In the immediate aftermath of Margaret Thatchers death, the deputy prime-minister of the current UK government Nick Clegg urged in a speech to the Welsh branch of his party that there would be “no lurch to the right by this government, not while I’m at the cabinet table” . Now I wont ponder too long on the likelihood of this man keeping his word, But
Despite the assurances of the supposed voice of reason in the UK’s current coalition government , the weeks leading on from the death of the doyenne of neoliberal politics did as it happens see a marked shift away from the centre if not directly towards the right. I will accept that the motions away from the centre field of politics were set in motion the very moment the current government took power and were not directly precipitated by her death. This however does not detract from the fact that in the wake of her death, policies even Margaret Thatcher would not have dreamed of enacting are further rolling back the state hear in Britain with no end in sight. In this post I will discuss the neo-liberal (shit/perfect – delete as appropriate) storm battering the British state as it began in 2010 and draw particular attention to its intensification in recent weeks while reflecting on the damage that
The first drastic movement that the coalition government made was to move away from the somewhat egalitarian practices of old and severely increase the amount that students would pay to be able to attend universities here in the UK. When I say severely I’m really not hammering the hyperbole button in this case, for a student starting next year compared to one who started their university education before these changes the difference in price in some cases will be a threefold increase. The justifications offered for this change by the ministers responsible cited the need to bring greater investment to British universities and that the prices previously decided by governments had been set far too low, I don’t personally agree with these justifications but I can see the logic of them if I did agree. Whatever the justifications offered, some charges were levelled against the government in question that we should really assess as counter balances to these arguments for the increases in tuition fees. A critical argument against these changes that seems to have stood up to scrutiny in their immediate wake is that while these changes intend to increase the revenue available to university they are likely to backfire by driving students from poorer social backgrounds away from going to university through fear of accumulating a debt on average twice the size of a starting salary here in the UK. What this would ultimately mean is that while there’s more money coming in per head, there are less heads to count in the first place. How many students from poorer backgrounds will neglect to enter university education or even apply in coming years is of course an unknown fact, but I feel relatively comfortable in guessing that it will steadily decline until the number of upwardly mobile lower class students resembles something much more like the good old days where the toffs ruled the roost.
The next battle the dysfunctional couple of British politics lined up after they chose to ignore a somewhat widespread if short lived protest that emerged as a result of their returning university education to a system in some ways probably more recognisable to the Victorians than to the undergraduates of tomorrow was with the NHS. This proved to be a much harder battle for neo-liberals as however dysfunctional things get within the health system here in the UK, I genuinely believe that there is an enduring love of the NHS that spreads throughout the country. Indeed when reflecting on this it is at times difficult to see what anyone could dislike about the national health service, I mean its free which is already beating much of the competition over the world to start with. It’s also staffed by some of the best examples of professionals that I’m sure a person is ever likely to meet in the UK.
Most critically of all, it is both free and staffed to an incredibly high standard while under enormous political and financial pressures from whichever party is in power here in the UK. In defending the NHS I am more than willing to accept that it does have its problems but when considering the obstacles that have been thrown in its way by politics it does a tremendous job. I lied above when I said it was difficult to see why anyone would dislike it as there’s a glaring issue that highlights why both the major political parties here in the UK are keen to attack the NHS, it doesn’t charge for its services. Nothing kills the neo-liberal metaphorical erection like the thought of a business achieving some measure of good for the wider public for free. Whereas Macbeth was haunted by his murder victims at night I imagine the nightmares of David Cameron consist of giant flashing neon signs that advertise “FREE HEALTHCARE, FREE EDUCATION, FREE LOVE“.
Either way I digress, the current government has been attempting to push various half-baked reforms through the NHS since the moment it was elected and ironically after the assurances of Nick Clegg of “no shift to the right” in the wake of Margaret Thatchers death it seems that the very first and perhaps most critical of the measures has passed through the House of Lords. The reform that I refer to is section 75 which opens up parts of the NHS to private tender and in the process forever changes the NHS and I’m not for one moment inclined to believe for the better. The thing with privately owned businesses is that they are operated on the basis of profit not benevolence, this means that to help increase profits rather than simply balance the books year on year privately owned businesses will cut initial costs wherever possible. Now I’m willing to accept this as a practice in say a restaurant when fast food outlets offer plastic cutlery rather than metal but when it comes to hospital treatment I’m significantly less appreciative of scrimping. Whether undergoing a lumpectomy or simply having a blood test, when attending a hospital I want to know that literally no expense has been spared and that the process will be the most efficient and comfortable that it possibly could be. This is obviously unlikely to be the case when I know that privately owned conglomerates have had a hand in deciding what equipment and facilities will be at hand not doctors. Another reason that this change in policy is particularly repugnant is that many of the members of both houses of parliament who voted on this bill have financial interests in private medical companies which might stand to gain a great deal from this new practice of putting services out to tender. We really need to question what type of democracy we live in when politicians are able to vote on changes in the law when it can be directly proved that such changes will line their pockets with taxpayers money.
The next significant proposed change to the law that has cropped up since Maggie’s death is the reform to legal aid. Legal aid in this context means many things but perhaps the most important aspect of these reforms is the reduction of the right to be represented by a solicitor of your choice. Instead the system will now revert to a group of law firms that will cover every case in a certain area and then its simply luck of the draw how competent the solicitor you receive is. This seems to have gotten through the writing process of legislature without someone attempting to iron out even some of the simplest kinks in the reform – I’ll use a case study to demonstrate my point in hand. I live in South Wales, an area of Wales that contains two thirds of all of Wales’ population or to put it more concretely roughly 2 million people live in the wider area. That is a lot of people in anyone’s book so surely any well written legislature would take this into account and assign an equally large number of law firms to provide representation for all of the potential clients. Well funnily enough the legislature written didn’t take this into account with around 9 firms assigned for this whole area and only 21 for the entirety of Wales (population 3 million). That works out as a grand total of 1 law firm for every 142,857 citizens – hardly sounds practical on paper and given the great distances between many of Wales’ biggest populated areas I don’t foresee this being any more practical in reality either. When discussing these reforms with friends many dismissed them, offering an argument that went something like this “I’m unlikely to ever be arrested …. therefore these reforms don’t affect me” which sounds like a tempting argument to concede until you consider that on a day to day basis in other countries with the most responsible and effective police forces quite frequently people who are not guilty are arrested on suspicion of committing crimes. And that’s in countries with very efficient and some might say honest police forces whereas here in the UK we have a police force that is very big on legal overreach as demonstrated in a recent case of police arresting a person under anti-terror laws for filming a police officer. Now do you feel so confident on letting a complete stranger of questionably ability defend you when you could be hauled in front of a court for something so arbitrary as happening to catch a police officer on camera ?
I openly accept that none of these changes were directly precipitated by the death of Margaret Thatcher but this does not detract from the fact that current government in the UK, driven seemingly entirely by ideology is working towards the goal of a neo-liberal Britain that the Iron Lady would have only dreamed about. In the process of driving back the state as it has traditionally been conceived of here in the UK, this government is making a country none of us will recognise in years to come, motivated by their belief in a mandate they do not hold and planning to use methods that have failed in the past and will in all probability fail again in the future. If not likely to succeed in the aims of making the UK a better and healthier society then we really must what is it all for other than sate their own perverse ideologies of what is fair.