This week marks the Assembly’s tenth birthday. It also marks the thirtieth anniversary of the start of the economic experiment which has since become known as “Thatcherism”. Two decades of being on the losing end of this experiment made it easy to persuade people to vote ‘Yes’ in the referendum which led to setting up the Assembly.
I spent the summer of 1997 campaigning for a ‘Yes’ vote. At that time, people felt largely optimistic about a future which could move on from Thatcherism.
New Labour had just turfed the Tories out of government after 18 years. During that time the Tories had inflicted – without an electoral mandate – gravely damaging policies on Wales. Most people around me in the Rhondda were vigorously opposed to more or less everything the Tories stood for. Valleys people had stood up to the Tories. Throughout the miners’ strike they had given their all in an ideological battle with Thatcher’s government, because they knew that losing would be a disaster. How right they were. The price for losing that battle is still being paid today.
I was eight years old when the Tories came to power in 1979. I belonged to the much talked about “Thatcher generation”, with no memory of anything other than a Tory government. By 1984, I was a first year pupil at Tonypandy Comprehensive School. I remember complaining about having to carry heavy tins into school to give to the miners’ kids, who, because their dads were on strike, were “worse off than us” and so needed our help. But my father wasn’t a miner and so, although the strike had a massive impact on the wider community, it didn’t have an immediate and direct effect on our family life.
That was until my dad was also made redundant. He was out of work for years, which meant reliance on embarrassing home-made or old-fashioned ‘hand-me-down’ clothes, queuing for free school meal tickets, missing out on school trips and events as well as after-school activities like dancing classes. There were a lot of us in that situation. There was a real sense of hopelessness in so many of our home lives.
I have few fond memories of the ’80s – my teenage years. We had a good voluntary, on-a-shoe-string-run youth club offering somewhere to hang out on Mondays through to Thursdays. There were some great teachers in school. But there was no money to “do” things. There were too few free things to “do”. Weekends and school holidays were spent in back lanes or on street corners. Too many of my male contemporaries ended up in the prison system, their crime careers starting with a flagon of Strongbow in the back lanes. Cider too often progressed to other more dangerous substances; drugs like heroin were cheap, easily available and attractive to a generation who’d come to believe that the only thing they had to look forward to was the fortnightly dole giro cheque. Too many girls had babies too early. Jarvis Cocker summed up the culture and the feeling when he sang “We drank, and we danced and we screwed, coz there was nothing else to do.” The best word to describe the atmosphere is “hopeless”.
The defeat of the miners’ strike led to high levels of unemployment. Thatcher’s deliberate decimation of the mining industry and, more importantly, its union caused untold damage, much of which is still starkly visible today. In some valleys areas, a fifth of young people are out of work. Mental health, problematic substance usage and crime levels are shockingly high in some former mining areas, as are statistics for poverty, ill health and premature death. The legacy and the memory of Thatcher’s policies will not fade easily in my part of Wales.
But it would be too easy to place all responsibility for this onto one person. Margaret Thatcher is a powerful icon, but she is merely the symbolic UK representative of a global neo-liberal/free market economic movement which was embraced and continued by Labour after the Tories left office. In 1979 Thatcherism broke with the post-war consensus which favoured and supported the welfare state. Breaking that consensus and aiming to cut the size of the state was a revolution – but not a good one.
The current economic crisis has now laid bare the problems at the heart of the Thatcherite free-market experiment. This situation necessitates a new break with the neo-liberal consensus that has dominated UK politics since Thatcher came to power in 1979. Wales has never shown much of an appetite for Thatcherite economics and it can be argued that the Assembly would not now be celebrating its tenth birthday had we not lived through Thatcherism. It has to be hoped that her long-term legacy will be a powerful, left-leaning Welsh government, willing and able to defend people in Wales from any more "experiments" imposed by London governments, be they Tory or Labour.