Reflections | Anthem for a Lost Narrative: On Thatcher’s ‘Emotional Household’
New in Ceasefire, Reflections - Posted on Wednesday, April 24, 2013 0:00 - 1 Comment
Thousands of words have been produced reflecting on the death of Margaret Thatcher but I should like to think about birth instead – the birth of ‘Thatcherism’. It is important to remember that Thatcher took over the leadership of a party, and a government, dedicated to refurbishing British capitalism in terms of a US-dominated world economy, and in doing so had to have frequent recourse to symbol-making processes which stressed a compensating national imagery.
One of the achievements of Thatcherism was to have harnessed the British economy to global forms of neo-liberalism while at the same time generating an allegory of a unified nation styled and performed culturally through a series of repeated images, accents and phrases drawn from an imagined past and fashioned for the present at the level of common sense. ‘Victorian values’ (rarely defined) were, for example, actively recruited for contemporary use and came to represent a pool, or repository, of codes which had the force of the obvious and did not need spelling out in any detail.
Thatcherism was initially thought to have brought to an end the post-war period of consensus politics, as the earlier economic crisis beginning in 1973 had ended the post-war boom. Neo-liberalism, based on the so-called social market, was to be the new policy which would restore Britain’s place in the world economy.
The consensus theory of post-war politics has often been challenged but the term ‘consensus’ did at least indicate a symbol of what were held to be shared values, acquiesced in, if only passively, by many people. This ‘moment’ is still part of a cherished social and political narrative for many, especially in those communities devastated by Thatcherism, and is memorably captured in Ken Loach’s recent film The Spirit of ’45.
As far as Thatcherism was concerned that consensus, real or imagined, was identified inextricably with the politics of the post-war settlement which was seen as the root cause of all current ills, needing to be radically altered. In order to effect this in a cultural form Thatcherism set out to generate a set of affirmative images based upon the selective revival of particular symbols of person and nation, constructed specifically from stories of war and the interwar period, with an emphasis on the re-legitimation of ‘vanished’(or were they ‘varnished’?) values.
This was a complex and diffuse process which cannot be reduced to any simple notion of dominant ideology or manipulation, a process echoed now by the often contradictory and intriguing cross-class mourning of Thatcher. Then, the activity was not confined to Downing Street or even to Thatcherism exclusively as it had a far wider purchase.
The new brand of Conservatism confidently emerging after 1979, with its allegiance to economic liberalism, had roots which long preceded the leadership of Margaret Thatcher. Such policies were theorised by F.A. Hayek and Milton Friedman (with his links to Pinochet and similar regimes of the period), as well as by Enoch Powell and Keith Joseph with their attacks on Keynesian economics in the 1960s.
The advocacy of a social market economy was only part of a wider political ideological definition of Conservatism which included attacks upon State intervention, social democracy, the trade unions, social security, and, in the case of Powell, black immigration. Defence, the family, individual enterprise and moral responsibility, freedom and law and order became the central forms upon which Thatcherism was based. This involved a practice which was economically corporatist and multi-national yet rhetorically nationalist.
The discredited, displaced consensus had to be succeeded by a refurbished national consensus to guarantee, it was argued, a medium of exchange based upon a social market strategy. Keynesian economic management, it was loudly claimed, and its accompanying inflation, threatened enterprise and individualism.
The slowdown in the rate of growth, two recessions, unemployment (which first reached a million under a Labour government), corporatist strategies of the Wilson-Callaghan government, and the public sector strikes in 1978-79 all helped to provide a context in which the Conservatives came to power in May 1979 (on the day when I underwent a major operation and spent many hours anaesthetized; I am still trying to work out the symbolism…).
Initially, the new government was by no means composed of adherents of the New Right, but in the following years many of the so-called ‘Wets’ were shed and a more coherent ‘Right’ policy emerged, buttressed by an ideological repertoire of symbols which sought to ‘put the clock back’, construct the ‘permissive’ sixties as alien and profligate, and argued for a sense of personal and cultural feeling of belonging to a nation in which ‘welfarism’ was seen as a dereliction of moral responsibility; the latter now firmly back on the agenda.
Despite all the current eulogies, Thatcher’s governments were by no means as innovative and radical as their rhetoric claimed, but added a more doctrinal and ideological inflection to a process which began to move away from Keynesianism with the Labour government in 1975, with its cash limits to control public expenditure, the doubling of unemployment from 1975 to 1977, and its commitment to the IMF.
