Where There Is Discord

What We Talk About When We Talk About Neoliberalism (Pt. 1)

Yesterday the former New Labour SpAd, Theo Bertram, took to Twitter to muse on the subject of neoliberalism, and to express mystification about what the term actually means.

Bertram’s tweets have, inevitably, attracted abuse from those who purport to understand precisely what it means and are positively shocked that anybody else might question that certainty. However, I have to confess that – speaking as someone who wrote a PhD on neoliberal political thought – I have a lot of sympathy with Bertram’s position.

There is no doubt that the term is used to explain an awful lot. During my time working on the subject I have seen phenomena as diverse as lad culture, loneliness, ecological collapse, work, Oprah Winfrey, feminism, misogyny, microfinance, romantic comedies, architecture, religious charity, the decline of the Somerset town of Frome, bodybuilding, the European Union, the opponents of the European Union, The Hunger Games trilogy, the gender pay gap, university management, and Labour MPs all be described as ‘neoliberal’ or attributed to ‘neoliberalism’ in some way.

One might, of course, make the case that any and all – or none – of these phenomena might be legitimately explained by neoliberalism in any one of a variety of ways. Citing these examples is not intended to imply that the analysis in any particular case is necessarily faulty (though in many cases I believe it is). The point is that the promiscuous use of ‘neoliberal’ necessarily raises confusion about the meaning of the term, and has also led some to question whether ‘neoliberalism’ has any meaning at all. Plenty of people have argued that the term has become stretched beyond conceptual usefulness. Would the patterns of thought, the policies, the phenomena which we have come to describe as ‘neoliberal’ not equally well be described or explained through a more conventional and more settled ideological language?

The suspicion that the term ‘neoliberalism’ may, in fact, be an empty vessel is not helped by the often tautological way in which the term is defined. Paul Mason once described neoliberalism thus:

By neoliberalism I mean the global capitalist system shaped around a core of neoliberal practices and institutions, themselves guided by a widespread and spontaneously reproduced ideology, and ruled by an elite which acts in a neoliberal way, whatever conflciting [sic] and moderating ideas it holds in its head.

Neoliberalism, according to Mason, is whatever neoliberals do or think. As definitions go, this is not particularly helpful.

There is also the point, made increasingly frequently nowadays, that it is actually very difficult to find anyone who self-identifies as a neoliberal. This is actually far less true than it was – those associated with the Adam Smith Institute, in particular, have begun to embrace the term, often in quite colourful ways – but it remains the case that the thinkers most often associated with neoliberalism rarely, if ever, described themselves as neoliberals. It therefore remains the case that ‘neoliberal’ is a label which is applied more often than it is chosen, and, moreover, often applied pejoratively. Some have therefore come to describe neoliberalism as a form of ‘political swearword’.

These objections are quite reasonable, and for all these reasons I resisted the term for most of the period I was working on my PhD thesis. Why did I embrace it in the end? Well, in part because everybody else uses the term, and it felt (and still feels) that if I wanted my work to be understood then I would need to speak the same language as my peers. That language might be profoundly imperfect, but given the choice between being understood or not, I will take being understood every time.

The other consideration, and actually the more powerful one, was that the alternatives I tried to employ were equally problematic. I persisted for a long time with ‘economic liberalism’, but eventually abandoned this on the grounds that I did not feel it adequately captured the depth or complexity of the ideas I was dealing with. Terms like ‘free market liberalism’ fail for the same reason. Others have suggested ‘classical liberalism’, but this terms fails to acknowledge the extent to which twentieth-century neoliberalism represented a conscious departure from nineteenth-century liberalism (and, at the same time, that term caricatures nineteenth-century liberalism in unhelpful and inaccurate ways).

Colin Talbot has asked, not unreasonably, whether the term ‘New Right’ might not be employed in place of ‘neoliberal’. This was, after all, the term which was used to refer to the resurgence of conservative politics in Britain and the United States at the end of the 1970s, and which was far less ambiguous in its meaning. However, there are two reasons why ‘New Right’ does not suffice. First, because the New Right in Britain and the United States advanced a socially conservative politics which is not a necessary part of (though is often allied to) neoliberal policies. Second, because in other parts of the world – and specifically in Australia and New Zealand – neoliberal policies were implemented by parties of the left, not parties of the right. If we want to think about neoliberalism on the global scale, linking it exclusively to the right is unhelpful.

