fest”. Margaret is dead they now cry – how shall we survive, what will happen to us, to whom shall we turn? In yesterdays Telegraph - and I suspect most other papers - the first 24 pages were solely devoted to Thatcher - yes that's 24 out of a total of 44. It was deemed far more important than other national and international news. And just as with Diana, each day the mythology is becoming more outrageous as Margaret Thatcher’s acolytes seek to give her immortality.

Such was her foresight, wisdom and benign influence that I read in a letter to the Sunday Telegraph at the weekend that the miners would be grateful for her closing the coal mines and for the mass redundancies that killed their communities, their industry and their livelihoods. And the reason? – according to the correspondent - is that  mining is such a dangerous occupation that Mrs Thatcher in her wisdom, compassion and foresight, was saving their lives by making them redundant! As I read this I gasped in amazement. In another tribute I read one of her ex-ministers and Chancellor of the Exchequer, Nigel Lawson (now a Lord of the Realm)  explain (did he really say this with a straight face?) that "Before sitting down she always had a little movement – and I've never seen another woman do it – of hitching up her skirt, so she wasn't sitting on it. Her bum was sitting on the chair – well, her knickers, of course – so when she got up her skirt was uncreased. She always thought things out. She was a great details person." Well, there you go then, ladies - you read it here first! No ordinary woman this - just as with Diana the mythology is already growing. Sadly I haven't been able to bring this skill to my wife's attention. Can this Lord and her other eulogisers really believe this, do people accept these as reasonable premises? Clearly, the answers to questions such as those are “yes” – and that is truly frightening. These are not silly, immature young people or emotional heart on sleeve tabloid readers. No, these are the “backbone of England” – the respected and the astute, the men and women of moral fibre and upstanding virtue, the people on whom the Empire was allegedly built and who wield some power in the country. In short, the establishment. And, yes, sadly they walk amongst us.

Having said that, however, I have a huge grudging respect for Thatcher the politician. I accept that she appeared to  believe profoundly in what she was doing and made things happen in order to get what she wanted. (Oh, for politicians today – of any party – of her measure!). The term “statesman” to define a politician of outstanding stature is without doubt one that could and should be applied to Thatcher. She was a cut above the rest and, by the force of her personality, her political acumen and force of argument did, indeed, mould the world in her image. Today – all parties are filled with the quick fixers, the sharp operators, the shallow and the sheep – it is a “back handed tribute” to say that there is not a Margaret Thatcher in British politics today. So yes, I can acknowledger her great political influence and stature – but despise her politics and her persona.
Saint Margaret - a stateswoman
and a super woman who did a
wiggle as she sat down.

This morning (Wednesday April 17th) as Pat and I lay in bed enjoying our morning cup of tea I switched on the bedside radio. Instead of the usual light tones of Classic FM filling the bedroom we listened to a commercial break for a few seconds. It was a commercial that has been played incessantly over the past week or so to remind the population that this Sunday the Sunday Times Newspaper will again be publishing their annual “Rich List” – the 25th anniversary of this institution - where ordinary people up and down the country pour over the fortunes of the nation’s super rich. Since the day of its inception I have wondered what is the attraction of this? Why would I, or anyone else, want to know how much someone is “worth”. In the end there can only be one reason – to compare one’s own standing to that of the super rich. And that, of course, belies its underlying function – it is an annual festival of envy and greed and a celebration of the celebrity culture of 21st century. It is the equivalent of peeping from behind the curtains to see what the neighbours are up to and what they are acquiring – the “keeping up with the Jones”.

The “Rich List” was born in the Thatcher years – it is the perfect symbol for her beliefs and premiership. Before Thatcher, in this country at least, it was still considered slightly unseemly to discuss money, how much one earned or how much one had in the bank. These were personal and confidential matters. People, of course, dreamed of becoming wealthy, but envy was not a great feature of the national psyche. People were stoic – they accepted their lot. By the time Thatcher was forced out of office, however, everyone it seemed was on the gravy train – more was good or to coin Gordon Gecko’s never to be forgotten phrase “The point is, ladies and gentlemen, that greed, for lack of a better word, is good”. If you've got it flaunt it as the saying goes.
It's that time of year again - and rather nicely
it falls in the week of Margaret's funeral.
A lovely annual reminder of how she
changed our souls.

