chapter  5
28 Pages

Governing for the consumer

In the previous chapter, it was argued that the programme to change British attitudes and behaviour began in the mid to late 1970s, as Margaret Thatcher and Keith Joseph toured Britain delivering speeches to the public imploring them to abandon their union instincts and imagine themselves in a healthy society composed of entrepreneurs and enterprising consumers. This chapter explores the strategies and tactics of neoliberalism practised in government in the 1980s to make these changes permanent. In the broadest sense, this chapter asks the question, how did the Thatcher government govern for the consumer? More specifically, it explains key elements of Thatcherite economic policy in the context of the society being imagined by the New Right. If neoliberals were to govern for certain ways of thinking, encouraging and fostering habits of thought that would enable consumer sovereignty to be reasserted, then the strategies and tactics to be employed had to be geared towards changing attitudes and behaviour in the economy. Many of the economic policies enacted in the 1980s appear paradoxical; one historical account of the period, E. H. H. Green’s Thatcher (2006), goes as far as to say that, unlike other areas of the government’s agenda, Thatcher’s political economy was ‘often contradictory’.1 In this chapter it is being suggested that these paradoxes can be explained in the context of the New Right’s political rationality and raison d’être in government. The interpretation presented here is different from accounts that have focused on Thatcher’s pragmatism, such Hugo Young’s One of Us (1989) and William Keegan’s Lawson’s Gamble (1989).2 Equally, this chapter argues against economists of the New Right, such as Gordon Pepper and Tim Congdon,3 who viewed the consumer boom of the late 1980s as an explicit abandonment of monetarism. Milton Friedman’s own assessment of monetarism in practice, presented to the House of Commons Select Committee in 1980, was that government was not following the kind of monetarism that he had outlined over the previous ten years.4 All the same, the argument that follows downplays the notion that policy was muddled and confused. The substantive goal was not the practice of monetarism but the readjustment of attitudes and behaviour. Monetarism was just a tactic of government used at a particular time for a particular governmental purpose.