Thatcher’s Progress: From Social Democracy to Market Liberalism through an English New Town 
by Guy Ortolano.
Cambridge, 301 pp., £29.99, June 2019, 978 1 108 48266 0
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Me, Me, Me? The Search for Community in Postwar England 
by Jon Lawrence.
Oxford, 327 pp., £25, June 2019, 978 0 19 877953 7
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These​ two books will be read, inevitably, as studies of neoliberalism, a world order – and a word – that has snuck up on us in the last few decades. I say ‘snuck up’ for a reason. I remember the 1980s, when our antagonists were identifiable and embodied: the one with the handbag, the one with the cowboy hat, and then their grey successors. We were so happy when those fresh-faced challengers, the Blair/Brown and Clinton/Gore double acts, showed them the door. People smarter than I was probably foresaw the compromises that would follow, but I doubt any of us fully anticipated our financialised, deregulated world – a world in which we now individually struggle to remember thirty passwords, curate our online profiles, treat healthcare and sex as consumption goods, and buy houses on ever higher ground.

‘Neoliberalism’ snuck up on us intellectually too – first as a term and then as an explanation. If you track the words ‘neoconservatism’ and ‘neoliberalism’ (or variants thereof) on the handy Google Ngram Viewer, you’ll see that while ‘neoconservatism’ inched upwards from about 1975, ‘neoliberalism’ blazed in out of nowhere to overtake it by 1990 and kept going, outstripping its rival by a factor of ten by 2008, the last date for which data is available. ‘Neoliberalism’ has been ubiquitous ever since – in book titles, journalism, student papers and everyday conversation. This past summer, on a train platform in rural Wales, I commiserated with a woman and her nephew about the unreliability of the trains. ‘Well, yes, neoliberalism,’ the nephew said.

We have a term, then, but we’re only now beginning to have a history. It leans towards intellectual genealogy (neoliberalism traced to the Mont Pelerin group, or to Austrian economists, or American neocons) or to institutional analysis, as each element of our global order (tax havens, financial markets, welfare-to-work systems, enterprise zones) is brought under the microscope. But there is a bottom-up history of neoliberalism to be written too: a history, perhaps, of how the most common and human desires – for decent homes, better schools for our children, better healthcare for our parents, richer and happier lives – were used to help bring a solidaristic social order down under the rubric of ‘choice’. How on earth do we understand that? These two smart, forensic, geographically situated, and analytically complementary accounts of aspects of the postwar order offer some clues. (I should say that I know both the authors.)

Guy Ortolano’s Thatcher’s Progress tracks the passage ‘from social democracy to market liberalism’ through the history of Milton Keynes, the last and largest of Britain’s postwar ‘new towns’. Ortolano calls the new towns the ‘spatial dimension’ of the postwar welfare state, and reminds us just how ambitious that building and resettlement project was. Determined to tackle the twin problems of wartime destruction and people’s understandable desire for indoor toilets, Britain built more ‘new towns’ in the thirty years after the war than any other country outside the Soviet Union. By the end of the 20th century these new towns, constructed mostly on greenfield sites, facilitated by a series of parliamentary acts and managed by development corporations, were home to some 2.5 million people. But by that point, too, they were inhabited mostly by homeowners, not renters, and were anything but Labour strongholds. The new towns are, then, a perfect laboratory for investigating the fate of social democracy.

