The Long 1980s

Anyone else getting déjà vu? It feels like the 1980s. Not just because we have a bad imitation of Thatcher about to be anointed by the Tory faithful, but the grim statistics of imminent poverty and homelessness and the strident right-wing rhetoric being played out against ordinary people fighting for a decent wage.

New statistics on homelessness in Scotland are just out. Three harsh stats jump out: the number of children in temp accommodation is up by 17% to 8,635 in March from 7,385 in March 2021; the number of people becoming homeless from private rent sector is 15%, it was 11% in 2020-21; and there were  2,129 households rough sleeping during the previous 3 months (which is down). The rise in those becoming homeless from private rented sector is being put down to the lifting of the pandemic ban on evictions.

Landlords can easily evict people and get new tenants or change to short-term letting. There’s no sign of rent controls anytime soon so as other prices rocket and the cost of living spirals people will be more and more vulnerable as they struggle to make the rent each month. This is a tipping point.

There are many more coming down the track.

The Daily Record reports an astonishing figure of four million people in Scotland facing fuel poverty. That’s three-quarters of all households. Fuel poverty is defined as anyone having to spend more than 10% of their income on heating after housing costs. Experts at the University of York published the shocking new figures, but the political response has been muted. Our current PM is on permanent holiday and our incoming one is not someone you would trust with going to the newsagent never mind finding solutions for a national emergency. Truss has previously suggested she is opposed to offering hard-up families any more support. She told one newspaper earlier this month: “I would do things in a Conservative way of lowering the tax burden, not giving out handouts.”

It’s not just in Scotland that fuel poverty is about to hit, hard. A forecast this week from Cornwall Insight predicted a £4,266 average annual energy price by January. This means that more than half of British households, 54%, will be in fuel poverty by October and two-thirds, 66%, by January. Six million households, an astonishing number, will be forced to pay an unprecedented 25% of their income in fuel costs and 4.4 million will be subject to a virtually unaffordable 30%.

This is an astonishing situation. But the solutions put forward are largely hopeless. Labour talk of ‘taxing profits’, ‘freezing energy prices’ – and bringing suppliers into the public sector.

‘Freezing energy prices’ sounds like a good idea but like rent freezes if you are fixing them at an exorbitant rate that’s not so great. ‘Taxing’ giant energy companies is, er, a good idea, but unlikely under an ideologue like Truss.

But a lot of this dialogue assumes the energy crisis to be a transient thing. Offered up are freezes or rebates to get people through to ‘next year’. But the energy crisis is part of the climate crisis, and it’s here to stay. Ecologists have been saying for forty years that we have to create resilient renewable energy systems, that we have to have an energy descent plan and we need to have our supply under public control. These three key demands have been ignored. So here we are.

It’s the same with the water crisis. The boom and bust of droughts and rainfall leading to sewage dumped at sea and in rivers is testimony of the resource wars that many of us have predicted for years. Treat everything as a short-term problem, ignore the evidence before your eyes and privatise and deregulate for profit and our problems become systemic and pile-up and up.

The soft reformist and mild suggestions are now too little too late. As three-quarters of all households descend into fuel poverty, last week the oil and gas giant BP announced quarterly profits of £6.9bn, its highest figure for 14 years.

And people are standing around going: ‘what are we going to do?’

In the face of widespread political inertia, people are taking things into their own hands.

As the RMT’s Mick Lynch said this week: “People are getting poorer every day. They can’t pay their bills, they’re being treated despicably in the workplace. There is a massive response coming.” That response and organisation, perhaps unsurprisingly is emerging outwith the normal political channels. It feels like finally, amid the rubble of a broken politics and a failed political class, people are waking up. ‘Enough is Enough‘ is a new campaign which offers five demands: a real pay rise; slash energy bills; end food poverty; decent homes for all; tax the rich.

The leftwing journalist Rachel Shabi reported from the campaign’s launch in London. She said: “Thinking about the packed out Enough is Enough rally last night, the giant queues around the building, the energy and hope in the room and how much raw need there is for a social movement like this amidst our unforgivably broken politics.”

“Enough is Enough has tapped into a desperate appetite and need for collectivist politics, amidst a social and economic crisis point our main political parties seem incapable of responding to.”

