by Ian Cummins
29th January 2021

Margaret Thatcher continues to cast a long shadow, not only thanks to her statue unveiled in the Palace of Westminster in 2007. Nor was her death in April 2013, followed by a state funeral, the end of a chapter. For her supporters, she was the Iron Lady who had not only saved Britain from the chaos of the 1970s, but presided over an economic miracle and restored the country’s standing in the world.

Today, we can still hear echoes of Thatcher’s voice in our penal and welfare policy.

The contradictions of the social democratic consensus were fatally exposed in the aftermath of the oil crisis of 1973. To present herself and her policies as a clear break from the postwar period and what she saw as its failings, Thatcher developed and exploited a narrative that the nation was in crisis, and that she embodied the radical action that was required to solve these problems. ‘Thatcherism’ became a recognisable ideology and approach to politics and government, representing a combination of free market liberalism and traditional Conservative moralism and family values. Thatcher presented the state as being dominated by a liberal elite supported by progressives who opposed traditional values but who also despised ‘ordinary people’. This narrative has been a consistent theme in public discourse over the last 40 years but has become even more prominent since the Brexit referendum campaign and the tortuous negotiations to leave the EU.

My book, Welfare and Punishment: From Thatcherism to Austerity, presents an analysis of the ‘punitive turn’ since 1979 that has resulted in a huge increase in the prison population and a shredding of the welfare safety net.

Britain was, in fact, a more equal society before the arrival of Thatcher in Downing Street than it has been at any time since. The attacks on the welfare state by the New Right in the 1980s were based on views that saw poverty as the result of individual moral failings rather than structural inequality. There is a long history of regarding welfare systems as expensive and dependency-creating. Populist notions about ‘scroungers’ and the alleged exploitation of the welfare system by the so-called ‘undeserving’ are used to attack the overall notion of the welfare state. When New Labour was elected, there followed a period of investment in health and education. In the area of welfare, New Labour was committed to reforming the system using a rhetoric of rights and responsibilities that was not too far removed from Thatcherite views. In 2010, the Coalition Government argued that austerity policies were needed because of the parlous state of the public finances. The ‘nation in crisis’ narrative used to justify austerity was a Thatcherite echo.

Alongside this, the welfare system was presented as the main cause of the crisis. Alongside cuts in benefit levels, since 2010 there has been an increase in welfare conditionalitythe linking of the payment of benefits to an individual’s dependency on certain conditions or behaviour. Opponents of Marcus Rashford’s campaign to end child poverty argue that the state should not take on parental responsibilities. The Tory MP Ben Bradley suggested that free school meal vouchers were being used by parents to buy drugs. Bradley’s comments revive those longstanding portrayals of people living in poverty as feckless, workshy and socially irresponsible. The impact of tabloid press coverage is that the welfare state is seen as more generous, and fraud more prevalent, than is actually the case.

The rise in the use of imprisonment has been one of the most significant social and public policy developments of the past 40 years. It is most apparent in the USA. There are now over two million people in US jails. A frequently quoted statistic is that the USA has five per cent of the world’s population, and over 25 per cent of the world’s prisoners. In Europe, England and Wales have followed this trend most closely. The political success of Reagan and Thatcher meant that there was a rightwards shift in debates about law and order. Parties, nominally of the left or centre-left, moved to the right on these issues. In the UK, no politician has since been able to shift the debate back to the centre ground.

New Labour are the best example of this: ‘Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime’ was a statement of intent and a determination not to be seen as weak or ‘on the side of the offender’. Home Secretaries from both political parties took the view that ‘prison works’. The prison population in England and Wales increased by 41,800 to over 86,000 between June 1993 and June 2012. In his early days as Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, alongside his Home Secretary Priti Patel, made a series of policy announcements such as increasing the number of police officers and restricting the early release of offenders convicted of violent and sexual offences. These moves were strong echoes of the ‘get tough’ law-and-order Tory party policies of the late 1970s and early 80s.

Thatcher once stated that New Labour was her greatest achievement: “We forced our opponents to change their minds”. The election of Thatcher in 1979 and Reagan in 1980 marked the end of a Keynesian social democratic approach to government that had been followed in liberal democracies since the end of World War II. The broad features of policy in this period included a commitment to full employment, an expansion of public services and a replacement of the belief that the state could and should play a positive role in the lives of citizens by an endorsement of free markets and a smaller state. The political centre in UK politics shifted to the right under Thatcher.

There are significant differences between the Thatcher, Major, New Labour and Cameron administrations. However, I argue it is possible to identify trace elements in the development of penal and welfare policy. These elements include a belief that the welfare state is monolithic and dependency-producing, and that prison works. My book argues that in the welfare and penal fields, the administrations that followed Thatcher’s were even more ‘Thatcherite’ than her own.

Ian Cummins is Senior Lecturer in the School of Health and Society at Salford University.


Welfare and Punishment by Ian Cummins is available on the Bristol University Press website. Order here for £60.00.

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