So, that leaves us stuck with a profoundly problematic term. What do I think ‘neoliberal’ actually means? That will be the subject of future posts in this series…

Thatcher and the Victorians

In politics, the term ‘Victorian’ was seldom used before the late twentieth century and appeared only occasionally in parliamentary debates as a signifier of the time, in phrases like ‘Victorian era’. The politician Margaret Thatcher’s famous introduction of the term into politics explains the approach taken in this chapter. Through her political rhetoric, Thatcher demonstrated how history can be shaped by politicians and how this complicates our shared understanding of the Victorians. However, Martin Sabrow identifies an undeniable tension between history and politics that can both ‘offer the reward of public attention’ but equally ‘destroy the radical independence of historical research’. In political rhetoric, history is usually simplified and current political action justified by dubious versions of historical events. How Thatcher dealt with the Victorians could be seen to exemplify this fear.

Margaret Thatcher, 1982 (b/w photo)

Thatcher’s repeated use of the term the Victorians is significant because it was such an influential political intervention and, in the view of her Chancellor, Nigel Lawson, a key component of ‘Thatcherism’. As Raphael Samuel explains, she turned the word into something that became associated solely with ‘the traditional and the old-fashioned’. She knew that this approach would appeal to people, especially those who had been frightened or confused by the upheaval and change that had characterised the 1960s. She believed she offered a return to more stable times and, throughout the 1980s, she summarised her beliefs in phrases such as ‘self-help’ and ‘personal responsibility’ in a series of speeches. She connected these ideas back to the Victorian period and her rhetoric became imbued with these supposedly ‘Victorian values’. However, it was not until her famous 1983 interview with politician and broadcaster Brian Walden that her ideas were explicitly described as ‘Victorian’. Prior to this point, she had spoken about these values but had not labelled them. It was Walden who made this link when he suggested, in the interview, that she ‘outlined an approval of what [he] would call Victorian values’. Thatcher agreed wholeheartedly and argued that these ideas had been pivotal to the success of the Britain in the nineteenth century – and would be again in the 1980s. A few months later, journalist Peter Allen interviewed Thatcher. By this time, her use of the phrase ‘Victorian values’ had firmly entered her political vernacular. She made it plain exactly what these meant to her ‘…to work jolly hard…to improve yourself, self-reliance…pride in your country…all of these things are Victorian values’. But Allen argued that there were other, less appealing, values associated with the Victorians, such as the ‘workhouses’. Thatcher countered this argument, arguing that the Victorians ‘self-improved’ these situations through their ultimate commitment to ‘reliance and duty’. As Stephen Evans points out, this illustrates how ‘Thatcherism took a highly selective view of the Victorian age which deliberately excluded everything contrary to the world-view it wanted to propagate’. She was always quick to contradict anything unfavourable to them and, in so doing, started to present an increasingly misleading view of the period.

It is interesting to see how closely ‘Victorian values’ came to be identified with Thatcher during the 1980s when, in reality, once introduced by her, these values became part of the vernacular of politicians from across the spectrum. In the rhetoric of Labour politicians Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock, the term ‘Victorian’ had no positive connotations. Instead, it was a ‘term of abuse’ and they used the phrase to highlight the inaccuracies in its use. But by using the term, they gave Thatcher’s interpretation a form of validity as well as offering another interpretation of their own and so proved that politicians, of all parties, could create and use history. Crucially, Kinnock and Foot chose draw heavily on Dickens’ interpretation. For example, Foot argued that Thatcher ‘extol[led] Victorian values without even a passing comprehension of the human suffering and indignity which the mass of our people had to endure’. Similarly, Kinnock in 1983 declared that ‘those [Victorian values] were the inhuman, selfish, materialistic values that Dickens had so memorably portrayed in Oliver Twist’.  But through this interpretation, they unwittingly appropriated Thatcher’s interpretation, which suggests there was some stability and shared understanding forming around the term.

Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her husband, Denis, on the doorstep of No.10 Downing Street, 4th May 1989 (b/w photo)

Brian Harrison said in 1986 that it was unclear whether ‘Thatcher’s revaluation of the Victorians will turn out to be anything more substantial than an ephemeral episode in political rhetoric’. While, following her resignation, few politicians took on her mantle and continued to promote such values in the long term, the impact she had was certainly long lasting. Clearly, Thatcher championed certain values that have been widely accepted as characteristic of the era and, although it was one-sided, there is clarity to her interpretation that is not evident in historiography or literature. Drawing some parallels with Dickens’ and Smiles’ work, Lucy Robinson points out that she was able to successfully wed her politics and policies of ‘monetarism, privatisation and a flexible Labour market… to the Victorian values of law and order and self-reliance’. There was also a strong idea of ‘heroism’ in her interpretation, as she harked back to the days of empire. She certainly encouraged a more fluid approach to the period, as she often stressed how timeless these values were. How influential her invoking these ideas were may be demonstrated by her three re-elections and the fact that historians like Matthew Sweet claim the very reason he wrote his work was to ‘liberate’ the past from her influence.

Freya George

Review: James Hinton’s Seven Lives from Mass Observation

The historical world is awash with histories of Thatcherism. Margaret Thatcher – and her time as Prime Minister from 1979 to 1990 – has been extensively pulled apart, interrogated, and documented by modern historians, economists and political scientists. James Hinton’s Seven Lives From Mass Observation is a triumph in that it serves as a refreshing break from the dominant – and arguably tired – styles of history surrounding Thatcher.

James Hinton - Cover

Hinton approaches the Thatcher era from the bottom up: meaning, instead of constructing a broad and general history of Thatcher from archival records and documents, Hinton paints a picture of what life was actually like for individuals during Thatcher’s 1980s and the decades prior to it, touching on their experiences of events varying from 1960s sexual ‘revolution’ and the 1970s ‘crisis’, to Thatcher’s 1980s and the economic turmoil which ensued. Hinton uses the rich archives of Mass Observation to do so, focusing on the writings of seven individuals of different genders, job backgrounds, and upbringings. The work focuses on the lives of a Housewife, Teacher, Social Worker, RAF Wife, Mechanic, Lorry Driver and Banker, all of whom wrote for Mass Observation in some capacity during their fifties. Hinton justifies this age choice with a simple statement: “life is lived forward, but understood backwards”. Young people caught up in life happening to them can rarely take time to ponder the meaning.

The work ultimately serves to amplify the importance of individual experience, something which is sometimes lost in bigger histories, but is entirely essential in order to grasp the true complexity of the historical past. Hinton expresses his belief in the phrase “the personal is political”; thus, when examining the writings of the ‘Housewife’, who compared the 1984 Miner’s Strike to the domestic workers’ struggle upon the dawn of electrical cleaning goods, Hinton believes we can learn a lot more about society from these quirky, individual, interpretations of events, than from any large all-encompassing narratives. And, whilst the reader may be tempted to draw larger conclusions from these individual accounts, Hinton jumps in and out of the text with periodic warnings, pointing out that these individuals wished to – and should be – viewed as “an individual, a personality in [their] own right, not a cipher or a statistic to be manipulated”.

Thus, whilst the second chapter of the work offers simplified and questionable narratives of the 1960s, 70s and 80s, which rely heavily on dominant myths and assumptions left entirely unchallenged by Hinton, the reader is left to question these independently, with the support of the seven lives in the subsequent chapters, which Hinton states are “the only resources we have to put against the grimmer tides of contemporary history”. Hinton is tasking the reader with challenging their own assumptions about Thatcher’s Britain and the modern British past in general, stating that “history is always a debate”. Hinton’s work must therefore be viewed as adding fuel to the fiery debates about the modern British past, in a way entirely exciting and refreshing to the historical world.

Mass Obs

Hinton effectively calms any anxieties the reader would have over the reliability of a history based entirely on personal experiences. Hinton points out that whilst having the guarantee of 100 per cent anonymity – as was always the case with Mass Observation – would encourage maximum honesty, more so than any face-to-face interview, people still unconsciously adapt their own personal life narratives. Thus, whilst ‘The Banker’ asserted that “my guard is down when I write about myself for Mass Observation – because of the anonymity – so that I have, I believe, supplied a truer picture that if I were carefully sieving the detail for publication, when perhaps I would present the man that I would like others to see”, Hinton is keen to point out that often, individuals construct a narrative of their own life in order to “come to terms with how [they] have lived”. True, uninfluenced, unfiltered, untainted experience is not possible; what Hinton provides, however, is the closest a reader can get to the historical truth of these seven individual lives under Thatcher.