Don’t Pay UK is another new campaign. It’s plan? “It’s simple: we are demanding a reduction of energy bills to an affordable level. Our leverage is that we will gather a million people to pledge not to pay if the government goes ahead with another massive hike on October 1st.
Mass non-payment is not a new idea, it happened in the UK in the late 80s and 90s, when more than 17 million people refused to pay the Poll Tax – helping bring down the government and reversing its harshest measures. Even if a fraction of those of us who are paying by direct debit stop our payments, it will be enough to put energy companies in serious trouble, and they know this. We want to bring them to the table and force them to end this crisis.”

There are problems with these responses. How does the Don’t Pay UK campaign deal with people on pre-paid meters, and will the Sheriff Officers come knocking? The Poll Tax campaign worked because of mass solidarity and action to resist (and ultimately ended up in Tommy Sheridan’s legislation at Holyrood for the Abolition of Poindings and Warrant Sales Act 2001). While Enough is Enough has all the right demands and massive support, it does feel like another Momentum moment. If these groups can mobilise large numbers of people – and given the level of the crisis you’d imagine that would be possible – maybe we can affect change. But this resistance needs to be at scale and on the streets, and operate beyond or above party politics.

As the political temperature rises the rhetoric from the right is dramatically escalating. Grant Shapps and Liz Truss are threatening authoritarian legislation against trade union activity.

This week Truss unveiled plans for a ‘radical shake-up of labour laws’. Her plan includes introducing minimum service levels on critical national infrastructure to keep trains, buses and other services running. New laws would be introduced in parliament within a month of taking office if her leadership campaign is successful. She will raise ballot thresholds to make it harder for strike action to take place across all sectors. She’s not just a Thatcher cosplay act.

The Frost Report

But if the rhetoric from Truss and Shapps on the unions is like an 80s throwback, so too is the rhetoric on the Union. In an extraordinary intervention this week the architect of the magnificent Brexit project, David Frost, doubled-down on the new normal of muscular unionism. The days of love-bombing are long-gone. In an unhinged piece in the Telegraph (‘The SNP has to be defeated, not appeased‘) he wrote: “The SNP has to be defeated, not appeased. It would be a humiliation if the UK were to be broken up by the Nationalists. It would also be immoral.”

Frost claimed: “…the UK is a unitary state, not a federation or a confederation. Both the 1707 and 1801 Acts of Union fused the participants into one state in which all were equal, first “Great Britain”, then the “United Kingdom”, with one sovereign legal personality and one Parliament and government.

For all the noise, that is still the case. The Scottish “government” is not the government of a state in confederation with England. It is a subordinate entity within the UK, with powers granted to it by the UK government and Parliament, and ultimately subject to the supremacy of that Parliament. SNP activists hate it when you remind them of this. All the more need to do so.”
This is extraordinary language even for a Tory.
Frost then claimed a sort of compulsory Britishness arguing: “Moreover, if you are a citizen of that unitary state, you are British. The SNP’s nationalist allies in Northern Ireland try to blur this, too. Sky News’s Ireland correspondent Stephen Murphy stepped into this confusion this week when he criticised Rishi Sunak for calling his audience at the Belfast hustings “Britons”.
Perhaps unsurprisingly he betrays a very slight knowledge of Scottish (or Irish) culture and politics, but this is new language. Finally, and most sinister he wrote: “We need to act. The devolution settlement is not written in stone. It has evolved – all in one direction – since 1999. It can evolve back, too.”
This is the first time I have heard a senior Conservative outwardly and openly attack the very concept of devolution. We are in new territory.
What has provoked this new language? They’re completely desperate. They’re complicit in creating a whole series of social and ecological nightmares they have no idea what to do about. They are tooled only with an ideology that has created the very shambles we see all around us. As one writer wrote this week:  “The unavoidable truth is that the United Kingdom is in such a fragile, frayed state that it can no longer keep its people warm or adequately feed them.”
Feeling Better Together?


Comments (9)

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  1. Cathie Lloyd says:

    Excellent analysis of a very frightening situation. What the Tory leadership show has allowed is the unchallenged proliferation of this right-wing fantasy politics. The silence of the main opposition party in England offers little serious challenge to the fabrications which have been taking shape. The resistance from the trade union movement is hopeful and those of us in the Yes movement need to build solidaristic links with them.