As I listened to the advert drone on I lay and reflected that it was a strange a perhaps telling symmetry that the latest “Rich List” should be published in the week Thatcher is buried. In the latter years of the Thatcher premiership a number of initiatives took hold all of which were aimed directly or indirectly at giving people a financial stake in society – most famously was the sale of council houses. Ordinary people in increasing numbers were given the opportunity to own their own homes. Another aspect of the same political agenda was that banks were increasingly freed up. I well remember my dad looking with pride and a smile as he looked at the £200 of “shares” that he was allocated when his building society was de-mutualised and he suddenly found himself to be dabbling in stocks and shares. Each morning he would anxiously look at the share price in his newspaper to see if he was any richer than on the previous day – how we laughed when he looked up from his paper and said “Vote for Maggie – she’s made me a bloated capitalist”. Throughout those years there were a number of high profile attempts by individuals trying to ensure that mutual societies demutualised and therefore issued shares to their members. Everyone – including me - wanted to jump on the “money go round”. And of course, it would be difficult to argue with my dad’s pleasure or anyone else’s good fortune – for people with little these small windfalls were undeniably “a good thing”.
Margaret and her brain dead buddy Ron

And the policies worked. Throughout the country ordinary people suddenly had a financial stake in society. Hugely increased numbers had a mortgage – they were buying their own homes. We were all shareholders now, we were all in debt. And in being so, we all had something to lose. When the film “Wall Street” came out in 1987 it struck a chord with the times. It was so masterfully and joyfully inspired and encouraged by Margaret Thatcher in the UK and Ronald Reagan on the other side of the Atlantic – we were all now, in our different ways, little manifestations of Gordon Gecko. To my everlasting shame (now, as I look back) I never once, at that time when I so profoundly disagreed with all that Mrs Thatcher was doing – in schools, in wider society, in the Falklands and the rest – did I do anything about it. I never once had a day off to strike or to chain myself to some railing to express my disapproval. I never once waved a banner or marched through the streets.  And the reason? – I couldn't afford it, I had a mortgage to pay and couldn't run the risk of losing my job. In short I had too much to lose. People strike and stand up to be counted when they have no alternative. As Dylan said "When you got nothing, you ain't got nothing to lose".

In one fell swoop Mrs Thatcher had nullified much of the opposition - we all had too much to lose. The core of beliefs of socialism were on the ropes – only a few years later a senior Labour Minister, Peter Mandelson happily told the world that he was “completely relaxed about people becoming filthy rich......” and by the end of the century we had a Labour government in name only – its core and founding beliefs stripped from it by Blair and his ilk - all continuing in a mad helter skelter what Thatcher had begun. We were all capitalists now and none of us wanted to shoot the golden goose.

In the newspaper the other day a correspondent related the story that, many years ago, he had been talking to an ex-coal miner about Mrs Thatcher. He asked what the miner thought about the lady. “Wonderful woman” said the miner, “she made me redundant and with the money I got (£25000) I’ve bought myself a home in Spain – better than going down the pit every day”. Well, lying on a sun bed by the pool clearly beats going down the pit, but I wonder if he still thinks that now that the financial collapse has hit Spain and the Spanish property bubble has burst and thousands like him have found themselves stranded there with a worthless property and little money? And by the same token I have often in recent years reflected that by the time my dad died his £200 in building society shares were all looking a little less glossy – they hadn't really increased in value and his building society was not giving him the high interest that it had previously been giving. After all they now had shareholders (others on the gravy train looking for a good financial fix) to pay. Except these were the big boys, the big pension funds, the bankers on million pound bonuses, the Gordon Geckos who had real clout and who fill the Sunday Times Rich List each year. Against them, my dad (and millions of others like him) was a non-entity. What he would have thought had he lived to see the crash of 2008, the vilification of bankers and the Gordon Geckos – and the bottom dropping out of  his few shares – I can only imagine. But in the end, whether it was Gordon Gecko, or my dad’s £200, or my own unwillingness to endanger what I had by protesting or the redundant miner using his redundancy payment to buy a place in Spain it was all about personal wealth and inherent greed. In the final analysis we will always looked out for ourselves. In the end Thatcher’s policies had worked – just like the drug dealer gets a new customer hooked by giving him a free bit of dope we all became hooked on the drug that she offered and we all wanted more and more of it. And big business ran away with the profits – until the whole thing came tumbling down in 2008!
Not everhon approved of the lady

But it was too late – a society based upon the “Pull up the ladder Jack I’m alright!” notion had been born – and that, in a strange way, might be a good sub-title for the Sunday Times “Rich List” Everyone was an individual and responsible for their own actions and what they got out of life – there is no place for sentimentality or responsibility either by word or deed for those less fortunate. Forget the community where you worked and lived, forget the old and the infirm who cannot dash off to sunny Spain, forget those who were not miners and but who lost their employment because the pit closed down – just grab the money and run. This was what we became and have become.

