The new series of The Crown has started on Netflix, covering the 1980s – the Thatcher Years. Gillian Anderson’s performance is superb, portraying Mrs Thatcher’s views on Life, the Universe and Everything. People should help themselves, women are too emotional to be trusted, and people should stop waiting for the Nanny State (or anyone else) to help them. Thatcher’s original Cabinet Ministers – the ‘wets’ – try to tone down her ideas, and warn her it will create devastating levels of unemployment. It’s still quite shocking to hear just how uncaring and compassionless she was.
Many of us remember the closures of steel works, shipyards, wagonworks and mines. We now know the deep scarring caused by mass unemployment. The fact that our wealth generating industries have been swapped for temporary contracts and the gig economy. The Crown shows what caused the levelling down of the North that we now need to fix. And it was all built on a false prospectus. “Greed is good” summed up the Thatcher-Regan consensus.
The 1987 film Wall Street articulated the idea that greed was natural, efficient, and just and expression of evolution. The idea that if we’re all greedy, then in the long run, we’ll all be better off. It’s lazy thinking. It’s based on the false assumption that life, and the economy, is a zero sum game. That if one person wins, someone else must lose. We all know that the opposite is true. That to thrive and survive, we all have to work together. There’s a great scene in the 2001 Russell Crowe film, a Beautiful Mind. The young John Nash (Crowe) is in a university bar with his mates, trying to work out how to chat up women. They cite Adam Smith: ‘the best result comes from everyone doing what’s best for themselves’. Nash proves that it’s mathematically better to cooperate than compete. The best result comes from everyone doing what’s best for themselves, and what is best for the group. It’s worth a watch on YouTube. Thatcher’s famously claimed there’s no such thing as society. By this logic, businesses and private enterprises should never invest in infrastructure for the common good. It’s uncompetitive, and would also benefit their rivals. There’s no reason for one supermarket chain to carry the cost of building a road network, if all of the other supermarkets and shops can use it. Or one car manufacturer to set up schools where anyone can learn to read and count. Or write poetry. Or learn history.
Maybe if all the supermarkets, and car manufacturers, and building firms, and, well, everyone, invested in physical infrastructure (roads, clean water, power grids, sewerage). And also invested in social infrastructure (parks, education, libraries, immunisation programmes), then all the firms would benefit. And so would all of the people working for them. Of course, some companies would be tempted to freeload. So why not make the contributions compulsory. And call them tax. And set up agencies that can invest in, and train, staff to take a long-term view on these things. And call them publicly-owned assets. And put them under democratic control. And hey presto! A civilised society that thrives, encourages innovation, and looks after its more vulnerable citizens. In fact, as long as you don’t call it socialism, most people agree with socialism.
Perhaps the worst aspect of extreme free-market thinking is its short-termism. If we optimise a firm for maximum profit, we’ll see the best outcome. It makes perfect, intuitive sense. And is invariably disastrous in the long term. We all know, as private citizens, that it’s much cheaper to get your car serviced regularly, rather than wait for the engine to seize up on the motorway. So, in fact, do most businesses. It’s myth that most businesspeople are free-market fundamentalists. That’s why the Confederation of British Industry has called for Mayoral Combined Authorities to get long-term, devolved funding streams. Short-term competitive bids for central government funds waste time, money and opportunity. This is the basis of the next devolution deal I’m asking government for. Long term funding, so we can plan. Based on a principle of a clean economy, where no one is left behind.
Published originally in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 23.11.20