  2. SleepingDog says:

    If Margaret Thatcher had had her way, the only train services in Scotland would have been as imaginary as the tram in Akira Kurosawa’s Dodes’ka-den, a movie concerned with social precarity and its effects:
    Yet Thatcher, May, Truss et al owe their attainment of high office to socialism’s eventual victory over their own reactionary party. What does it mean to represent a political party obsessed with tradition and a skewed British history that cannot even face its own? Sure, it is part of a long tradition of hypocrisy and cant, the engineering of social cheating, cloaking the crimes of Empire and so on. But perhaps you would have to go much further back than the 1980s to find such narrow appeals to the richest and vilest.

  3. James Mills says:

    Victorian values , the deserving/undeserving poor , workhouses , keeping the working masses in their place …almost there !

  4. Chris Ballance says:

    One small point – you call for the supply to be under public control – it’s primarily the means of production which need to be publicly owned , though ideally of course both production and supply in one entity. But the suppliers we pay bills to are entirely at the mercy of the producers; a number of the suppliers who went bust last year were very decent organisations like People’s Energy.

    And what we really need is energy prices to be high to encourage reduction of use, while poverty is addressed to ensure people can afford to live decent lives.

  5. Mark Bevis says:

    “Things are never so bad that they can’t get worse”
    A study of how collapse has affected Venezuela.

    Kosovo has already started energy rationing:

    Some of our winter energy comes from Norway and France, who have both said they may not be able to provide the supply, even if they wanted to, due to the Europe wide drought. (Reduced water levels means less hydro in Norway and switching off of nuclear plants in France).

    Don’t think any of this cannot happen here.

    On a more pleasant note, the fruit trees and bushes are bountiful this year, never seen so many blackberries and so many huge ones.

    I was wondering at DontpayUK on twitter if instead of cancelling DDs 1 million people just self-disconnected by turning off their mains supply. Apparently it would have significant outcomes just at an engineering level, and probably collapse the entire grid.

    This is something I’m considering if the prices go up too much, just switch off, write a letter closing my energy account, and spend the money instead on a couple of portable rocket stoves. There is enough rubbish dropped around here, plus the woodfall from my allotment, to keep me in fuel forever. I can still work at the local library aka warmbank, and not having regular internet will probably be quite bliss.

    It shows how little the numpties in charge care when they can’t even join the dot that if 2/3rds of the population is in fuel poverty by January, then Truss’s so called economic growth is never gonna happen because we won’t have disposable income to make a functioning economy.

    Talking of Hull and DontpayUK, someone took out a full page add in the local paper:

    I can’t join their campaign as I’ve not been using DDs for over a decade now, I just pay £20 a week on a card at the post office and top up at the end of the month once meter readings have been emailed to the supplier, if I need to. So not paying by DD is not a big deal in itself. It’ll be interesting to see how it pans out.
    Of great concern are small businesses, who are now getting projections of tens of thousands of pounds per year – they’d have to be above the VAT turnover threshold, and reports are coming in of small businesses just closing as their current payment deal ends.

    Declining EROEI and Jevons Paradox means this energy crisis is not going to go away – the wise amongst you would be looking at what both Nate Hagens and Tim Watkins refer to as the great simplification – enact a managed decline of your energy use before it is forced upon you and you don’t have time to think about it.

    I was discussing this at our community garden and one suggestion was for each small neighbourhood, say a row of terraces, everyone gets together and nominates one house as a warm house where socialising, cooking and eating is done together, perhaps share the energy costs and run the rest on the absolute minimum just to stop pipes freezing and be warm enough to sleep in. Or it may become a reality that relatives have to start living together instead of in separate houses.

    This is all assuming nothing changes at the political level. You can imagine the Tories are holding off as long as possible to “save the nation” with some grand plan to make themselves look the shining knights in armour come to the rescue.

    I think the reality is that they will have to do something, in the order of £3K payments to each household, or an equivalence of abolishing the cap and doing the pricing another way. I’m not convinced even these numpties can ignore reality for much longer.

