As Gordon Brown sits in 10 Downing Street and contemplates the terrible drubbing the small turn-out of disillusioned voters inflicted on Labour in Thursday’s local elections – 273 Labour seats lost – while hoping desperately that yesterday’s emergency reshuffle of his Cabinet will at least temporarily stall the intra-Labour campaign to oust him and that Sunday’s European election results will not be as bad as predicted, there is one crumb of comfort for him in all this…. The Thatcherite project, which, with his roots in traditional Socialism, he must have hated, is at an end.
Margaret Thatcher’s philosophy of the pursuit of individual wealth in an unregulated market, with few or no social responsibilities, was an ethos driven by the ORANGE vMEME. And, for quite a time, that philosophy seemed vindicated. After being the ‘sick man of Europe’ in the 1970s, Britain once again become an economic powerhouse and a country of standing on the world stage, with Thatcher seen clearly to exert influence on those ‘leaders of the free world’, Ronald Reagan and the first George Bush. Thatcherism reached its Capitalist zenith in 1989 with the collapse of European Communism and even China starting to crawl towards a sort of market economy in the aftermath of Tiananmen. But, behind this apparent ‘miracle’ lay a country torn asunder geographically, socially and economically. The new wealth, built on technology and financial services, was concentrated primarily in London and south-eastern England. Most of the traditional ‘heavy’ manufacturing industries in the Midlands, northern England, the Scottish Lowlands and South Wales were allowed to die in the face of competition in the emerging global market. Some, such as mining, were deliberately dismantled as a means to break the power of the trades unions which had so undermined the economic viability of much of British industry in the 1970s.
Many still argue that Thatcher had little choice if she was to enable Britain to be competitive in the embryonic globalisation. I’m not much of an economist to argue that point and I can see the rationale behind much of what she did. (Hey, she made so much sense to me in Spring 1979, I voted for her!) But the social costs of her policies were horrific. The traditional working class, as emerged in this country since the Industrial Revolution, was largely disoriented and, to some extent, disenfranchised by the results of her policies.
The dissolution of a social class
In Gravesian terms, the traditional working class in Britain was mostly dominated by the PURPLE vMEME. Some of the attributes of PURPLE are its attachment to the land and its demarcation of kinship roles by age and gender. Thus, the male ‘breadwinner’ of the house with his wife in the mother/housekeeper role, with parents (usually hers) in the next street who were there for support (from advice to babysitting). The work done by the males was largely unskilled and manual in nature – so not much need for formal education beyond the basics. (Though schools, as the place where the young of the community learned these basics, were often treated very respectfully.) These working class communities were often centred socially around the pub or the working men’s club which many of the males would visit most nights and take the wife to (as a treat) on either a Friday or Saturday night.) The RED vMEME, as a cultural entity, was relatively low profile except clearly manifest in the corner shopkeepers, the union radicals, the ward councillors and political activists and other community leaders. However, the RED of most men took pride in being the breadwinner for their families.
For sure, this is an incomplete picture and a stereotype – but it’s a stereotype that largely held true for millions of working class families from the end of World War II through into the early 1980s. Margaret Thatcher’s policies allowed such communities to be devastated. With the traditional heavy industries in terminal decline and mass unemployment of unskilled males by the late 1980s, the very notion of the working class as it had been was in question. The RED self-esteem of those former male breadwinners was trashed, leaving many of them with nothing but nihilistic self-destruction in booze, cheap drugs and gambling their redundancy money and benefits to obliterate their misery, hopelessness and sense of uselessness. Small wonder that the small former mining town of Grimethorpe was the first place in Britain you could buy a bag of heroin for £5! Small wonder that male small-time crime and the black market for short-fix cash-in-hand jobs have mushroomed! What was left of British industry – the new light techonology-driven businesses – by the end of the 1980s tended to prefer low-waged part-time female workers. This resulted in many women holding down 2 or 3 such jobs. Paradoxically such determined enterprise was the making of a number of their daughters who saw hard work and initiative at school as a potential way out of their dire circumstances. With the sons modelling their fathers’ sense of ‘no future’ – Mairtin Mac an Ghaill (1994) terms this a ‘crisis of masculinity’ – it’s perhaps one partial explanation of why the daughters of such communities have tended to do better at school than their sons over the past 15-20 years.
The ‘Shameless’ TV programme gives us an exaggerated version of such dysfunctional communities and the way they survive in spite of what society has done to them. What many in the affluent middle classes in the South East may not have realised is how true much of ‘Shameless’ was – and in how much of the rest of the country there were/are Shameless-style estates As a member of the HemsMESH team working in the former mining villages in South East Wakefield in 1999-2000, I still remember the palpable sense of hopelessness on the streets. Working on projects on Hull’s mammoth Bransholme estate in the early 2000s, I was amazed initially at the poor take-up of train-to-work schemes available in other parts of the city or the surrounding parts of East Yorkshire. Then I realised that, in their heads they were still fishermen or factory workers or manual labourers, their PURPLE keeping them trapped in their traditional identities stuck on home turf. There might have been low-paid government training schemes galore; but nobody was working with the identities and values of these people imprisoned in their own minds. In the early years of Tony Blair’s government especially, when it seemed the opportunities for more wealth for the middle classes might actually be endless, this underbelly of the dysfunctional remains of the traditional working class was largely ignored. Yet these communities were often in real poverty. The former steel towns and mining villages of South Yorkshire and the deserted docklands of Liverpool actually met European Union Objective 1 criteria – which meant they were amongst the poorest places in the EU which was then obligated to help them financially. Hull would have met Objective 1 criteria but for the affluent East Yorkshire towns surrounding it; ditto poverty-stricken south Leeds but for the wealthy financiers in north Leeds. I’m not sure I can argue with Thatcher’s policies economically; but she either didn’t anticipate the huge social misery her government’s actions would lead to…that or she simply didn’t care.