The individual accounts featured in Hinton’s book are the ultimate fly on the wall experience. When the ‘Social Worker’ recalls her lack of sexual satisfaction with her husband, ultimately leading to her subsequent affairs, or when ‘The Banker’ admits that he felt like he was “missing out” on the tide of extramarital affairs that the 1960s had brought about, as a reader you are left wondering whether these accounts are really for your viewing. Such honesty and raw emotions are a rarity in histories, and only serve to add to the overall triumph of Hinton’s work.

But the ultimate merit of Hinton’s work is the way in which it allows us to understand why these individuals supported Thatcher, or why they didn’t, or why they paid no mind to politics at all. The ‘Housewife’, for example, had held deep rooted values of individualism and self-determination since childhood, believing that the welfare state had engulfed Britain and created a society with whom she no longer identified. Additionally, after discovering her son’s hard pornography collection, she found herself joining Mary Whitehouse’s crusade against the 1960s permissive turn. The ‘Housewife’ is an ideal pro-Thatcherite, but it is through her stories and experiences we learn how and why she felt and thought the way she did. The ‘Social Worker’, however, seemed to pay no mind to politics at all, remarking that 1979 was her worst year – not due to the Winter of Discontent or Thatcher’s election – but due to overwhelming loneliness.

Mass Obs - May 12

Rather than dividing society into pro-Thatcher and anti-Thatcher, Hinton’s work encourages us to complicate the way in which we think about Thatcher’s Britain and the individuals in it. It re-emotionalises and humanises society in a way sometimes sorely absent from history. Hinton’s Seven Lives From Mass Observation is thus an essential read for anyone studying the late twentieth century: it makes the reader stop and think that people actually lived through history, and interpreted and experienced it in ways so unique and diverse that imposing generalised meaning onto the lives of those from the past no longer seems feasible.

Grace France

The Rise of the Robots

With just a few days left until polling day, it would probably be fair to say that the general election has not played out quite as the Conservative Party – or, indeed, many of the rest of us – had anticipated.

The healthy lead with which the party entered the campaign has been substantially eroded, frittered away in part as a result of some ill-considered manifesto commitments, and in part by a series of increasingly hesitant media performances from the Prime Minister. The authority which Theresa May commanded as recently as her Lancaster House speech in February appears, perhaps temporarily, to have deserted her.

A side-effect of these increasingly awkward media performances has been the popularity of the suggestion that there is something slightly robotic about the Prime Minister. While some cartoonists, most obviously Martin Rowson, have been depicting May as a robot for some months, since the beginning of the general election the frequency of the comparison has increased remarkably. While some social media users have taken to referring to May as the #maybot, others have suggested that May communicates in binary code. The satirical website The Poke, meanwhile, has invited its readers to tell the difference between May and Buck Rogers’ robotic sidekick, Twiki.

May + Robot

Theresa May is far from the first politician to be thought ‘robotic’. The earliest example of the genre which I can find is David Low’s 1928 cartoon, ‘The Prime Robot’ – surely a reference, as James Sumner points out, to Eric, the robot built for that year’s Exhibition of the Society of Model Engineers – in which Stanley Baldwin is replaced by a mechanical man.

The Prime Robot - David Low - Evening Standard - 15 Sept. 1928

Other political robots would not appear until after the Second World War. Tony Benn in particular appears to have been a popular target, with his enthusiasm for science and technology making his transformation into a robot an obvious subject for cartoonists and satirists alike. Hugh Gaitskell’s reputation as a ‘desiccated calculating machine’, meanwhile, saw him transformed by the cartoonist Emmsworth into an enormous calculating engine.

Most popular by far with cartoonists, however, were Doctor Who references – and especially to the Daleks. Figures as diverse and unlikely as Alec Douglas Home, Charles de Gaulle, Tony Benn, Douglas Hurd, Tony Blair, Peter Mandelson, Alastair Campbell, Michael Gove, and, indeed, Theresa May have been depicted as Daleks, complete with the obligatory sink-plunger and, in May’s case, cleavage and leopard-print. There have been, in fact, several Dalek Theresa Mays.