    It’s a good job guillotines don’t run on electricity.

  6. John Monro says:

    Thank you Mike, something with which most reading here will agree with. But this is not a “crisis” that has come upon us suddenly with Covid or the Ukraine military action, but has been building up like an ever widening avalanche for forty years. You start your opinion piece by recalling the 80s, and Thatcher. Your write well about our present “crisis”. – of mounting poverty and want, the failure of politics, of business, of diplomacy, of rational behaviour.. What you don’t write about directly is that our present crisis was seeded by Thatcher all those years ago. The neoliberal, hyper-capitalist, greedy ascendancy was her love child with Hyek, spawned by his unworkable and anti-humane Darwinian ideology. For a while, things happened that have seemed to allow this politics and economics to succeed – outsourcing, union capitulation, China, North Sea Oil, computerising and the IT revolution etc. But 2008 came along as the house of fiscal cards developed over the previous 20 years collapse, only to be resuscitated by trillions of dollars of so called quantitative easing. Since. then the world economy has been kept alive by ever greater transfusions of printed money, only to have Covid come along to euthanise this economy. So global capitalism has failed twice in just twelve years. Yet where, apart from some left wingers, Corbyn and humane economists like Varoufakis, is there any effective opposition to this? Starmer says our economy needs these three things “Growth, Growth, Growth” – he is “Wrong, Wrong, Wrong” – indeed he is certifiably “Mad, Mad, Mad”. There is no growth of the sort he thinks, we are at the end of that endeavour, and we are killing the planet, and ourselves in this suicidal attempt to keep our economies growing. If we have a political and economic system that only works when it grows, then the nearest parallel I can think of is that of cancer. Humanity needs to recognise these three things if we are to survive. 1. Our environment – our nature, our resources, our only sustainably. 2. Our humanity – our only personal resource 3 Our reason – the connection between the two. How humanity interacts with its environment. Its wisdom, if you like, and tragically our rarest human attribute. . If we need to “grow” anything, then these three things might do¨- “Resistance, Rationality and Responsiveness”.

    In the UK several other forces have been involved. Our Anglo-Saxon exceptionalism, too closely allied to that same destructive quality in the US. Our useless jingoism and Empire hang-over. Brexit. Our failing political institutions, with FPP voting, and a House of Lords of Gilbertian absurdity. Indeed the very home of these institutions crumbling around our political elite. Class distinctions and long standing inequalities fed by an education system of huge disparities. In regard to Scottish Independence, if the citizens of Scotland find themselves ruled by a society that no longer has reason, or rationality, that is busy killing society and its people and its very future, then reason and rationality in Scotland should demand its citizens take control of its own affairs, and and insist on reason in its own governance.

    What are the odds against a General Strike this winter? Indeed, what odds the Palace of Westminster going up in flames? (It has done so before, and for the same reason -

    1. 220823 says:

      Our postmodern condition is indeed an outcome of the Thatcher Revolution, which swept away the ideology of the so-called postwar consensus in British politics.

      But there’s no going back to that ideology; for better or worse, we now live in a post-industrial society, in which our wealth is based on the (unequal) exchange of information rather than on that of material goods, the technology of which exchange has produced patterns of social relations that are radically different from those that governed our lives and shaped our cognitive, evaluative, and practical behaviours in the third ‘twilight’ quarter of the 20th century.

      The problem with the left is it atavism, its rhetorical tendency to revert to tradition. This is perhaps epitomised by the British Labour Party, whose best response to our postmodern condition was to produce an ideological fossil like Jeremy Corbyn – to electorally disastrous effect.

      We need to be looking forward rather than back. Not traditions – precedents!

      1. John Monro says:

        Thanks, 220823. (Any significance in your moniker?) A reasoned reply. It would be a serious mistake to try and wind the clock back as a kind of principle. A mistake as much as Brexit was fuelled by atavistic jingoism. But there is a desperate need for a government that will actually govern. We have an energy problem, serious, building up for a while because “planning” in our neoliberal paradise is an anathema, basically Stalinism. Privatisation of our energy companies was neoliberal extremism, and needs reversing. Old fashioned lefties would call this re-nationalisation. I’d call it simply de-privatisation, Less emotional baggage that way. Same with water. Same with railways. Same with public transport. Same with NHS. Same with prisons. If you call that atavistic, so be it. I call it rational and necessary. Reversing dangerous and unsustainable economic and fiscal policies is not turning the clock back, it’s called taking action, and not being beholden to a failed creed.