And now the middle classes are fallen
While the increasingly large middle classes grew ever more affluent, the successive governments of Thatcher, John Major and Blair could get away with making token gestures to help the remains of the working class communities devastated by the loss of the traditional heavy industries. But the bankers and financiers who took what, in retrospect, were clearly ridiculous risks in the interests of personal gain – those incredible 6 and 7 figure salaries and even bigger bonuses! – were even more Thatcher’s children than the ‘Shameless generation’ trapped on sink council estates. ORANGE, shorn of BLUE regulation and understanding little of GREEN’s concerns beyond making the odd token gesture towards environmental issues, pursued personal wealth ever more relentlessly, recklessly and ruthlessly. And they have brought Capitalism to its knees. Banks bust or sitting on huge amounts of public funds to prevent them going bust but not daring to lend. Businesses going into liquidation in truckloads. House prices collapsed. And fortunes wiped out in repeated stock market crashes – all those ‘little people’ Thatcher talked into buying shares now without their retirement ‘nest eggs’ or nothing to fall back on to pay the mortgage now the jobs are gone. In terms of the amount of money involved, the MPs’ expenses scandal is relative peanuts – but, for so many, it symbolises the personal-wealth-regardless-of-cost ethos of the Thatcher legacy. And it provides a focus for the anger of the middle classes either becoming economically disenfranchised like their working class brethren or potentially faced with it. Now, it’s too big for the government to gloss over with train-to-work or back-to-work schemes. It’s now no longer a small but significant disoriented minority in poverty. Now the entire country faces poverty!
Gordon Brown’s government has cushioned the country from the worst so far by a phenomenal level of borrowing. When it seems no one has any real idea how to resolve the global financial crisis, clearly no one has any idea how this country will pay back what it now owes. Even with a relatively buoyant economy, it would take several generations to get the National Debt back to where it was when Blair stepped down from government. It’s a principle long ago established by Abraham Maslow (1943) that, under pressure, thinking reduces in complexity to tackle lower-level needs. Thus, under pressure, with the survival of the little you’ve got threatened, dysfunctional PURPLE forms a survival harmonic with BEIGE – and PURPLE’s dislike of those who are ‘not of our tribe’ turns ugly. It goes from a latent fear to active hatred. Thus, the increase in electoral support for the British National Party, with its near-explicit racism. But xenophobia is not exclusive to the working classes. As ORANGE’s personal wealth programme stalls or fails completely, BLUE springs up to form a harmonic with PURPLE against ‘Johnny Foreigner’. Thus, the United Kingdom Independence Party have been able to steal what should have been guaranteed votes for the Conservatives. Expect more and more RED-led demagogues who will exploit PURPLE fears, feeding racism under the guise of nationalism. It’s in contexts like this that the extremes of politics – Fascism or Communism – do well, as indeed do fundamentalist religions.
Whither Britain? – a call to intellectual arms
So Capitalism – or, at least, the unrestrained Thatcherite version of it – is finished. Bankers are now rated even more lowly than politicians, journalists and estate agents. The attack on Sir Fred Goodwin’s house earlier in the Spring was applauded by many. Don’t be too surprised if eventually a leading financier gets assassinated. An awfully lot of ‘little people’ have lost an awful lot of money due to the likes of Goodwin. Those with RED strong in their selfplex, particularly if they are of a Psychoticist temperament, will need someone to be avenged upon. (Of course, with the current media frenzy over expenses, it might well be a politician who cops for it!)
But what’s to replace Thatcherite Capitalism – and how will it work? No one seems to know. It appears we’re in uncharted waters. And what happens to a debt-saddled Britain, with its disenfranchised poverty underbelly being added to every day, its economic rationale no longer viable and its leaders openly despised by a public increasingly ready to listen to the extremists? The bulk of our manufacturing industry was disappeared long ago and the replacement economic ‘fool’s gold’ of financial services has been shown to be just that. Of course, the picture I have painted of our kingdom’s malaise is somewhat simplistic – what else could it be in such a short space? – but it does sum up a great deal of what we are faced with and how we were got into this awful mess.
So, what do we do? Whither Britain? When the old ideas clearly aren’t going to work or are just going to make things worse, then it’s time for some, new fresh thinking. Thankfully we have in London town 27-28 June 2009 Don Beck, one of the foremost experts in the world on large-scale societal change.
A veteran and partial architect of the early 1990s changes in South Africa which led to the dismantling of Apartheid, Beck is currently working on a number of key initiatives, not least the development of a Palestinian state sufficiently mature to be a viable partner to Israel in the Middle East Peace Process. Along with a team of UK-based seasoned Spiral Dynamics practitioners (including myself), Don will seek to establish new opportunities for the UK at this critical juncture in our modern history, using some of the most advanced sociopsychological tools in the world. Effectively this is a summit to find a way forward for our kingdom. The 2-day sessions are open to anyone, regardless of their prior knowledge of Spiral Dynamics and sociopsychology tools. What matters most is that you care about our planet and about our country, for the future of our children and developing a viable culture in which wealth and responsibility are balanced in the interests of all. I truly hope you will be motivated to be there. The more voices we have and the more commitment, the more likely we are going to be able to make a telling difference.
To find out more about this critical workshop programme, click www.spiralworld.net/html/don_beck_event.html