But there is more than this. Mrs Thatcher was, in many ways, the ultimate fiction. She projected her image of integrity, decency, of honest work ethic and the rest and she wished these virtues on the rest of the population. “Work hard like me and you will get there” was her message. But, if you dig a little deeper you will find that so much of it is not really true. I have absolutely no doubts that Thatcher knew what she was doing - she had a plan - she was setting out to deceive and present an image that was false. What made her really successful was the fact that she also had I think tunnel vision and was utterly convinced her of her righteousness. This falseness and self righteousness showed itself in a variety of ways.

Much has been made in the press in recent days of the funeral arrangements for Mrs Thatcher. For those attending the funeral they will enjoy Mrs Thatcher’s favourite music by Vaughan Williams and Holst and hymns by Wesley and Bunyan. The pieces chosen by Margaret Thatcher, we were told, would reflect her strong religious conviction, her principles and her patriotic pride. And yet Vaughan Williams and Holst were both keen socialists – Vaughan Williams turned down a knighthood. They were both friends with George Bernard Shaw – a man who without doubt would have had stinging comments about Margaret Thatcher. Bunyan, too, was a socialist before the term was known and Wesley, amongst many other quotes said: “The person who bears and suffers evils with meekness and silence, is the sum of a Christian man” – hardly a comment to fit in with Mrs Thatcher or indeed contemporary Tory policy manifesto. And what would Bunyan have thought of the world Thatcher created - free reign to money making and greed - surely these would have been part of the many evils that  good Christian fought on his way to the Celestial City.  For Margaret Thatcher "goodness" was all an illusion – it was what she liked to believe of herself – she saw and was only what she wanted to see and be. And maybe that is the underpinning to Thatcher comments such as “the lady’s not for turning” – her tunnel vision meant that she had no comprehension of the wider world or the rest of humanity.

Other facets of the illusion are the voice and the rise to power. No one would dispute her work ethic, attention to detail and her political skills. She made things happen. But any brief study will quickly reveal that this in itself was not enough. She was going no-where as a politician until she married Dennis Thatcher and had his money and position behind her. Much has been made of her rise as the first woman PM and the "good" this did to the feminist cause. It is sadly a myth  – she did it, undeniably, on the back of her husband.  And in doing it she ensured a whole new (false) persona with voice training and the rest. What people over the following years voted for was not an honest politician, a simple housewife made good but a contrived puppet pandering increasingly to their worst instincts. She fed people what they wanted and wanted to hear – and they gave her their votes and increasingly their unabashed love.

In the end, and despite her claim that all should subscribe to the Christian work ethic - as she allegedly did - it was all an illusion. Whilst laying waste to the industrial landscape and removing for large portions of the population the opportunity to work her unfettered free market approach and rabid pursuit of deregulation ensured that on a daily basis there fell onto the doormats of every home in the land junk mail from banks and finance houses promising the earth.  Cheap loans, release of equity, second mortgages all became easily available - hard work and honest labour was not only unavailable to many since there were few jobs available as industry wasted and in any case what dropped on your doormat each morning promised you the good life without work - easy money, take out a loan, release some equity. Ordinary people were encouraged to pawn their future in the quest for the good life. And we all did. Where once banks and building societies took great pains to lend only to those who could afford it and discouraged unsustainable debt now “financial advisers"  and brokers used all means – fair and foul - to convince ordinary people that they could afford it. Now, the watchword of the banks and the building societies was not to check if clients could reponsibly afford it but to find for their clients the lender that would lend them most - whatever their circumstances. And then they pocketed their fat bonuses after hooking another unsuspecting client. And what did we do with the easy money that we had borrowed? - we spent it. The term retail therapy became the watchword, the worship of wealth and annual publications like the "Rich List" defined us. Where once there were industrial plants now, today, there are retail parks all striving to sell us goods from the far ends of the world - few are produced in the UK. Industry fills only a small part of our national fabric - we are now defined by the retail sector, the financial sector, the service sector and the like. Bankers and companies scramble to make a quick buck out of the money that still floats around in the economy whilst ordinary people look for jobs that aren't there. Our young leave school with ever more limited work opportunities and we, the populace, wander around the retail parks to see what we can spend. Each store window makes us offers we can't refuse and sells us goods that we don't need. But, indeed,  we cannot refuse the offers for we have tasted the drug that Margate gave us and which successive governments since have continued to prescribe for us. We cannot refuse the offers for since the mid 1980's and Margaret Thatcher that is what we have been programmed to do - consume.

