Pow-Wow

Mary Beard

  • After Thatcher by Paul Hirst
    Collins, 254 pp, £7.99, September 1989, ISBN 0 00 215169 3
  • Out of Apathy: Voices of the New Left Thirty Years On
    Verso, 172 pp, £22.95, August 1989, ISBN 0 86091 232 9
  • Essays on Politics and Literature by Bernard Crick
    Edinburgh, 259 pp, £25.00, August 1989, ISBN 0 85224 621 8

If you want to see the cutting edge of Thatcherism, go to Basingstoke. There, as we learn in Paul Hirst’s After Thatcher, the local council (careful, no doubt, with its ratepayers’ money) has allowed an insurance company to take over and manage a large part of the town’s shopping centre. In the interests of ‘safety’, this company now patrols the area with security guards, whose job it is to exclude the more ‘undesirable’ elements of the local population. How these ‘undesirables’ in prosperous Hampshire are to be recognised is not entirely clear. But bouncers in Basingstoke probably operate much the same as bouncers anywhere and pick on the usual targets: dirty clothes, ghetto-blasters, cans of lager peeping out of the pockets and all the other outward signs of nuisance or just nonconformity. If your face doesn’t fit, no entry – and, in this case, no shopping.

More is at stake here than a narrow-minded (though still perhaps understandable) desire on the part of the solid citizens of Basingstoke to get on with the serious business of spending money, untroubled by the presence of the local louts. This slightly bizarre example of ‘fortress shopping’, unthinkable ten years ago, is one clear indication of how the whole fabric of civic life has changed since Margaret Thatcher came to power. The traditional boundaries between the private and the public spheres have moved. Private or sectional interests increasingly encroach on amenities once held in common. What is now at stake is the citizens’ right to civic space.

How far then does Thatcherism represent a revolution? And how has it come about? Paul Hirst, rather surprisingly, takes a minimal view. Despite an acute eye for telling illustrations of the radical changes in Thatcher’s Britain, he sees Thatcherism as an overrated force – a mirage that has grown up in the space left vacant by a divided opposition and an unfair electoral system. For Hirst, Thatcherism exists largely by default. It is not the fundamental shift in British political life and in the aspirations of the British people that it has been made out to be.

This optimistic analysis is hard to endorse. It may well be, as Hirst reports, that popular support for the principles of the National Health Service is still ‘overwhelming’. It may well still be the case, as it was in 1987, that fewer than 5 per cent of the population would actually admit to favouring lower taxation when combined with lower public spending on health and social services. But it would be naive to suppose that those vestiges of traditional attitudes have much weight against the new discourse of politics established by Thatcher and the radical changes in our perception of the social order, epitomised by the Basingstoke shopping centre. Other analysts on the left, notably in recent years Stuart Hall and his fellow contributors to Marxism Today, have seen the writing on the wall much more clearly. Thatcher’s times are surely, as they have claimed, ‘new times’. Thatcherism, if not Thatcher herself, has established an ideological hegemony that extends far beyond the old areas of Tory support. This is not a question simply of voting patterns; most of us, after all, do not vote for her. It is a question much more of the day-to-day practice of politics – the fact that we see and talk about the world in terms that Thatcherism has defined.

Despite the wildly different analyses of the impact and causes of Thatcherism, there is now a remarkable consensus among the Left on what should be the central aim of their ‘alternative policy’. Both Paul Hirst and Stuart Hall advocate a programme of major constitutional reform. Both are founder signatories of Charter 88, a movement which has united a broad band of the Left (from Democrats to Communists) in calling for a wide-scale redefinition of the British political process. The Chartists’ ten-point plan for reform includes proportional representation, a written Bill of Rights and the abolition of a hereditary second chamber. But these specific proposals are intended not simply as desirable measures in their own right: they are part of a co-ordinated programme of reform designed to underpin a new kind of democracy – a citizens’ democracy freed from the stranglehold of Westminster and from the vested interests of the (no longer representative) party organisations.

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