For a lot of people under 30, the ’80s seem not much different to any other decade before then – a dark, bygone age, which though still despised, is viewed as somehow irrelevant nonetheless. That may be starting to change. Though the Thatcher era shifted the main stage of politics to the right, the very opposite may now be happening. Just as the neoliberal doctrines of Thatcher’s time were challenged by socialists – Scargill’s NUM being the Conservatives’ staunch and powerful opponent for several years – now we are seeing a new generation of increasingly outspoken students and activists willing to take on the Tory-led government. Whether this movement’s fate will be the same as the miners’ remains to be seen.
Take one comparison. The NUPE (a large public sector union) in the 1980s was drawn sharply to the left because of the sheer scale of the attack on workers’ rights and conditions coming from the Tory government. Last month, Unite (the largest British union) elected Len McCluskey to general secretary on a socialist slate. It seems the force of right may be increasingly counterbalanced by a growing left – and one that is younger and more vibrant than the left of the 1980s. Unions will have a huge role to play in the fight against the cuts, but the student movement looks set to become more prominent in the fight than was expected – especially after aeons of the old ‘lazy/apathetic student’ stereotype.
Crises polarise politics. But politics becomes even more polarised when those in power betray the electorate – and I’m not just talking about the Lib Dems. Cameron was calling any VAT rise ‘regressive’ during the election campaign, and the Lib Dems essentially campaigned against a VAT rise altogether. In just a week it will go up to 20% – the highest it has ever been. Similarly, in ’79, Thatcher had promised not to double VAT, a promise only narrowly kept after she raised it from 8% to 15%.
In No Such Thing As Society, Andy McSmith points out that the Thatcher years merely resulted in a redistribution of wealth from the poor to the rich. Indeed, the UK’s richest boosted their wealth by 55% last year, and executive pay at the top is literally thousands of times the average wage.
There are countless more examples showing the parallels between today and 30 years ago. Thatcher’s attempts at cutting public spending actually increased public spending as a proportion of GDP, because as simple economics dictates, putting people out of work does not solve our financial problems. What is does do is increase the benefit burden and lower tax revenue.
The astonishing emergence of the UK Uncut anti-tax dodging movement finds little company in the 1980s, but that is not to say tax dodging was not an issue. While over 3 million were unemployed, the company Vestey was raking in £4m profits. How much tax did the business pay on it? £10. Ten. Pounds. Sounds a little like Sir Green, does it not?
And as our financial woes were exacerbated at home, our international relations were becoming increasingly fraught, with the threat of nuclear war at the back of everyone’s minds. The narrative of the Cold War does not need to be retold here, but the West/USSR tensions are not unlike the tensions today between the ‘West’ and Iran, North Korea, China etc, viz ‘Eastern’ nations. Indeed our plan to upgrade the Trident nuclear missile system is a mirror image of Thatcher’s upgrading of the Polaris system to Trident, at an immense cost to the tax-payer.
The police, as an arm of the state, seem determined to destroy legitimate political dissent. As their tactics become more violent, so the reaction of demonstrations will become more volatile. Images like mounted police batoning strike pickets in the 1980s may become more frequent in the age of austerity.
We cannot predict what will happen over the next four years. But with the resistance to the cuts getting more support by the day, with more outspoken union leadership and with campaigns such as the Coalition of Resistance and Education Activists’ Network working alongside each other for a common cause it is looking like this decade may become the our generation’s Thatcher years, only this time, we’re seeing former miners linking arms with their sons and daughters to move the goal-posts back to the left.