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How neoliberalism manufactured consent to secure its unlimited power

From David Harvey's A Brief History of Neoliberalism

Part 10 – How Margaret Thatcher systematically destroyed the British industry along with the trade unions

While there were many elements out of which consent for a neoliberal turn could be constructed, the Thatcher phenomenon would surely not have arisen, let alone succeeded, if it had not been for the serious crisis of capital accumulation during the 1970s. Stagflation was hurting everyone. In 1975 inflation surged to 26 per cent and unemployment topped one million. The nationalized industries were draining resources from the Treasury.

This set up a confrontation between the state and the unions. In 1972, and then again in 1974, the British miners (a nationalized industry) went on strike for the first time since 1926.

The miners had always been in the forefront of British labour struggles. Their wages were not keeping pace with accelerating inflation, and the public sympathized. The Conservative government, in the midst of power blackouts, declared a state of emergency, mandated a three-day working week, and sought public backing against the miners. In 1974 it called an election seeking public support for its stand. It lost, and the Labour government that returned to power settled the strike on terms favourable to the miners.

The victory was, however, pyrrhic. The Labour government could not afford the terms of the settlement and its fiscal difficulties mounted. A balance of payments crisis paralleled huge budget deficits. Turning for credits to the IMF in 1975–6, it faced the choice of either submitting to IMF-mandated budgetary restraint and austerity or declaring bankruptcy and sacrificing the integrity of sterling, thus mortally wounding financial interests in the City of London. It chose the former path, and draconian budgetary cutbacks in welfare state expenditures were implemented. The Labour government went against the material interests of its traditional supporters. But it still had no solution to the crises of accumulation and stagflation. It sought, unsuccessfully, to mask the difficulties by appealing to corporatist ideals, in which everyone was supposed to sacrifice something for the benefit of the polity.

Its supporters were in open revolt, and public sector workers initiated a series of crippling strikes in the ‘winter of discontent’ of 1978. ‘Hospital workers went out, and medical care had to be severely rationed. Striking gravediggers refused to bury the dead. The truck drivers were on strike too. Only shop stewards had the right to let trucks bearing “essential supplies” cross picket lines. British Rail put out a terse notice “There are no trains today” . . . striking unions seemed about to bring the whole nation to a halt.

The mainstream press was in full cry against greedy and disruptive unions, and public support fell away. The Labour government fell, and in the election that followed Margaret Thatcher won a significant majority with a clear mandate from her middle-class supporters to tame public sector trade union power.

The commonality between the US and the UK cases most obviously lies in the fields of labour relations and the fight against inflation. With respect to the latter, Thatcher made monetarism and strict budgetary control the order of the day. High interest rates meant high unemployment (averaging more than 10 per cent in 1979–84, and the Trades Union Congress lost 17 per cent of its membership in five years). The bargaining power of labour was weakened.

Alan Budd, an economic adviser to Thatcher, later suggested that ‘the 1980s policies of attacking inflation by squeezing the economy and public spending were a cover to bash the workers. Britain created what Marx called ‘an industrial reserve army’, he went on to observe, the effect of which was to undermine the power of labour and permit capitalists to make easy profits thereafter. And in an action that paralleled Reagan’s provocation of PATCO in 1981, Thatcher provoked a miners’ strike in 1984 by announcing a wave of redundancies and pit closures (imported coal was cheaper).

The strike lasted for almost a year, and, in spite of a great deal of public sympathy and support, the miners lost. The back of a core element of the British labour movement had been broken. Thatcher further reduced union power by opening up the UK to foreign competition and foreign investment. Foreign competition demolished much of traditional British industry in the 1980s –– the steel industry (Sheffield) and shipbuilding (Glasgow) more or less totally disappeared within a few years, and with them a good deal of trade union power.

Thatcher effectively destroyed the indigenous nationalized UK automobile industry, with its strong unions and militant labour traditions, instead offering the UK as an offshore platform for Japanese automobile companies seeking access to Europe. These built on greenfield sites and recruited non-union workers who would submit to Japanese-style labour relations.

The overall effect was to transform the UK into a country of relatively low wages and a largely compliant labour force (relative to the rest of Europe) within ten years. By the time Thatcher left office, strike activity had fallen to one-tenth of its former levels. She had eradicated inflation, curbed union power, tamed the labour force, and built middle-class consent for her policies in the process.

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