Milton Keynes is a highly particular but very revealing case in point. The Milton Keynes Development Corporation was founded in 1967 as a ‘social democratic project … deep in Tory Buckinghamshire’ and wound up in 1992, which means the period of the town’s life as a state-driven experiment was perfectly bifurcated by the Thatcher election in 1979. Expected to house at least 150,000 transplants from overcrowded London, Milton Keynes’s south-eastern location and late start meant that more utopian and communitarian plans – for a Bucks new town futuristically serviced by monorail, for example – were quickly pushed aside. Instead, architects and planners (including Jock Campbell, the plantation-owner-turned-socialist who led the corporation for 15 years) accepted that new town inhabitants would drive cars, commute, live in breadwinner/housewife domestic units, and have material and aesthetic aspirations. Milton Keynes was, in other words, ripe for ideological capture from the start – and Thatcher, it seems, understood that, showing up there on 25 September 1979, only a few months after her election victory, to christen a new shopping centre. Bravely and probably foolhardily, the corporation’s shell-shocked administrators seized on the visit as an opportunity to propagandise for their town, turning what was to have been a quick meet-and-greet into a much longer tour, with Thatcher’s motorcade routed past housing developments, civic amenities, commercial centres and art installations.

Ortolano uses the tour as a structuring device, pausing on each aspect of the Milton Keynes experiment – planning, architecture, community management, finance, building supply – as the motorcade sweeps past. This multifocal approach gives a strong sense of the excitement planners felt, and also showcases their pragmatism when confronted with new political imperatives. The development corporation, for example, cheerfully sought out lucrative international consultancy work to make up for revenue shortfalls when state funding started to dry up. Likewise, left-leaning community officers hired to foster civic engagement transmogrified into housing managers when faced with protests over rising damp rather than demands for art classes. This suggests that flexibility could be a snare as well as an asset, for as Ortolano puts it, ‘market liberalism succeeded when indifferent – even hostile – actors internalised its priorities’. Was the battle for community lost, then, because its footsoldiers lost heart, or lost their grip?

Ortolano thinks not: social democratic planning succumbed less to a loss of faith than to a direct assault on its aesthetics, values and foundations. The assault is felt especially in the sections on architecture and on housebuilding. We think we know the architecture story already: it’s about how a terrace and garden-loving people was forced by elitist planners into brutalist concrete towers which were soon made squalid by damp, decay and dereliction. But this, Ortolano shows, is nonsense. Housing in Milton Keynes was low-rise, buttressed by greenery, and architecturally various; even when architects adopted a uniform neighbourhood style, the façades nearly identical, inside the layouts were not. This housing was popular too, but Ortolano’s point is that popularity, like ‘taste’, has meaning only in context: after all, housing blocks that were welcomed in the 1960s, then reviled in the 1980s, have turned into luxury high-rise accommodation in the 2010s. The particular aesthetic of the new towns – Ortolano calls it ‘welfare state modernism’ (clean modernist lines, but in green, airy and usually low-rise estates) – ran into trouble: first, because the need to build fast and cheaply, at a time of serious shortages of materials, led to substitutions and the cutting of corners; second, because the style itself, as the privatisation wave started, came to be identified with ‘council housing’, and thus with ‘poor people’.

So politics, or more specifically the determination to roll back the state, shaped the meanings given to style and taste, just as it shaped the tempo and purposes of housebuilding. The paradox at the heart of the book is that Milton Keynes was founded as a social democratic bastion but ended up as a showcase for Thatcherite values, and home-ownership in particular. In 1977, 75 per cent of houses in Milton Keynes were rentals; 14 years later 75 per cent were owner-occupied. How did that happen? The problem wasn’t the support given to home ownership per se, for social democracy was never hostile to home ownership. It did insist, however, that those not (or not yet) able to buy enjoy the same ordinary decencies as their fellow citizens who did own homes. Against the idea of a ‘property-owning democracy’, social democrats thus offered not a vision of ‘tower blocks for all’, but rather the idea of (as Ortolano puts it) a ‘property-owning social democracy’ – a polity that would ensure a ‘more equitable distribution of wealth and property’ by placing ‘renters alongside owners in a balanced social whole’. This was a vision with a long genealogy, for it had been accepted since the interwar years that the state had an obligation to facilitate house-building for both owners and renters: so long as it did that, and set uniform and decent standards, both groups would be well served. Equally important, the border between them would be porous. Property-owning might then be an aspiration, or a lucky break, but it would not be a condition for full citizenship.

