Film and debate: Generation Right – the legacy of Margaret Thatcher

Sunday 29 October, 14:0015:30, Cinema 2Debating the Past

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The election of the Conservative government led by Margaret Thatcher in May 1979 marked a sea change in British politics. The postwar consensus had been based on the notion that government should run society much of the economy. Major industries were owned and run by the state, there was generous welfare provision at least in comparison to before the Second World War, and policy was reached through negotiation between business and trade unions, with government presented as a neutral referee. But then the economic downturn of the 1970s led to widespread strikes, rising unemployment, government restrictions on pay rises and the ‘winter of discontent’ of 1978-79. The postwar consensus was shattered, and Thatcher came to power with promises of free enterprise, lower taxes, family values and self-reliance. As she later said in response to those who ‘cast their problems on society’: ‘There is no such thing as society!’

‘Thatcherism’ meant large sections of loss-making nationalised industries were closed and remaining state-owned industries privatised. Council housing was sold off to tenants and sections of the working class enjoyed greater prosperity, especially in the south-east. Popular capitalism was the new watchword, for better or worse. In Thatcher’s words, ‘There is no alternative’. But while the City of London would experience deregulation and exploding incomes, areas where heavy industry had been a major employer fell into poverty, with the highest unemployment since the Great Depression, peaking at well over three million. Riots broke out in inner-city areas like Brixton and Toxteth, crime rose and sink estates were created. It is testament to Thatcher’s influence that despite these problems, by the time she left office, the political landscape appeared to have been remade in her image. New Labour consciously adopted many of her attitudes and policies, and the new consensus held that old-fashioned socialism was electoral poison. We were all ‘Thatcher’s children’.

But now Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, with a programme of renationalisation and greater state intervention, seems to have challenged that assumption. Economic growth has faltered or disappeared in many parts of the UK. After this year’s general election, the austerity policies adopted since 2008 (in the spirit of ‘There is no alternative’) have been widely called into question, most notably by many in the younger generation of millennials. An award-wining film, Generation Right, attempts to sum up Margaret Thatcher’s legacy. After a screening of the film, a panel will introduce a discussion of her impact on politics and society today. Are the millennials still Thatcher’s children, or will they throw off her legacy in favour of something as radically new as she once was?