The Paradox of Liberalism versus Illiberalism: The British Middle Class Portrayed in 1980s Popular Culture


Chris MacNeil



"Thatcher Fiddles" by Katharine Schneider



In Paperweight, a collection of short essays by British humorist Stephen Fry, Margaret Thatcher is said to demonstrate "a weird human paradox which charmingly exemplifies the hopeless chiasmal symmetry of polar oppositions." While Fry wrote this to comment on the ability of the former British Prime Minister to be at once acclaimed by her supporters and despised by her foes, I want to demonstrate that the Thatcher years reconciled a resurgence of "Victorian values" with a backlash against those very principles.

The basis for my argument will rest upon the opposed -- yet intertwined-- concepts of "liberalism" and "illiberalism"; the paradox resting in their unique relationship to each other. I must make some effort to define both terms as I have opted to use them in a way which may seem contrary to their modern currency. For example, today we consider a "liberal" government policy to be something like health care or gun control. An "illiberal" policy, on the other hand, might be something like trimming financial benefits to single parents or curbing homosexual rights.

In Thatcherite Britain, however, we are faced with a slightly different view. Through her support for monetarism and the free market, Margaret Thatcher's "liberal" policies were in fact quite "libertarian." In a decade driven by mass consumption, the Prime Minister advocated the free will of - and maximum freedoms for - the individual. The irony, of course, is that individual emancipation infringed on the so-called Victorian values that the Prime Minister espoused. Such individual liberalism did not stop with the purchase of pasta makers, BMW's and other signs of material wealth, but expanded into open expression of homosexuality and the vulgar philistanism of the nouveaux riches.

I want to devote the first half of this paper to a discussion of Margaret Thatcher, Thatcherism and the New Right; doing so will set a context for the second half - an evaluation of some critiques of the Government found in popular culture. My initial deliberation will provide some analysis of Britain's decline in the 1970s in contrast to Thatcher's strong views on monetarism and Victorian values. This will establish why the Prime Minister was offered a clear mandate in her first election. Later, I intend to show how the national euphoria of May 1979 subsided into immorality and cynicism less than a decade later.

The focus of my attention on culturally-based critiques of the Government lies in the voice of the British middle class. Two bodies within that class are of particular interest: the newly-monied (Kenneth O. Morgan calls them "yuppies") and immigrants. I am quite fascinated with the particular qualities they possessed which allowed for rapid individual success under Thatcher. For example, Charles Headleand (in Margaret Drabble's The Radiant Way, 1987) embodies the spirit of free enterprise and easy money which swept the decade; Omar (in Hanif Kureishi's My Beautiful Launderette, 1985), is a foil to his father - an alcoholic old man nostalgic for his roots in Pakistan - and demonstrates the financial security which which supposedly rewards those who allow themselves to be assimilated into Thatcher's enterprise culture and society.

In order to set the boundaries for any discussion of 1980s Britain, one must establish some grounding for the Thatcherite ethos and the sheer weight it carried both in Whitehall and the nation. In a democracy, a leader is typically the voice of her electorate. This is not accurate in Margaret Thatcher's case as she clearly used the nation to articulate her own views. Her ethos was framed, as she has said, around a "great regard for the Victorians" and their values. While in office, she was an individualist and "believed that individuals are ultimately accountable for their actions." Through individual achievement, she argued, society as a whole would gain; two centuries earlier Adam Smith used the same notion to argue for the "invisible hand." The Iron Lady's keen support for hard work and the success of the individual stimulated a nation weary of "governmental planning" and control. Britons, having long felt removed from political decision-making processes, were vulnerable to the free market image of Thatcherism.

Furthermore, Britons believed their nation's decline in the 1970s stemmed from years of public apathy towards Government decisions. Indeed, we see a representation of this sense of apathy and decline (especially strong in the years and months leading up to the winter of discontent*) in the film Sid and Nancy (Embassy, 1986). A biography of Sid Vicious, lead singer for the Sex Pistols, the movie portrays the punk counter-culture as the nation's youth that have given up on themselves, turning to drugs and the streets for solace. Early scenes are mild indications of society's failure to care for its youth. In one, Sid and his friends are on their way to acquire drugs, while in the background a Tory election poster on a billboard angrily proclaims "LABOUR ISN'T WORKING." The message is clear: ideally, Labour's Welfare State ought to have employment for these young men, whereas in fact it offers none. The movie's symbolism only gets more disturbing and reinforces the aimlessness in the 1970s of those who, less than a decade later, will be called yuppies. Foreshadowing future alienation and boredom, another scene shows children dressed in their cleaned and pressed school uniforms, running along a street and smashing the headlamps of expensive cars.