This is where we see the radicalism, and the brutality, of Thatcher’s council house sales. Yes, the balance between building-to-sell and building-to-rent had oscillated with changes in government: the Conservatives had tended to subsidise the former; Labour had concentrated on the latter. But the main imperative for both was to keep building: supply was the crucial focus given the massive destruction of housing stock in the Second World War and increasing demand since. Thatcher’s policies, however, didn’t just shift the balance between owners and renters but signalled a decisive break with the commitment to housing as a core social entitlement. Thatcher, it quickly became clear, wasn’t really interested in building at all. Her goal was, rather, to remove the state from the housing sector entirely – and not even slowly, by favouring more private building, but precipitously, by selling off existing rental housing at fire-sale prices. Anyone who could qualify for a mortgage in those halcyon days thus received a bonus amounting to 30-50 per cent of the value of their property (which had been built with state subsidies), and these property values would, of course, keep rising. Labour was horrified by this policy, and rightly so, but the main reason to be horrified wasn’t that lots of people thereby became owners, but that they were handed this status at the expense of their fellow citizens, who became not just renters but a renter class – what the Victorians would have called a ‘residuum’. Almost in the blink of an eye, those unable to buy – and, as housing stocks shrunk, were effectively excluded from buying – were recast as improvident parasites and forced into the rapidly diminishing residue of council housing on which banks turned a mortgage-averse eye.

The new towns were the shock cities of this transformation: house sales by local authorities doubled under Thatcher, but in the new towns they went up fivefold. Ortolano’s account of how the Milton Keynes Development Corporation lived through that sea-change makes for painful reading. The corporation had wanted to sustain a mixed ecology of buyers and renters, but as state subsidies dried up following the 1976-77 financial crisis, the corporation had to sell in order to keep building – and, once Thatcher’s policies took hold, at a price well below market rates. Renters, unsurprisingly, knew a good deal when they saw it; very quickly, the balance between owners and renters turned around. In 1979, 41 per cent of houses in Milton Keynes were owner-occupied; four years later that figure had climbed to 51 per cent, and the corporation’s new imperative to build mostly for sale shifted the balance further. By Thatcher’s third election victory in 1987 fully 83 per cent of new houses were built to sell; three years later, the Corporation had ceased building to rent at all. This shift wasn’t a victory for ‘the market’: the market had nothing to do with it. It was a state construct, the result of financial decisions taken at the top, and today’s housing crisis, and the social inequalities it so perfectly expresses, are its legacy. The left-leaning planners of Milton Keynes might share some responsibility for that outcome, for they tacked to this new wind (‘New Labour,’ by embracing Thatcher’s legacy, shares it too). But, as Ortolano’s restrained but clear-sighted book makes clear, they don’t share equal responsibility. Let the blame lie where it is due.

Ortolano’s account of this fateful transition keeps the planners centre stage – the consequence of his thorough mining of the virtually untouched archive of the Milton Keynes Development Corporation in ‘Strong Room 5’ of the Centre for Buckinghamshire Studies in Aylesbury. Milton Keynes’s residents appear only fitfully in his story: people move in, rent houses, make complaints about leaks and dry rot, buy when given the chance to do so. But just how they felt about the social experiment in which they were almost unknowingly enlisted, still less how their response might have affected the course of the experiment, is never quite addressed. For help with these matters, we can turn, though, to Jon Lawrence’s Me, Me, Me? The Search for Community in Postwar England. The book is based on a careful rereading of the records of ten major community studies in postwar England (Lawrence doesn’t look at Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland).

