Saturday, 14 April 2012

Back to the Future

Any minute now Michael J Fox will appear as the time-travelling character Marty McFly, because we really do appear to be living on the set of the 1985 film Back to the Future.

Many of the social and economic problems we are currently experiencing stem from the actions of the Thatcher Tory governments spanning 1979 to 1990 (with another seven years under John Major as Prime Minister).  Prior to the election of the Thatcher administration there had been a political consensus on the desirability of full employment.  Even Tory governments saw the wisdom of maximising the number of people in work, contributing tax revenue and going about their lives with a sense of pride that came from being able to earn a living and support their families.  Thatcher tore up that consensus.

The rabid capitalist policies executed by the Thatcher governments sought nothing more than to maximise profits for big business.  Assets owned by the state – on behalf of the people – were privatised and sold-off at knock-down prices, while anti-trade union laws were introduced to weaken the position of workers in every industry.  All that mattered to Thatcher and her government was that major corporations operating in the capitalist free-market should be able to make as much money as possible.  If goods could be produced more cheaply in far-east sweatshops, then Thatcher sold this as ‘good news’ for British companies expanding overseas and for consumers in Britain.

Of course, the reality was that manufacturing in the UK collapsed, workers were thrown onto the dole and cracks began to appear in the fabric of communities up and down the country.  Mass unemployment in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the north of England was seen as a price worth paying for economic prosperity in the south-east of England, primarily in the financial sector and stock markets of the City of London.  A very small elite became fabulously wealthy through the exploitation of the majority, while the public wealth generated from oil fields in the Scottish sector of the North Sea was used to pay for keeping people idle.  So much ability, skill and talent was squandered because, to Thatcher and the capitalist bosses, people did not matter; all that was important was making money, as much money possible.

In the pre-Thatcher years, people worked, and even those who had a predilection towards excessive consumption of alcohol or to related over-boisterous behaviour knew the consequences for them and their family if they lost their job: the result of which was a generally much more responsible society.  People knew the dignity of work: they took pride in themselves as wage-earners and they looked after their family, their home, their part of the local community.  Thatcher’s greed-based policies led to mass unemployment, with people’s self-worth destroyed.  Instead of growing up with parents who worked and provided for them, children saw adults without jobs, deprived of dignity and with no positive purpose in life. 

Idleness went hand in hand with a lack of hope and opportunity, which drove people, young and old, to look for diversions.  Alcohol and drugs, albeit in only a transitory sense, took people out of the grind of a life where even the country’s government told them they were failures: Thatcher and her Ministers took every opportunity to tell the unemployed they were responsible for their own predicament, despite the fact it was the policies of her government that had destroyed the UK’s manufacturing base and the desperately-needed jobs that went with it.

Today’s mass unemployment, alcohol and drug addiction, communities plagued by anti-social behaviour all have their genesis in the capitalist free-market policies of the Thatcher governments.  Things were made worse by the New Labour administrations of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, which abandoned the founding principles of the Labour Party and, instead, embraced the ideology of Thatcher.  Under those New Labour governments - 1997 to 2010 – the gap between the richest and the poorest in society got wider and wider, while Gordon Brown’s ‘light touch’ regulation of banks and the financial sector – a Thatcherite policy - played a very major part in the collapse of the capitalist economic system.

Now we have the Tories in power again, albeit only kept there by the support of the Liberal Democrats, and this is where Marty McFly makes his entrance because it’s Back to the Future time.

Since the last UK Election, in 2010, ordinary working-class people have been battered by savage cuts to public sector jobs and spending, implemented by the ideological son of Thatcher, multi-millionaire Prime Minister David Cameron.  Once again, we have the reality of mass unemployment, with workers thrown onto the scrapheap and told to look for jobs that don’t exist.  Young people, between the ages of 16 and 24, are being particularly badly affected by the ‘austerity measures’, which are actually just a mechanism for forcing the majority of us to pay the debts of a very small minority of capitalists. In North Ayrshire alone there are over 1,500 young adults without work or even hope of a job.  Yet, at the same time, corporate bankers are still receiving massive salaries and bonuses running into millions-of-pounds.

Then, last week, as if we needed further confirmation of a return to the dark days of Thatcherism, we had a budget presented by multi-millionaire Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne.  The measure that attracted most media attention was Osborne’s attack on pensioners, which will mean people retiring from 2013 onwards will be an average of £259 a year worse off.  Over the next five years, pensioners with an income of between £10,000 and £24,000 will be paying an extra £3bn in tax.

Meanwhile, the Tory-Lib Dem Government scrapped the 50p tax rate for the UK’s highest earners, those pocketing salaries in excess of £150,000.  This move – taking the tax down to 45p for the richest people in the country – will produce a tax cut averaging £10,000 per individual: those paid salaries of £1million will find themselves £40,000 a year better off.

At the other end of the pay-scale, the Chancellor froze the minimum wage  levels for those under 21, which means 16 and 17 year-olds can still be paid as little as £3.68 an hour, with 18 to 20 year-olds on £4.98.  Workers over the age of 21 were granted an increase of 11p an hour, taking the national minimum wage to £6.19 an hour.  As the ‘increase’ is below the rate of inflation, it is actually a real-terms pay cut for the poorest in society.

As was the case with the Thatcher administrations, this is a government of the rich, for the rich.  The millionaires are ripping-off the millions, and it’s time we fought back.

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