        I would also take issue that we live in a “post-industrial society”. We don’t. We just allow others to do the industry. We still totally rely on humanity’s industry. And isn’t that the problem and why the UK is performing so badly? Didn’t Covid reveal to us how fragile our so-called “post industrial society” is? From my three principle of existence on this planet – environment, humanity, reason – we have nothing that doesn’t come from our interaction with nature. Isn’t that basically another word for “industry? Making and creating things for our wise use? The so-called “service economy” is nothing but a demonstrable and massive oxymoron.

        Taking action, as I’ve described above should be the ideology of any reasoning government’s manifesto. For the last twenty years in my comments and writing I have been calling for a “new ecological enlightenment”. A parallel to the Scottish and other enlightenments of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but brought up to date with realities and scientific understanding of today. Any Scottish government’s first action should be ta assemble a council of the wise to start the process – it’s urgent and vital. No one person, no one party, no one institution, can think this through on their own, just as our first enlightenment was the combined forces of great intellects here and in Europe and America. But we haven’t got the time or leisure that was afforded to those days, we need to direct our thinking urgently, as a matter of life and death. . .

        1. 220824 says:

          A post-industrial society is one in which its economy shifts from producing manufactured goods to one that mainly offers services. A industrial society is comprised of people working mainly in manufacturing, supported by a service sector of teachers, doctors, lawyers, and retail/hospitality workers. In a post-industrial society, technology, information, and services are more important than manufacturing.

          The idea of post-industrial society was developed as a framing concept in the 1970s, when – for the first time in human history – more than 50% of society in places like the US and Japan were employed in service provision rather than agriculture and manufacture. The characteristics that framed societies as ‘post-industrial’ were:

          1. Production of manufactured goods declines and the production of services goes up.
          2. Traditional ‘blue collar’ jobs are replaced with technical and professional jobs.
          3. The focus shifts from practical knowledge to theoretical knowledge, from reproduction to invention and innovation and the acceleration of technological change.
          4. The expansion of tertiary education to supply the need for more college and university graduates with advanced knowledge technical skills.

          (See Daniel Bell: he Coming of Post-Industrial Society: A Venture in Social Forecasting (1973))

          The Thatcher Revolution sought to transform British society from a failing industrial economy into a more prosperous post-industrial one, mainly on the back of a burgeoning and technically innovative financial services sector. In Thatcher’s vision:

          1. Only very small percentage of people in Britain would work in manufacturing.
          2. Human rather than financial capital would become the chief determinant of society’s strength.
          3. People would earn status and privilege through entrepreneurship (the accumulation of human capital) rather than inheritance, with education becoming the currency of social mobility.
          4. Intellectual technology (based on science, technology, engineering and mathematics), rather than the traditional liberal humanities, would be at the forefront of education.
          5. Infrastructure would be based on communication rather than transportation (infobahns rather than autobahns – Vorsprung durch Technik, as they say in Germany).
          6. As perpetual invention and innovation increases returns and makes capital investment more profitable, value would become increasingly knowledge-based rather than labour-based.

          The trouble with socialism in this country is that much of its discourse remains pre-Thatcherite and stands in need of radical revaluation in response to the history of the past 40-odd years. It still speaks nostalgically in industrial terms and re-enact the formulae of a now obsolete sociology. For example, harkening back to a golden age of industrial militancy, it continues to talk of ‘the working class’ in a world in which a proletariat no longer exists, using the shibboleth to refer instead to a lumpenproletariat of generally unemployable and unorganisable people who make no positive contribution to our collective economy, have no solidarity or ‘class-consciousness’, and are ‘lost’ to bread and circuses. In speaking thus, it appeals to a lifeworld with which hardly anyone under the age of 60 can any longer identify in their concrete life-experience.

          We need a post-industrial socialism that speaks to the 21st century as a critique, rather than just a refusal, of Thatcher’s vision.

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