What a treasure trove those investigations bequeathed. Lawrence begins with an examination of working-class attitudes and aspirations as revealed by the records of Raymond Firth’s study of Bermondsey in 1947-49 and 1958-59, and Michael Young and Peter Willmott’s studies of Bethnal Green and Essex in 1953 and 1955. He then turns to Raphael Samuel’s interviews in Stevenage in 1959-60 and John Goldthorpe and David Lockwood’s surveys in Cambridge and Luton in the early 1960s to trace the way migration to the ‘new towns’ and rising prosperity affected those attitudes. Next he mines the questionnaires gathered by researchers working with Richard Brown on Tyneside in the late 1960s to see how rapid cultural change and class conflict were experienced by shipyard workers, before turning to Ray Pahl’s decade-long study of the Isle of Sheppey to gauge the impact of deindustrialisation, unemployment and the rise of feminism. He closes by using Hartley Dean and Margaret Melrose’s studies of Luton in 1996 and Yvette Taylor’s of Tyneside in 2007-8 to track how social division and economic marginalisation have done their work.

The original case notes and questionnaires are a rich source, but also a tricky one. The sociologist Mike Savage has suggested that interview subjects were so prone to adopt the investigators’ own jargon that their ‘attitudes’ are all but impossible to discern. Lawrence is well aware of the problem of bias, and shows just how readily many investigators passed off their own preconceptions as ‘findings’. Raymond Firth ‘found’ that working-class family networks were relatively weak, while Michael Young ‘found’ that they were the social glue of community, but as Lawrence drily puts it, ‘one struggles to find supporting evidence’ for either view in their field notes. Strong political convictions sometimes made it hard for investigators to hear what interviewees were saying. Raphael Samuel was so persuaded of the corrosive effects of ‘affluence’ on class solidarity, for example, that he took young couples’ comments about the difficulty they had in affording new furniture as evidence that they had succumbed to a ‘pattern of mass media imposed misery’ – as if, Lawrence remarks, people moving into an unfurnished house wouldn’t need a bed to sleep in and a table to eat at. Middle-class researchers visiting high-wage car workers in Luton were sniffy about their subjects’ purchases of televisions and cars as well, but treated consumer goods of which they approved – modern Scandinavian furniture, say – as a mark of classlessness and independence of mind. Lawrence – who opens his book with a moving portrait of his own parents’ experiences with education and military service, manual labour and shopkeeping, home-ownership and mobility – is highly sensitive to these biases, but insists nonetheless that if we read these records with a modicum of respect and empathy, and with our ears cocked for interviewees’ demurrals and corrections, we can recover at least some sense of their actual experiences and views.

Sowhat does he find? The most explicit claim is that ‘individualism’ cannot be seen as a Thatcherite value foisted on resistant communitarians: ‘The vital lesson for the future is that any new politics of community has to enhance, rather than erode, the personal autonomy and independence that the majority of people have fought hard to secure for themselves and their families.’ Yet Lawrence’s main argument is rather more subtle than that: it is that ‘community’ and ‘individualism’ were never opposing values, and certainly not sequential governing motifs in British social life. Most people – across class, political, urban-rural, and north-south divides – usually pursued both freedom and connection, liberty and belonging. ‘The great epochal shift from social democratic to neoliberal politics looks a lot messier when seen from below.’

Take the neighbourliness and extended family networks that Young and Willmott thought characteristic of working-class urban life in the postwar period. Lawrence doesn’t deny the importance of those ties, but he notices, perceptively, how hard people worked to remain neighbourly while also guarding their privacy. Social investigators insisted that daughters would never move away from their mothers, but in fact, Lawrence notes, when given decent kitchens and space for children to play, they did so. Londoners who moved to Stevenage seemed to have been happy to shed class-based social identities and to see themselves instead as the ‘mobile pioneers of a new way of living’ – a shift disparaged by Labour intellectuals worried about the erosion of class solidarity but treated more forgivingly by Lawrence. Most people, he insists, saw postwar prosperity as a rising tide that could lift all boats, something that would mean that life’s good things were ‘at last to be shared by “people like us”’. Solidarity and ambition were not seen as alternatives. Instead, people felt that ‘they and their friends had embarked … towards a better life.’