 Margaret Thatcher projected herself as the "good housewife" who managed the family budget and who knew the cost of everything. She taught us well - we all know the cost of everything now - but sadly the value of nothing. This was Margaret Thatcher’s true legacy – the encouraging of unsustainable debt and the removal of work as being the way to happiness. Despite all her protestations and self righteousness she offered the electorate the quick fix, the easy money, the good life - and everyone greedily grabbed.

In last week's New Statesman playwright David Hare commented that before Thatcher people tended to be stoic - things were to be endured. But increasingly after her we became hedonistic. This of course had its roots long before Thatcher - in the 60s - but the Thatcher philosophy tapped into it and it has continued to be an increasing part of the national fabric since. By the 1990s we were all laughing at comedian Harry Enfield and his obnoxious Cockney plasterer who constantly boasted of his "loads of money" - we were all legitimising greed and hedonism. Enfield's character could have been one of the awful creatures who inhabited Pilgrims Progress and who terrified Christian so. Sadly Margaret Thatcher could not or would not recognise the terrible irony of the society she had created and how it conflicted with her declared Christian ethic. Her's was a hollow philosophy - her Christian values for public consumption only.

"Loads a money" - comedian Harry Enfield's face of the
Thatcher society so well built on by Blair
and all the rest
 It happened elsewhere too – most notably across the Atlantic. Thatcher’s partner in crime Ronald Reagan embraced the same philosophy and all was wonderful until the full economic cost and implications of sub-prime mortgages began to appear in the USA. Thatcher and Reagan's economics were found wanting and the sub-prime problem became the world's financial problem - a problem that is still with us. The rest, as they say, is history. I don’t blame Reagan. He was a fool with a brain containing few working cells – he saw the money and grabbed it. But Margaret Thatcher knew exactly what she was doing – she was the great pretender and puppeteer. The economic problems will one day, I have no doubt, be fixed. I am not sure it will be quite so easy to fix the ills of the society that Thatcher, Reagan and we created as we scrambled in the trough and compromised not only our bank accounts but also our souls.
Seems a good point to me.

But, it is her son Mark who really belies the Thatcher lie, the illusion, the pretensions and the pulling of strings.

Margaret, the wife of wealthy business man, sent her son, Mark, to a private “prep” school and thence to one of the great schools of England - Harrow. A place famed for its academic rigour and the great and good who have passed though its doors and thence become part of the national and international social, political and financial fabric: Winston Churchill, Robert Peel, King Hussein of Jordan, Lord Byron, the Duke of Westminster and so the list goes on. Mark left Harrow with the grand total of 3 ‘O’ levels – hardly a shining example of academic brilliance. A child leaving any “bog standard” comprehensive school today with such a meagre haul would be judged a failure. Indeed, had OFSTED been around then the school might have been accused of failing. But, maybe, the little lad was probably not very bright – nothing wrong with that. But if so, then how did he get in there in the first place?  It's a bit of a mystery? Did he get there on merit or money? But, this small academic blip didn't matter to young Mark. Suddenly and magically he became a trainee at one of the world’s great finance houses Touche Ross. this also is a  mystery - how someone with such meagre academic qualifications should be able to gain this position – a position usually reserved for the brightest and best. And this especially so in an age when people with good degrees are only finding work in MacDonald’s – and that if they are lucky. But clearly young Mark had that magical something. Sadly, however, it didn't go well – he failed his accountancy exams not once but three times and at last he was released by the company. But, hey, not to worry. In the twinkling of an eye something quite unique happened. Margaret, by now a leading politician was soon able, like the now much maligned Jimmy Savile, to “fix it”. By a skilful negotiation and manipulation she was able to make a gold plated provision for her son. She insisted that the Baronetcy which was being bestowed upon her family be made hereditary – a quite unique constitutional occurrence. And in doing so ensured once her husband died his title would pass to the son and thus provide social standing and entry to the very best that society could offer – all on 3 ‘O’ levels. No hard work, no talent, no merit - but an influential mum. What more could a lad need. Oh, that good fortune should work in such mysterious and wonderful ways for all the population and not just the chosen few.

