On 5 July 1945, the great war leader Winston Churchill was, against all expectations, decisively beaten at the polls by his Labour opponent Clement Attlee. The Labour manifesto in 1945 laid out an unashamedly Socialist vision for the UK and by the time the Attlee government left office six years later, it had transformed Britain’s political culture. All governments that followed in the next three decades - Tory as well as Labour - accepted Attlee’s underlying moral vision: in our society, the more fortunate have a duty to help those less fortunate.
The “Attlee consensus” lasted until 1979 and the election of Margaret Thatcher. In an interview in 1981, Thatcher made her aim in government very clear:-“Economics are the method; the object is to change the heart and soul.”
Thatcher succeeded. Her government was as transformative to the UK’s political culture as Attlee’s. The name for the new governing morality - and the economics and politics that it underpinned - is Thatcherism. The name given to the same ideology internationally is Neoliberalism.
As expressed in Thatcher’s often quoted phrase that “there is no such thing as society”, Thatcherism emphasises individuals over the collective. It sees people as naturally selfish, competing individuals.
We still live in the Thatcherite age. Thatcher (and her key associates like Rupert Murdoch) did not invent greed, nor admiration for the rich, nor contempt for the poor. But what they did, was to make these attitudes socially acceptable.
Tony Blair and New Labour deserve credit for some progressive measures and investment in public services. However, as Polly Toynbee one of the foremost cheerleaders for New Labour admits, Blair and Brown never challenged Thatcher’s “pervasive political legacy”. Toynbee writes: -“They did much good but stealthily, never shifting the public discourse. … (As a result) how easily David Cameron and Theresa May have grubbed up New Labour’s legacy.”
Under Thatcherism, rich people are admired by virtue of their wealth - and they are given licence.
There was some tax-cheating by the very rich before 1979, of course, but since then the scale has increased dramatically. Now paying tax for the super-rich has become in effect voluntary. No moral stigma attaches to these tax-cheats under Thatcherism. One of them is Sir Richard Branson; yet he is allowed to bid for and profit from UK public services such as trains and parts of the NHS.
Economically, those in the top 1% by income or by wealth have prospered mightily since 1979, with barely a pause at the time of the Crash of 2008. Within the 1%, the 0.1% have prospered even more while the 0.01% have accumulated wealth beyond imagination.
The rich tend to like Thatcherism, of course: not only has it increased their wealth but it also teaches that they deserve their riches. Many like to pose as if they are swash-buckling, risk-taking entrepreneurs. The vast majority, however, owe their position to luck - luck of inheritance or education or some other factor. Many are rentiers - they live off their capital. “There are two types of rich people. Some who are lucky, who think they are clever. Some who are clever, who know they are lucky.”
Meanwhile, social inequality, which was at an historic low in 1979 has, since then, returned to levels last seen before the First World War and in Victorian times. There are some 13 to 14 million people in the UK living in poverty.
Since 2010, contempt for the poor by their own government has been on a scale not seen previously in the period since 1979. The bedroom tax, the cutting of benefits, the sanctions regime and the tests that disabled people have to endure have all led to hunger (and the explosion in food-bank use), misery, despair and a sharp rise in suicides.
May’s treatment of refugees - including unaccompanied child refugees - has been shockingly callous.
Thatcherites it seems, find it possible to ignore the suffering of others and withhold natural compassion by convincing themselves that others deserve their fate. Even those who have worked for years and have fallen on hard times. Even the disabled. Even the children. Even those fleeing war and persecution.
A core Thatcherite claim is that anyone can rise from poverty to wealth if they work hard enough. This is a cruel lie in 2017 when social mobility is very low and most people in poverty live in households where someone is working - often very hard.
The Attlee consensus lasted from 1945 to 1979, that is 34 years. The Thatcher consensus has lasted from 1979 to date, that is 38 years so far.
I hope on 8 June 2017, something will happen which will be as unexpected as what happened on 5 July 1945. I hope the adherents of the immoral, nasty, soul-sapping Thatcherite ideology lose. I hope that the long road back to a decent society - an Attlee society fit for the Twenty First century - can then start.