Aimlessness and ennui give way to anger and frustration in the scene where Sid offers his own rendition of Frank Sinatra's "My Way." When he pulls a weapon from his coat and fires upon his elderly and aristocratic audience, it suggests his sense that the failed paternalism of the previous generation is to blame for the ills of his own. As Malcolm correctly notes in a discussion of the band's successes, "Sidney . . . embodies the dementia of a nihilistic generation." The decline and aimlessness of Sid Vicious offers a clear parallel to the deterioration of 20th century Britain.

Thatcher drew much of her appeal through a well-marketed image. Along with the 'conviction' politics of the New Right she embodied a brighter future for Britain than what the electorate felt Labour could offer. Morgan attributes the random and destructive behaviour shown by the children in Sid and Nancy to British "internal malaise" of the 1970s. He suggests that "the return of the Thatcher government, with its young-Turk generation of monetarists and entrepreneurs, marked at least a change of gear, even if the privatization of publicly-owned enterprises was a very minor feature of the Conservative manifesto in 1979." If this is true, Thatcher likely saved a 'lost generation' as the Callaghan government was failing to recognise that there existed a lack of direction of its society. Any Prime Minister who returns from a vacation unaware of his country's social discontent ("Crisis? What Crisis?", Callaghan asked in 1979) gives enough impetus for the electorate to vote for an opposing party.

With Thatcher, as leader of the New Right, the politics of 'consensus' was rapidly challenged. While previous governments had believed consensus to be a middle road between Conservatives and Labour, Thatcher's New Right - against Keynesianism, state regulation, subsidies and - above all - reaching a consensus on politically unappealing issues, regarded concensus only as a venue to lose ground to the left.

Sir Keith Joseph played a prominent role in Thatcher's life until his departure from Cabinet in 1986. She referred to him as her "oldest political friend and ally, indeed mentor" with good reason. Sir Keith, lending much support to Thatcher, also believed in Victorian values and bourgeois individualism and ultimately helped Britain to "internalize" free market values. Without the early assistance of Sir Keith, it is doubtful that Thatcher would have been as successful as she was in "turn[ing] back the tide" of socialism. After all, in the mid-1970s her 'mentor' had "persuaded" her of the benefits of Friedman's and Hayek's monetarist ideas.

Monetarism is important for two reasons: first, it is a very powerful tool that a government may use to complement a free market economy; second, Thatcher was very much in favour of it. As a governmental policy which impacts directly upon - and may change the behaviour of - all sectors of society, it is particularly relevant to my argument. Just as Callaghan's mismanagement of national unions and the economy led to the winter of discontent and its negative cultural portrayals (ie. Sid and Nancy), Thatcher's attacks on the Welfare State resulted in their own critiques in film, literature and te arts.

We cannot ignore the fact that critiques of Government economic policies are sometimes unfair. Such attacks tend to arise from the general electorate being only vaguely aware of -- and usually somewhat apathetic towards -- any new policy. The average voter tends to be casual in his interest in the administration of the national purse and is therefore surprised when impacted by negative financial changes. For example, Thatcher's decision to trim the sizes of the coalworkers and nurses unions in the mid-1980s (in order to cut government spending) caught workers off-guard. Clearly such situations demonstrated the electorate's failure to understand the New Right's monetarist policies. The monetarist impact on employment as portrayed in popular culture is a fascinating one which I will address below. When such a policy is pursued, an inherent dichotomy reveals itself: in the short term, there are likely to be massive job losses; however monetarism ultimately results in a net increase in jobs (and more competitive wages) over the long term.

A major proponent of monetarism is the American economist, Milton Friedman. Together with A.W. Phillips, he proposed a new method of controlling inflation. Their argument holds that a tight monetary policy can control high inflation. When there is less money in circulation, people cannot spend as much and thus the demand for goods decreases. Initially, the problem becomes one of high unemployment, for reduced demand necessarily means layoffs and plant closures.