I don’t blame young Mark – it’s not his fault and in fact it hasn't done him much good. He now resides in Marbella one of the great homes of the world’s criminal fraternity and has been involved in a number of shady deals. He’s a bit of a laughing stock – but he still, in this class conscious country, has the title and the old boy network. The lad will be alright!
One sandwich short of a picnic in the brain department
but no matter, with my mum's influence I can still get
to the top.

But Margaret Thatcher’s personal morals and motives are something else. Here is the fine morally upright woman who espoused to the importance of Christian values, of integrity and godliness, of hard work and decency and that anyone can do it if they strive and have talent - I seem to think she called it a meritocracy. But it was all a lie and a sham when it came to her own. The term meritocracy is much ill used and when scrutinised is full of conflicts and misunderstandings (see blog: “A broken contract, the meritocracy myth” Nov 2011). St Margaret so often reminded us that her own industry allowed her to work her way up. Others must do the same. What then of her son? Did he not work hard enough? Did he have no talent? And if by some misfortune and despite his parents, and despite the “best” education that money could buy he still couldn't “cut the academic mustard” then how was he able then to obtain a position few in wider society could access or even contemplate? Where did meritocracy fit in? I think it might rather better be called nepotism – and try as I might I can’t find anywhere in the world’s great religions – last of all Methodism - a sanction for that.

No, Margaret Thatcher in the end was a lie. She preached the virtues of thrift and good housekeeping but created a society based upon excess, greed and debt. She applauded hard work and honest endeavour but instead ensured that for huge swathes of the population and country there was no opportunity to work. She told the young to work and study hard - and they would all end up like her. But the reality was that she used nepotism and money to ensure her own son did not have to subscribe to that ethic. She portrayed herself as a good Christian and often used religious references to justify her actions but the reality of the society that she lead was that it was increasingly uncaring, selfish and divided.

Margaret Thatcher was a great politician. Her attention to detail and diligence was legendary. She would be horrified at the errors of the present government and their inability to think things through. She would not have tolerated  the "about turns" caused by badly thought out policy and would have sent packing those unable to meet her high standards.  She had the gift of all great politicians – she could fool most of the people for most of the time. But despite these political skills she offered a policy which appealed to the base human instincts of greed, envy and pride. She hooked the electorate on the drug and once they were caught they couldn't let go – “more is good - pull up the rope Jack, I’m alright”. Society is still reaping the harvest both economically and in what we have become and what constitute our values of the seeds that Thatcher planted. She made the whole thing into an even richer mix with a few other base instincts – a bit of jingoistic nationalism here or a dollop of campaigning fervour there. And to complete the cocktail she developed a totally false persona which millions of otherwise intelligent people swallowed – her ideals, motives, voice and homespun philosophy constantly reminding people of virtues that they should follow and the evils of which they should beware.

Margaret Thatcher once famously said “Economics are the method; the object is to change the heart and soul”. This was one of the few honest things that she ever said. That was her crusade to change the heart and soul of a nation – and she did. It mattered not to her that her crusade was based on amoral actions and a toxic composite of the seven deadly sins each of which she was prepared to use in turn to influence, cajole, threaten and fool ordinary people. That was, and is, the legacy of Margaret Thatcher. And the really frightening thing is that, as David Cameron said at today’s funeral service, “We are all Thatcherites now”. Like the unleashing of the four horsemen of the apocalypse Margaret Thatcher unleashed and legitimised an outlook on life and a value system that has irretrievably changed us all – and for the worse. In 1989 as the Thatcher premiership came to its close the seminal and allegorical song Road to Hell by Chris Rea became popular.

"........She said "Son, what are you doing here?
My fear for you has turned me in my grave"
I said "Mama, I come to the valley of the rich
Myself to sell"
She said "Son, this is the road to Hell"
On your journey 'cross the wilderness
From the desert to the well 
You have strayed upon the motorway to Hell.... 
...And all the roads jam up with credit 
And there's nothing you can do
It's all just pieces of paper flying away from you
Oh look out world, take a good look
You must learn this lesson fast and learn it well
This ain't no upwardly mobile freeway
Oh no, this is the road to hell......"

The song was prophetic - as a society we were indeed on the road to hell and Rea's words encapsulated exactly what we had and have become. Bob Dylan, too, was right; it is only when you have nothing that you are prepared to fight for what is right. When you have a little then you want to hold onto it - you become part of the establishment and you don't rock the boat. Margaret Thatcher understood this well. It underpinned her crusade to change the heart and soul of the nation. At the same time it made us all both victims of, and flag wavers for, the seven deadly sins. We should all be ashamed.

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