Catherine Marcus is a civil servant and writer.
I have listened with interest to the passionate arguments for and against the cuts; statism versus Big Society; what some see as society’s duty to protect the poor and weak as opposed to others' desires to take an axe to a bloated welfare system.
I belong to a demographic – young, middle-class, university graduate, urban, creative – that veers left as reflex. You can just about manage being centre-right, if you’ve got a strong stomach and are prepared to stand your ground when you’re being accused of fascism. But being right-wing is social suicide, like admitting to a penchant for baby-eating and tramp-croquet. The only time I’ve seen it carried off is as an adopted eccentricity, political views as accessory, like a vintage tweed jacket, delivered with a lightness of touch and enough wit to persuade a shocked audience that the person in question wasn’t being entirely serious.
No matter where you stand on Thatcher, no one can deny the divisive and inflammatory nature of her politics, and for many children growing up in the 1980s, memories are tinged with the spectre of angry headlines and the sight of grown men standing in front of picket lines on the evening news, their adult faces twisted with rage and impotent anger as the Prime Minister’s will bore down on them, sweeping them aside to make way for her vision of Britain.
The Major years followed, when the tabloids went through a golden era as the Conservatives appeared to be conspiring with them in order to tattoo themselves into our collective consciousness with a never-ending deluge of lurid detail, from David Mellor’s football shirt to cash bribes in Paris hotels, constant scandal eclipsing the politics taking place behind the scenes. It was then time for a change of regime, and in swept a fresh-faced Tony Blair and New Labour on a wave of idealistic, popular approval, just in time for many of us to vote for the first time.
The fact that this segment of my generation identifies so strongly with the left, being the lifelong beneficiaries of Margaret Thatcher’s economically liberating policies, surprises me. My contemporaries expect and enjoy an astonishing quality of life that would have had kings and queens of previous generations gaping with open-mouthed envy. Extensive international travel is taken for granted; a liberal arts education has been (until recently) bestowed as a droit du seigneur, to the point where most of my friends at University had no strong feelings one way or other about the degree they were doing, it was just the ‘next step’ in a typical middle-class kid’s existence – a right, not a privilege.
Labour’s astonishing good luck at being elected at the very start of a long economic boom, stimulating that feel-good factor with extensive borrowing and redistribution into the public sector, presiding over the rise and rise of a seemingly invincible financial sector, had everyone rethinking their positions: maybe Labour could be trusted with the economy. Maybe high taxes could be mitigated by benefits of the economy’s strong showing. Well, ain’t reality a cold shower?
As any economist will attest, money only retains its value when there is a finite amount of it. Labour’s default economic policy of borrow more, or if that fails, print more, is no policy at all. So why is my generation so reluctant to acknowledge these simple truths? Why aren’t we holding Labour to account for the effects of its destructive largesse with other people’s money? What about the profligacy and waste (not to mention the bad architecture) of all the grotesque PFI projects that Gordon Brown was able to keep off the books, until he couldn’t? As the old maxim goes, a policy should not be judged on its intentions but on its effects.
So what has anyone got to say to the children who roam the streets of Britain, unloved and uncared for, demonised by the press but brought into being by a society that says, hey, don’t worry about the whole absent father / teenage mother thing, the state will act as a parent substitute, slipping you some weekly dosh for doing absolutely nothing and if you do decide to do something, we’ll take away that financial lifeline, so really best to just carry on doing nothing, isn’t it?
And what about the perversity of rewarding people whose circumstances are the most dysfunctional and damaging to the rest of society? Why is it that someone who works incredibly hard for very little money has almost no chance of getting a council property, because of course, they don’t need it as much as Joe Bloggs, lunatic crackhead, who, let us all remember, has had such a hard time of it all his life?
It’s not sympathy or empathy for the common man that leads my privileged generation to instinctively identify with the left, but a disconnection from the harsher realities of life. Only those living in ivory towers could deny the impact of Labour’s well-intended attempts to socially engineer ‘fairness’ in society, the constant skewing of the playing field and its devastating impact on the masses of uneducated, unloved children, living desperate lives in Britain’s forgotten estates and cities, the places no one goes to visit or thinks about, unless forced to by some gruesome news piece – another transient, opportunistic indictment of that oh-so-snappy political catchphrase, ‘Broken Britain’.
The fact is I admire the Conservatives for their hard-nosed acknowledgement that policy dictates trend: support marriage with a tax break and more people will get married, strengthening and supporting an institution that is proven to produce happier, healthier kids; make Britain more hospitable to enterprise and watch the revenues to the Treasury increase; remove red tape where possible and unleash the forces of enterprise as Britons are liberated from the punishing shackles of excessive bureaucracy.
My generation was the beneficiary of such transformative policy – instead of sneering at capitalism and enterprise, we should be prepared to render unto Caesar what is due.