Of course, these comparisons were rarely, if ever, intended to flatter their targets. However, these analogies appear to work in quite specific ways when applied to female politicians. The appearance on The Lenny Henry Show of Thatchos – a cyberman complete with bouffant hair, pussy bow, and black handbag – is perhaps a case in point. The cybermen are, as any good Whovian will know, a race famed for cold calculation and the elimination of all emotion, qualities which Thatchos displayed in abundance in the sketch.

That Thatchos, and her companion, Dennos, seem to be the sole examples of political cybermen hardly seems a coincidence. My colleague Lisa Dowling has suggested that Margaret Thatcher was an ‘inconvenient deviant’ in the sense that she did not conform to conventional expectations of her gender – because she did not come across as particularly ‘warm’ or ‘nurturing’, and could often seem ‘selfish’ – and it is impossible to read her depiction as a cyberman as anything other than attempt to play upon and draw attention to this ‘deviance’.

The Doctor Who parody was far from an isolated example, and, as Marcus Harmes has pointed out, the suggestion that the Prime Minister was not quite human was a common trope of the satire of the period. An episode of The Comic Strip Presents… depicted the Prime Minister as a cyborg with a robotic arm and green blood, and Spitting Image more than once suggested that there was something inhuman about the way Thatcher behaved.

Of course, the suggestions that May is robotic are perhaps nothing more than an innocent attempt to play upon her awkwardness in front of the camera. However, the consistency with which female politicians are compared to robots – the way in which Margaret Thatcher was portrayed in the 1980s, the conspiracy theory that Hillary Clinton had been replaced by a robot – ought to make us suspicious that there is something more sinister going on…

‘Shoes will not be worn…’: The Conservative Party and Minority Ethnic Voters

Boris Johnson has – not for the first time – put his foot in it.

The Foreign Secretary and erstwhile Mayor of London was yesterday forced to apologise after discussing alcohol in a Sikh temple. Johnson had apparently been enthusing about the possibility that Brexit might boost the quantity of whisky exports to India, and had failed to realise that alcohol was prohibited under Sikh teachings. He was, very publicly, given a lesson on this point.

The sight of politicians of all parties – even the Conservatives – pursuing the votes of Britain’s minority ethnic electorates has now become a familiar part of political life. A few decades ago, however, such things were almost unheard of. Only in the mid-1970s, alarmed by back-to-back election defeats, did the Conservative Party begin to seriously consider how it might win the support of minority ethnic voters.


In 1975 the Community Relations Council produced a report which claimed that there were fifty-nine ‘ethnic marginals’, forty-three of which were held by the Labour Party. The implications of the report were clear, as Conservative Central Office staffer Andrew Rowe spelled out in an internal memo: either the Conservatives had to ‘win a proper share’ of the minority ethnic vote, or ‘we accept the US Republican Party’s fate’, concede the minority ethnic vote to Labour, and run the risk that the party might never win another election.

The party’s response was to establish a pair of new affiliate organisations with a specific remit to appeal to minority ethnic voters: the Anglo Asian Conservative Society (AACS) and the National Anglo West Indian Conservative Society (NAWICS). The societies repackaged Conservative policy in a way which was thought likely to appeal minority ethnic voters, sought to assuage fears over issues such as immigration, and were intended to act as a bridge between new black and Asian Conservatives and the party mainstream. (You can read more about these activities in my article on the AACS in Contemporary British History.)

These organisations were, however, also intended to support Conservative candidates campaigning in ethnically diverse constituencies. The AACS provided support with the production of translated literature, advising candidates on how (and whether) to translate their materials into a variety of Asian languages, and sometimes offered translation services themselves (with occasionally unfortunate results). The societies also offered candidates advice on how to behave on the campaign trail, for example when visiting temples and mosques. An advisory leaflet for Conservative candidates produced in the early 1980s warned that on such visits ‘shoes will not be worn so wear intact socks!’ Boris Johnson might wish that he had received similar advice.

By the mid-1980s the societies had a combined membership of approximately eight thousand people, and branches in more than forty constituencies. However, despite the (modest) successes of the societies, the Conservative Party chose to disband both the AACS and NAWICS in December 1986. While that decision was partly the result of internal tensions within the AACS – tensions which, as it happens, were driven by Sikh Conservatives – it also reflected a belief within the party that deliberate appeals to specific minority ethnic electorates had the potential to be counterproductive.

However, yesterday’s gaffe perhaps illustrates that the Conservative Party is not quite yet past the point of needing the support of organisations like the AACS…

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