There was, though, some cause to worry about the security of those gains. Already by the early 1960s, according to Goldthorpe’s records, Luton’s non-manual and manual-worker homeowners expressed resentment about the number of ‘rough’ tenants being given council housing; tenants, too, began to feel a stigma about renting and aspired to own their own home. Home-owning was an understandable ambition: in a town of migrants like Luton, people increasingly did their socialising at home, the unused front parlours that had been the markers of Victorian respectability now refitted, one by one, as family rooms.

By the late 1960s, more dramatic changes were in the air. For the first time, Lawrence writes, ‘great swathes of the population were embracing the idea that they were radically free; that they were answerable, first and foremost, to themselves for everything they did.’ For some slice of the shipyard workers interviewed on Tyneside, that freedom meant sexual freedom: interviewers noted the quantity of sexual badinage and also the harassment of the (male) apprentices in the shipyard works. Yet Labour’s ‘modernising’ agenda in those years – its attempt to appeal to non-manual workers as the labour force changed – was also felt as an abandonment of the party’s core constituency, working men. Lawrence records one shipyard worker producing a picture of Barbara Castle, the charismatic minister behind Labour’s plan for industrial relations reform (anathema to these workers), saying he ‘would like to get her in the dock, do her and drown her’ – a comment that captures perfectly, if terribly, the entanglement of male privilege and working-class defensiveness.

Does that mean that social solidarity was unimaginable without male dominance? Lawrence, turning to Ray Pahl’s records from his studies of the Isle of Sheppey, cautions against that conclusion. Pahl’s main research was done in 1982-83, during the worst of the recession in the first few years of Thatcher’s administration, and showed that radical government policies and rapid social and cultural change – deindustrialisation, unemployment, council house sales, rising divorce rates – had deepened social divisions, even between families from the same social background living side by side. The assumption that ‘progress’ would lift all boats was by this point well and truly shattered: when people talked about improving their lives, they assumed they had to rely entirely on their own efforts to do so. And yet, for all that, Pahl found an embrace of new freedoms – especially among women, who were expressing a kind of ‘vernacular feminism’ and often returning to work in those years – and persistent, even moving, efforts to maintain a level of neighbourliness across social divides.

But what kind of solidarity can survive in a post-industrial age? When Goldthorpe and Lockwood did their study in the 1960s, Vauxhall had a workforce of 22,000 in Luton; when Dean and Melrose returned there in the mid-1990s that number had fallen below five thousand. The Tyneside shipyards still employed 26,000 in the 1960s; when Taylor did her study in 2006, all those shipyards had closed. ‘Work’ was no longer a source of meaning: mostly done in call centres or offices, on temporary contracts, for long hours and for wretched pay, it left people anxious, tired and insecure. To be ‘working class’ in this world was not to be someone doing a particular kind of work: rather it was a voluntary affiliation, speaking of a commitment to local identity and rootedness, to upholding ‘insider’ values against an uncaring ‘outsider’ world. Yet, for all that, Taylor too found that women in particular saw themselves as harbingers of social change. Although they identified strongly with their community, they were glad not to be repeating their mothers’ or grandmothers’ destinies and showed no interest in turning back the clock.

Lawrence’s is a sobering book. Ortolano shows us how the government policies of the 1980s – never repudiated – prefigured the terrible housing crisis in Britain today, but Lawrence shows us something rather different, which is how strongly ‘ordinary people’ (that maligned, problematic category) in the postwar period seized on every opportunity to secure not just better living conditions but more autonomy and self-expression for themselves and (especially) for their children. But he shows too that they wanted to do that, if they could, while preserving neighbourliness and solidarity – while insisting, indeed, that solidarity and aspiration were not antagonistic values. Lawrence quotes one informant who, when queried on precisely this point, retorted that ‘there may be striving, not competing’: a distinction, Lawrence remarks, that ‘too few left intellectuals proved ready to hear’. His book is a lesson in listening.

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