I would argue that a combination of moral revivalism and romantic nationalism formed part of the means by which Thatcherism sought not only to break the parameters of the post-war consensus, but also to rewrite the ideological scripts of modern British society.
In many ways, Thatcherism perhaps should be seen as a response, or reaction, to a number of complex and contradictory forces in contention over this ‘ideological landscape’, rather than having an originating or generative function. In other words, it is only in retrospect that it is regarded as singular and coherent. At the time, it was far less articulate and more opportunistic and improvised than is now claimed.
A larger cultural appropriation of symbolic activity helped to establish a popular cultural profile with which some features of Thatcherism were articulated. This profile was both constitutive of, as well as constituted by, a process of ‘making sense’ in which popular/populist conservatism, with its siege mentality, constructed the dominant form of defences to, what was called, ‘challenges to the national way of life.’
Therefore, there is, especially at the moment, the danger of simplifying Thatcherism to a point where it seems more substantial, unique and monolithic than it was/is. In reconstructing a ‘national allegory’, domesticated and sedimented in common sense, Thatcherism was, nevertheless, contradictory, uneven and inconsistent at the level of political practice.
Undoubtedly, as I have said, its image-making, style-generating capacity and ideological marketing powers produced a narrative which went virtually unchallenged. But, pace current sycophants, there were other actors on the stage, other forces at work – Reaganism, a weakened Soviet Union, the Falklands War, and the emergence of the Social-Democratic party (SDP) in Britain – all of which helped to create a specific conjuncture – zeitgeist almost – in which an extremely well crafted ‘emotional household’ (Agnes Heller’s phrase) was constructed as a context for the deregulation and privatisation policies which Thatcher borrowed and adapted from a number of contributing tendencies.
The guiding principle was a determination to create an ideological and political landscape based upon irreversibility, the idea that a programme of legislation would be carried out to such an extent that no successor government could reverse it. The Coalition has embarked upon a similar path of destruction. Support for the Thatcherite undertaking should not simply be seen in terms of the naked self-interest in the South-East of England, as some are now claiming, because Thatcherism addressed a far more complex ‘constituency’ of fears, anxieties and, yes, aspirations.
Of course, as everyone has commented, the Falklands War was an unsolicited gift, which enabled Thatcherism to stitch together a classic synthesis of class/party/nation/people which was symbolically inaccessible to the Left which had no national ‘memory, no Churchill, no empire, no ‘Dunkirk spirit’. The General Strike of 1926, the Jarrow March, and the Battle for Cable Street are all seen as class-specific, regional or local – they have no purchase on a national imaginary. After the Falklands War, Thatcher made a speech in Cheltenham (a residual space of empire) in which she spoke of ‘the re-discovery of ourselves’, how ‘Britain found herself again in the South Atlantic’ and the ‘recovery of our self-respect. She also referred to ‘traditional values’, ‘true values’, fundamental values’, and ‘the tried and trusted values of common sense’.
The speech is an example of what Althusser called ‘interpellation’ – the creation of a plural first person (‘we’ and ‘our’) from the ashes of what was lost, both a voyage of discovery (the ‘task force’) and an archaeological recovery of layers of value and power, evidence which refuted those (‘the waverers and the fainthearts’) who claimed ‘that we could never again be what we were.’ The fact that Thatcherism was deeply attached to US capitalism, and that US nuclear bases covered part of Britain, was less relevant than the fact that a memory of victories past was being invoked to recall the strength of group loyalty and identity.
The Cheltenham speech stressed that the ‘nation that had built an Empire and ruled a quarter of the world’, ‘we British’ (in spite of being swamped by aliens) have not changed. It is a content-less, empty discourse but it had the power of a shared transaction, the magical effect of transferring the myths of a ruling class to that of a much larger constituency of feeling through a process of repetition and anchoring of popular sentiment in a nostalgia for a lost (now found) narrative. The past became usable, a set of narratable codes. It was a magisterial achievement based upon what I called at the time ‘organised forgetting’.
In some ways, Thatcherism partially transformed Britain by displacing much of the post-war social and political formation. Its cultural power depended upon the coining and circulating of a new/old vernacular for imagining Britain as a unitary (white) community, a carefully crafted idiom which textualized at many levels a particular moral rhetoric (freedom, country, family) which, through an act of restoration, became the colloquial and axiomatic basis of much popular discourse.
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