I am sorry if I should seem to be a ‘misery guts’ but I do not see this as a time for celebration or rejoicing.
I cannot rejoice at the death of another human being.
Nor can I celebrate the damage done to Britain by the Tory government of the 1980s. The canonisation of free markets, ambition and self-interest lead to an acceptance of selfishness, increasing power to the powerful and a rising gap between the rich and the poor which has continued to this day. We have developed a culture of greed: corporate greed, individual greed and institutional greed. We have all come to know, like Oscar Wilde’s cynic, the price of everything and the value of nothing. Everyone wants something for nothing. Individuals want higher salaries and bonuses. Businesses want nothing more than to boost ‘the bottom line’: I had patients working for high Street banks who have had half their colleagues made redundant and been told not only that they must cover the extra work with fewer staff, but that they must sell new services to the customers. We want more and more from our governments and we don’t want to pay more taxes. Politicians respond by promising the impossible. Governments then demand more and more out of the NHS without putting any more into it.
Clearly there were problems to address when the Conservatives came to power in 1979. There was increasing polarisation between the trades unions and the employers. In this power struggle the public were so often the innocent victim. Harold Wilson and Barbara Castle had recognised that the trades unions had in some ways become a destructive, rather than a constructive force. They sought to address the issue in the White Paper “In Place of Strife”, but failed to implement it.
Strife or conflict can be addressed either by resolving it through discussion, and understanding, developing common interests and ways of working together. One might argue that this has been the approach in Germany. Alternatively one can increase the power on one side of the equation so that the weaker party is crushed ruthlessly. This was the path chosen by the British Conservative government. The trades unions were crushed.
There have been many casualties in this battle. Individuals who lost their jobs and communities have suffered. But I would argue that the damage goes much further. Gone are the philanthropic (one might say paternalistic) employers like Cadbury, Lever Brothers and Pilkington Brothers. There was a time when employers realised that it was in their own interests as well as the interests of their employees to have a healthy, well-paid, contented workforce. Companies used to pride themselves in having a pension scheme that gave a secure predictable income to their staff when they retire. Marks and Spencer were famous for looking after their staff. Now we have more and more companies with annual appraisals and targets, performance reviews leading to bonuses or sackings.
The neo-liberal mantra of deregulation and free market competition has been espoused by every government since 1980, with widespread repercussions. The share-owning democracy promised by the privatisation of gas has evaporated as all those ‘Sid’s have long since sold their shares to big finance companies. Rail privatisation has neither saved money nor improved services. The great post war optimism has been destroyed. The corporate social vision of a society that cared for the needy, the poor and the sick has been overturned. The present dismantling of the NHS has its roots in the the internal market introduced by the conservatives in the 1980s and expanded into an external market by Labour in the 1990s.
So I shall not be dancing on anyone’s grave. Downloading “Ding dong” may be a bit of a joke, but the bell is not just tolling for one dead prime minister it tolls my friend for thee.
But, lest you leave this article utterly depressed, let me tell you that I believe it may well come right in the end. Unfortunately we can learn selfish behaviour very quickly, and it takes longer to learn altruism and co-operation. It is rather like the prisoners’ dilemma. It may take two generations for society to rediscover that it is better to care for the needy and for companies to realise that it is better to keep good staff. Maybe there is hope for my grandchildren.
No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thine own
Or of thine friend’s were.
Each man’s death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.
“What is a cynic? A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. And a sentimentalist, my dear Darlington, is a man who sees an absurd value in everything, and doesn’t know the market place of any single thing.”
Oscar Wilde, Lady Windermere’s Fan