Unemployment posed a challenge to the New Right on two fronts in Thatcher's early years. First, a world-wide recession plagued her government. Second, and more serious, was the nature of the short-term negative effects that monetarism had on society. Synonymous with that policy's implementation was a reduction in wages and (to achieve that goal) attempts to restrain the unions. The economic lag (i.e., the time that it takes a given policy to appear in statistical records) which followed the policy's implementation placed labourers

under money illusion. In other words, increased nominal wages fool laborers into thinking that real wages have increased and therefore they supply more labor--to increase their own consumption.**

Since an increase in consumption leads to an increase in inflation, the New Right felt that the converse was also true; in order to control inflation, wages (and ultimately consumption) had to be curbed. Even while facing a rise in unemployment, "a deepening recession" and "a summer of government leaks and rifts," Margaret Thatcher declared in October 1980 that the "lady's not for turning." Even though the Thatcher Government stood at 27% in the opinion polls and the jobless count was over two million (compared with 43.9% and 1.3 million, respectively, when Thatcher was first elected) a tight monetary policy prevailed.

A Globe and Mail article, published in April 1994, has a somewhat more optimistic appraisal of Thatcher's monetarist policies. The Globe shows how the last 15 years of Tory rule, have allowed Britain to actually reduce unemployment, largely because lower wage rates encouraged firms to hire extra staff. The article cites examples of businesses moving from the Continent to Scotland, industry in the North hiring workers by the hundreds and a nationwide reduction in strike activity ("the 187 strikes last year were the fewest since a national tally began in 1891"). Although many of the new jobs were low-skill positions, the fact remains that jobs were created in the 1980s. Therefore, as dole queues shortened, the burden on the State was eased, and the effectiveness of monetarism proven.

In popular culture, frustration over monetarism's apparent paradox in 1980s British society is revealed. First, we see the tense social unrest caused by unemployment in such works as Sue Townsend's The Growing Pains of Adrian Mole, a fictional diary of a working class school boy in the early half of the 1980s. Adrian is made aware of the complex social issues which his country faces when he feels gradually more alienated by the increasing dominance of the ruling middle class, its sober work ethic and its strict family values. As Adrian's parents seek only casual employment and as there are few prospects for himself, he feels especially alienated by Thatcher who is portrayed as the touchstone of middle class values. In a poem, Adrian asks just how sympathetic Thatcher is to high unemployment rates among the working class; "Do you weep, Mrs. Thatcher, do you weep?" he writes.

The other side of the dichotomy is expressed in terms of the yuppie 'enterprise culture' of the decade and its fascination with the luxuries of consumption that the United States had been enjoying since the Second World War. In 1993 Neil Howe and Bill Strauss published 13th Gen: Abort, Retry, Ignore, Fail? The idea for the text is taken from their previous book, Generations, which discusses the idiosyncrasies of each of the thirteen generations that have existed in America since the days of Christopher Columbus. 13th Gen contrasts the Baby Boomers (or yuppies as they were known in the 1980s) with the generation born in the 1960s and early 1970s. A recurring theme is the contrast between yuppie greed in consumerism versus the selflessness exhibited by "Generation Xers." American standards set in the 'eighties are very well summarised by Peggy Charren, president of Action for Children's Television. She said that a 1980s children's game show that saw "kids dive into a trunk to get a $400 CD player, [and watched] them run through rooms picking up products and hugging them to themselves" is a blatant example of the greed of consumption.

Another example of such greed which relates even more to Britain's youth can be found in the life and music of international pop music icon, Madonna. She does not display the same selflessness which the 'Xers' of Howe and Strauss do. Rather, she embodies the yuppie greed of the 1980s. Time Magazine has called her "An outrageous blend of Little Orphan Annie, Margaret Thatcher and Mae West". Madonna's publicist, Gene Sculatti, wrote a brief biography for the jacket of her "Immaculate Collection" album. He cites as one of her most popular songs, 'Material Girl', in which the pop star sings about her social advancement through an ostentatious display of consumer possessions. The song is truly a "bucks-based dialectic" of 1980s greed in the western world and rapidly became one of Madonna's biggest hits worldwide.

