Thursday, 11 April 2013

Thatcher and municipal anarchy

On the roof of County Hall, the GLC's offices across the river from Parliament, a massive banner proclaimed the daily count of London's jobless. Red Ken's direct challenge to the government didn't end with annoying MPs using the terraces; a series of refusals, obstructions and challenges led the government in a fit of pique to abolish it - and didn't they wish they could have abolished every large metropolitan council in the country. This was the era when a new rainbow alliance of lesbians, greens, socialist workers, radical feminists and academic Marxists had displaced old Labour from the town halls; the archetypal Labour councillors - male, middle aged, white, ex-manual workers, proud to wear a suit, and who called the cleaners 'love' and 'petal' without thought - had been ousted.

In place of men who had done their national service we had Greenham Wimmin who promptly declared their municipalities nuclear-free zones, a Chief Executive who used 'sexist body language' was dismissed, and flying tribunals to root out sexism and racism swept the country. In the People's Republic of South Yorkshire attempts to eradicate 'love' 'flower' and 'pet' from the language met an unexpected reactionary pushback - from the Yorkshire miners, who could no more stop using these terms to their canteen ladies than they could understand their own inevitable demise. 

In the face of this municipal anarchy, Thatcher centralised with single-minded ruthlessness. She took from local councils whole rafts of powers and competencies they had enjoyed for generations and instituted Direct Rule from Whitehall. It may be that she had little choice. But the effect was to mortally wound her own party; over a million members of the Conservative party walked away between 1979 and 1997, many because they had, at local level, been disempowered. Local government, in the form in which had previously existed, ceased to be. Councils became what they are now - branch offices of Whitehall departments, taking instructions predominantly from Brussels and Westminster rather than from their own aldermen, portmen and burgesses in Council assembled. 


Blue Eyes said...


I think Thatcher was (probably rightly) impatient and the lunatics would have held back the recovery resulting in a socialist government. BUT as you say the effects were huge. We now have the reverse argument because we've hollowed out our local bases so much that we can't trust councils to take back responsibility.

She might have tried rate capping on its own first. This seems to be working quite well at the moment at least in the Democratic Republic of Lambeth where the councillors seem to have grown up a lot since I moved there.

lilith said...

Fab photo, from one of the more exciting days in my life :-) I lived with separatist lesbians in Leamington Spa and we were very, very angry with men. They were all bastards. I
have to say though that Harriet Harman annoyed me as much as Thatcher at the time. It took a few more years to work out that I was just angry anyway and there is a fairly even ratio of bastards:bitches :-)

Nick Drew said...

well first of all the obligatory and entirely heartfelt paean: no praise is high enough for her conduct 1982-1985

but then to your post: yes, and she failed to repeal dreadful top-down impositions like the 1977 Housing (Homeless Persons) Act which have done so much to tie up local government in knots

and another thing ... as well as centralising (& haven't subsequent PMs silently thanked her for that!), she neutered the Civil Service, so that they dare not be seen as nay-sayers, becoming instead mere facilitators of the baleful process whereby lobbyists subborn the No.10 SPADS, who tell government lawyers to draft regulations and orders-in-council for ministers to sign, who (having no ideas of their own) duly comply

again, subsequent PMs have rejoiced in this facility

Anonymous said...

The 1977 act was suitably amended, by opposition in parliament, as to be a shadow of its former self !
And effectively became a more modern version of the National Assistance Act 1948. That Act obliged local authorities to provide temporary accommodation for 'persons who are in urgent need thereof'. Frequently only women and children, with the father/husband excluded.

Nick Drew said...

anon - I am no longer in local govt and cannot quote chapter and verse any more

but my friends who are tell me that the current suite of legislation effectively means that anyone who is homeless with kid(s) must be housed - even if they have made themselves intentionally homeless

so that, for example, when the 'bedroom tax' kicks in this month, families who move into 'can't pay, won't pay' mode and eventually get the heave-ho accordingly, will still be entitled to be housed