Joyce McMillan: Junk Thatcherism’s corrosive curse
THE ugly idea that everything and everyone has a price pervades almost every area of government.
Thursday afternoon: and in a couple of hours, this year’s Reith Lecturer will be arriving at the Royal Society of Edinburgh, to give the last in his series of 2012 lectures, under the title, The Rule Of Law And Its Enemies. As a woman of the left, of course, I am inclined to question whether this year’s lecturer, Professor Niall Ferguson, is really the right person to be carrying the torch of Reithian wisdom at all. One of those upwardly-mobile Scots who enjoys dismissing his beautiful homeland as a deadbeat last bastion of dinosaur socialism, Ferguson has spent the last 30 years stridently defending Thatcherism in all its forms, neoliberal, neoconservative, and just plain nasty.
So in the first of his lectures, he strove to blame the entire baby-boomer generation, rich, poor and middling, for the current state of government finances across Europe; welfare, it seems, is the culprit, corroding our moral fibre, and bankrupting our institutions. And in the second, he argued that what our banking and financial system needs is not more regulation, but better regulation; a view difficult to dispute, if only we could avoid the suspicion that for the western world’s increasingly out-of-control financial bosses, any regulation that works always counts as “too much”.
In truth, though, even as Ferguson speaks, events seem to be conspiring to make his thesis look more fragile; for when it comes to the rule of law and its enemies, the finger of public blame points ever more conclusively not to the left, but to the right, and to a global elite who seem to have convinced themselves, long since, that whatever rules are in force simply do not apply to them. This week did not begin well for the banking industry, with the Royal Bank of Scotland, already bailed out at vast public cost, apparently unable to achieve even a minimum of competence in dealing with a serious breakdown in its transaction systems.
The RBS debacle paled into insignificance, though, when news broke that Barclays Bank were being fined a sum of £290 million for attempting to rig the inter-bank lending rate, known as Libor, throughout the financial crisis; it is thought that many other major banks were also involved, and that the Barclays affair is only the tip of a massive iceberg of deception.
The Chancellor, George Osborne, claims that there may be no criminal law under which those involved can be prosecuted; some active citizens disagree, and have reported the senior management of Barclays to the Metropolitan Police, for prosecution under the Fraud Act of 2006.
We know, though, that we cannot expect imminent arrests; from News International to the Barclays boardroom, the culture of impunity and deference surrounding the super-rich and their behaviour has become so entrenched in British society that it takes months or years to break, in any given case.
Yet it also has an infinitely corrosive effect on every aspect of our society; to put it bluntly, there is no longer a single reason why any ordinary person in this country should listen to another word from any member of our governing elite on the subject of fairness, or legality, or benefit fraud, or even the kind of looting that took place during last summer’s riots; since when it comes to looting other people’s wealth for their own gain, many of the supposed leaders of our society make the average thug in a hoodie look like an amateur.
If we are ever to move on from this condition of helpless fury, though, we now urgently not only need to bring individual offenders to justice, but also to nail and challenge the belief-system that led our economic institutions to this pass.
And this is where Professor Ferguson and his defence of Thatcherism re-enters the picture; for it seems to me that if there is one factor that has corroded the integrity and values of our public and private institutions, over the last generation, it is the widespread post-Thatcherite assumption – call it junk Thatcherism, if you like – that everything and everyone has a price, and that all human interactions can finally be reduced to the model of some kind of market transaction, or “investment”.
As those of us currently engaged in the row over arts funding in Scotland have cause to know, this kind of ugly, reductive language and thinking now pervades almost every area of British government and social policy, even in Scotland, where the ideological resistance to it has always been strong.
And everywhere it goes, it depresses and demoralises those who have to work with it, degrades language, and drives good people out of major institutions altogether, so blatantly inadequate is its account of what human beings are, and of the richness and potential of their social interactions.
Heaven knows, in other words, what sad, cheap, narrow little thoughts were going through the minds of Barclays’ senior managers, or those in other banks, when they decided to deprave the basic system of fair dealing on which their own already weakened industry depends. What we can say, though, is that they were operating within a belief-system that, over a generation, has given them permission to disable every part of their moral and intellectual being, except the part that understands crude self-interest and self-advancement as the only law.
And as Adam Smith himself so brilliantly understood, it is not the only law; not for human beings interested in living rich and fulfilled lives, not for societies interested in their own integrity and survival, and not for the kind of trustworthy institutions around which free societies can be built.
So from those – including Professor Ferguson – who have defended the legacy of Thatcherism for much too long, a period of humble silence would now be welcome.
So, too, would some serious thought about how we can begin to re-integrate the demands of basic economic freedom with those of our deepest moral sentiments, recognised by Adam Smith, expressed in the outline of our laws, and treated with such notorious contempt by those from whom we had the right to expect much greater integrity, much more intelligence, and a much deeper wisdom about how human societies must conduct themselves, if they are to survive and thrive.
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Monday 20 May 2013
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