We can find parallels in the United Kingdom; in Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, Sammy's aging Pakistani father returns to England and complains that for "young people the world is a departmental store" where they can pick and choose from a myriad of jobs and lifestyle offerings. Their attitude is a curious one, for although it was imported from the United States and helped define 1980s Britain, it did not damage the essence of 'Britishness'. That there was American impact on British culture is not in itself surprising, especially considering those nations' leaders immense mutual respect. Indeed, Margaret Thatcher called President Reagan "the greatest force for liberty the world has known". Such statements gave her supporters carte blanche to import American products and ideals throughout the decade. However, as Marwick argues and as I will support below, such an admiration for American liberty did not result in Britain's abdication of her own established popular culture. Despite a Government openly admiring of American ways of doing things, and the spread in Britain, as never before, of a universalized American style and gimmickry, the Britishness of British life was still abundan tly in evidence.

A good popular example of the new, 'Americanised' middle class meeting the old British middle class can be found in Caryl Churchill's Serious Money (1987). The play combines a variety of themes including corporate globalisation, consumerism and the Big Bang (ie. the removal of trading restrictions from the London stock market in October 1986). The younger characters' lines are shot out in a constant din, like ticker-tape machines reporting second-by-second stock quotes. They speak simultaneously, never absorbing what their colleagues actually say. They name-drop and boast about extravagant purchases. Jake, a commercial paper dealer, is an accurate representative of his group. He says that he expects to make so much money in the City that he has "no intention of working after I'm thirty".

There is also an underlying commentary on the old middle class and foreign financial influences. His colleagues, Scilla and Grimes, offer contrasting views on the older generation. Scilla believes that the financiers are secure in their jobs ("We don't notice there's a lot of power still held by men of daddy's class"). Grimes feels that his predecessors will not be able to hold their own in the new and fast-paced world. "They're for the chop," he says because they have "got no feel/ For the market". Foreigners, such as a Peruvian businesswoman and an importer from Ghana are treated in a manner characteristic of British imperialism - with respect and deference when it is in British interests to do business with them, and with mistrust and suspicion when it is not. Throughout the play there is quiet respect for a sleek, unassuming American by the name of Zac Zackerman.

Churchill's play is a good example of how the New Right and those who prospered under it incorporated the American gimmicks - in the genre of Madonna's 'Material Girl' - and yet retained British identity. While some characters in the play spoke of business practices foreign to British tradition (such as extravagant purchases and fleeting international travels) others referred to familiar ideas of Britishness (weekend riding trips to country estates). Jake expressed a fickle friendship for Zackerman based only on whether the American can make him rich:

He got rid of the BMW's and got us each a Lamborghini. He's quite a useful guy to have as a friend. So I thought I'd ask him home for the weekend. But I've got to go to Frankfurt Friday night. So Scilla, you can drive him down, all right?
When Scilla, Zac and others actually arrive at Jake's "home" (a well-established country estate) they join some members of the British aristocracy for a hunt. While the brokers are still caught up in the fast pace of the City, Lady Vere and the Major are far removed from it, instead caught in stagnant conversations reminiscent of British Imperialism. Lady Vere talks of the "beautiful weather" and complains twice "We've lost our head gardener, bit of a chore". Similarly, the Major is focused on a trivial earlier hunt when a rider "Went over his neck and headfirst in the ditch" (this he repeats, too). While neither representative of the aristocracy pays much attention to the world beyond their estate, the young arrivistes are devoted to it. This odd mixture of British and American concerns represent Thatcherism's blend of pro-free market American values with traditional British ways of life.

In contrast to some of Churchill's characters, Margaret Drabble's The Radiant Way (1987) demonstrates the false hopes some Britons had in America which ultimately led to their own downfall. For example, Charles Headleand starts his career in British television as a left-wing social welfare proponent, but his personal successes throughout the 1960s and '70s push him to the political right. Charles uses the dawn of the Thatcher years as a manifestation of his consortium's desire to challenge the British television technology market. Lured away from Britain's "brave new world" of the 1980s by American product advertising, he moves to New York to pursue a new venture. Having restructured his married life, company and personality around a new American technological breakthrough he eventually finds the product to be inferior to a similar item that the British have been developing and that he had rejected prior to his move abroad. He returns to Britain disenchanted with the American style, humiliated and without his wife, his company, or his materialist lifestyle.

I now want to focus on a discussion of liberal versus illiberal policies under the Thatcher governments and to move ahead to manifestations of those policies in popular culture. Liberal policy will be understood as any action taken by the New Right or Margaret Thatcher herself to enhance the freedoms of the individual. An illiberal policy suggests an agenda that represses ideals which do not adhere to Victorian values -- we may say that repressed sexuality and suppressed homosexuality result from illiberal Thatcherite policies.

