The Tories often claim to be anti-statists and accuse their opponents, usually the Labour Party, of being ‘statists’. This was the same claim that Thatcher made back in 1979 and throughout the 1980s. However, if you look at their record in government since that time, the claim rings hollow.
Thatcher’s anti-state rhetoric has been assiduously revived under Cameron’s Conservatives. The state, we are told, must be shrunk for our own good and socialism and, by extension, the Labour Party are regarded as obstacles to the freedom (sic) that will apparently flow from a reduction of the size of the state. Yet the Tories claims to anti-statism are made without any apparent sense of self-reflexivity or irony. In his article “Thatcherism – A New Stage?” for Marxism Today, Prof. Stuart Hall (1980) wrote:
In the development of her anti-statist philosophy, Mrs Thatcher has successfully identified this kind of ‘statism’ with Labour — and with socialism. It was then possible to represent the resistance to and disenchantment with this form of ‘statism’ as a resistance, not only to Labour, but more fundamentally to socialism itself. In this way Thatcherism has successfully identified itself with the popular struggle against a bureaucratically centralist form of the capitalist state.
Yet the privatized systems that replaced state bureaucracies were no less ruthless and no less intrusive. Witness the Work Capability Assessments introduced by Nu Labour and expanded under the coalition. Serco and ATOS may be private companies but they act on behalf of the state.
Hall (1979) also observed “The Great Moving Right Show” that Thatcher’s Tories offered what he referred to as “authoritarian populism”. This authoritarian populism or ‘libertarian authoritarianism’ (a true contradiction if ever there was one) is present in Wednesday’s announcement from Cameron in which he claimed,
“For too long, we have been a passively tolerant society, saying to our citizens ‘as long as you obey the law, we will leave you alone’,”
Increased surveillance relies on an enlarged state security apparatus to function effectively, and although Tories rail against the state’s expansion when it comes to its social functions, they have no qualms with a bloated secret state. The so-called ‘snoopers charter’ is testament to this. Thus the idea that one has “nothing to fear if they have nothing to hide” is a mantra that appeals to Tory politicians and gullible voters alike. The latter constituency is kept in a constant state of fear by the near-endless production of scare stories in the right-wing media about ‘enemies within’ and without, who seek to “destroy our way of life” – whatever that may be – while the former accepts it as an article of faith and needs little persuasion.
The expanded security state also relies on a form of nationalized morality. Hall (1979) explains:
But the language of law and order is sustained by moralisms. It is where the great syntax of “good” versus “evil”, of civilized and uncivilized standards, of the choice between anarchy and order constantly divides the world up and classifies into its appointed stations. The play on “values” and on moral issues in this area is what gives to the law and order crusade much of its grasp on popular morality and common sense conscience.
Yet despite this, it touches concretely the experiences of crime and theft, of loss of scarce property and fears of unexpected attack in working class areas and neighbourhoods; and, since it promulgates no other remedies for their underlying causes, it welds people to that “need for authority” which has been so significant for the Right in the construction of consent to its authoritarian programme
Rather than addressing the underlying causes of crime, the Tories’ solution is to treat the symptoms by smashing the perpetrators with an iron fist. Cameron’s entreaty to the British public in 2006 to “hug a hoodie” is now seen by many as an embarrassing episode of juvenile naivete. But his ‘hug the hoodie’ statement was also PR guff designed to make him look more ‘in touch’ with the youth than the Calvinistic and comparatively older Gordon Brown. He was dahn wif da kids, innit.
The Tories’ small state notion needs a fearful but atomized society that is obsessed with individual needs (me first) over community needs, while also accepting the false need for a suffocating security blanket. The ‘independent’ nuclear ‘deterrent’ is supported by Tory statists who constantly warn of the danger of this external threat or that one. ISIS/ISIL/IS/Da’esh is raised as the all-purpose bogeyman: they are everywhere and nowhere. As Plaid Cymru leader, Leanne Wood pointed out, what good are nuclear weapons against ISIS? Yet the supporters of the expanded security state dismiss this out of hand, and they do so because they stand to make money and win prestige from the uneven nuclear relationship between the United States and HMP United Kingdom.
To aid the efforts in shrinking the social functions of the state, the British people are distracted by the constant bombardment of the government’s advertising messages declaring that the ideal lifestyle is just within reach if you work your fingers to the bone to achieve it. Those who buy into this notion of ‘advancement through hard work’ (which sounds uncomfortably close to the Nazi’s ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ slogan) are encouraged to resent those on benefits because they are told that these people are ‘undeserving’, feckless and inherently lazy. Such people need to be stigmatized by an overbearing Tory government that’s hell-bent on enriching itself and its allies. The state, in this case, is supposedly entitled to poke its nose into the lives of benefit claimants and has the support of the S*n reading public, whose consent it has manufactured. All benefit claimants are leeches, all council estates are dumps and flotillas of immigrants will wash up on our shores to steal your jobs – so the stories go. The Tory-controlled media thus provides both a modern day version of the village stocks, while, at the same time, dispensing scare stories of dangerous elements in our society to keep people in line.
The aim of the Tories’ anti-statism is to return to country to the supposed ‘golden age’ of the 19th century with its yawning gaps between rich and poor; its rampant poverty, high child mortality rates and widespread ignorance. At the same time, it retains the state’s repressive functions to crush dissent and opposition – just as it did in the 19th century. And this is what people voted for? Your freedom is an illusion and even that illusion may be snatched away from you before long.
Debord, G. (2005). Society of the Spectacle, Detroit: Black and Red.
Foucault, M (1977). Discipline and Punish. London: Penguin
Herman, E. S. & Chomsky, N. (1994) Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, London: Vintage Books.
Hall, S. (1979). “The Great Moving Right Show” in Marxism Today, January 1979: pp 16-23
Hall, S. (1980). “Thatcherism – A New Stage”? in Marxism Today, February, 1980: pp 26-28