Illiberal policies can be appreciated only in light of the welfare state that preceded them. For example, as Sid and Nancy has shown us, the Labour party under Callaghan offered Britain a particularly ineffective government. A sense of national decline fused with the frustration brought on by the high costs of settling labour disputes culminated in the so-called winter of discontent of 1978-79. A new round of strikes confirmed Labour's proverbial final straw.

In a few weeks these disputes destroyed all the patient efforts made since 1970 to demonstrate that Labour could co-exist with trades unions where the Conservatives could not; many of the public drew the conclusion that what was needed was not co-existence but control.

Thatcher's response was to confront ("yes, 'confront' is the word I use") the New Right's "reality". As noted above, her primary goal was to reverse the negative impacts of socialism on society and the economy.

The ideal process of reversal relied upon unburdening the public purse from social welfare commitments, including a reduction of public spending and the privatisation of Crown Corporations. These were difficult tasks, for they conflicted with monetarism. Following a decade of increased health funding and wage raises for mineworkers under Labour, a tight monetary policy suddenly was imposed by the first Thatcher Government, and public expenditure actually rose to match longer dole queues. Through the 1980s, that trend was reversed; denationalisation saved Whitehall billions of pounds a year, earned it profits from business sales and, as the Globe and Mail article cited above argues, put Britons back to work.

Thatcher supporters believed this reversal to be revolutionary for it took aim at every major tenet of social welfare established since the Second World War, culminating in the abolition of graduated taxation in favour of the Poll Tax. The repeal of the Poll Tax after "troublemakers had deliberately fomented the violence [in the Trafalgar Square riots of March 31, 1990] . . . represented one of the greatest victories for [the rioters] ever conceded by a Conservative Government". Usually, however, Prime Minister Thatcher was successful in her attacks on policies earlier governments had accepted on 'consensus'. With Thatcher, as leader of the New Right, the politics of 'consensus' was rapidly challenged. While previous governments had believed consensus to be a middle road between Conservatives and Labour, Thatcher's New Right -- against Keynesianism, state regulation, subsidies and (above all) reaching a consensus on politically unappealing issues, regarded consensus only as a venue to lose ground to the left. A favourite target was the trade unions for, "[a]ccording to New Right theory unions disrupt markets through strikes and other forms of collective action". By ignoring demands for increased wages, the Government could begin to limit "the ways in which the productive wealth-creating private sector [was] drained by the public sector". This image could then be sold to the business community which itself was badly hit by demands for increased wages.

By contrast, liberal policies sought to encourage market participation rates. Worcester wrote that those in need of state funding were encouraged "to view themselves as future participants in the markets rather than as dependents on public largesse". Indeed, such a policy was a reflection of Thatcher's own Victorian values. She believed, as her predecessors a century earlier, that state-sponsored help "must not be to allow people merely to live a half-life, but to restore their self-discipline and through that their self-esteem."

Clearly, a motivating influence was the introduction of public ownership of denationalised companies and reduced income tax rates. Thatcher's second term was particularly successful in its campaign to privatise. In 1983, she took office believing that "there was still too much socialism in Britain" and sold public utilities to cure this 'ill'. The first major company to be denationalised was British Telecom (BT), in November 1984. "Its sale did more than anything else to lay the basis for a share-owning popular capitalism in Britain." Not only was the firm sold, but the Thatcher Government allowed Mercury to compete directly with BT; this was a major step in an industry which previously had been an inefficient monopoly. Other monopolies were similarly unburdened. By the 1987 election British gas, water and electricity had been sold to millions of citizens who enjoyed the benefits of free market competition through reduced rates on services and increased personal earnings through dividends.

Privatisation was a huge success until October 19, 1987. That day a correction in stock markets worldwide made a number of potential investors wary of market speculation. To counteract market scepticism, the Government .... [continued in Part II].


To Part II
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Note: The author, Chris MacNeil, welcomes e-mail at cmacneil@wwweb.net

(c) Winter '94, UNDERCURRENT
ENDNOTES

1. In "Ten Years of Thatcherism" World Policy Journal Vol V, no. 2 (Spring 1989), Kent Worcester attributes these months to a manifestation of "the breakdown of the postwar order", 302.
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2. Ekelund, Robert B. and Robert F. Hebert. A History of Economic Theory and Method 3rd ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1990), 548. Ekelund's and Hebert's emphasis.
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