Rightly or wrongly I've always held the view that the Thatcher government of the 1980's did more to undermine the idea of a single British nation than any other leader before or since, although not in the sense of dividing the Union along purely nationalistic lines, despite the fact that Scotland's more recent rush to secure full independence, almost certainly can trace its origins back to that particular period. Whether it was just the widespread de-industrialisation of Scotland's traditional manufacturing industries, or the imposition of the hated Poll Tax, or a combination of these two, along with a latent nationalist fervour to free the country from the political heel of an increasingly distant and indifferent English Parliament, either way, there seems to be very little likelihood that we can or will ever return to the pre-Thatcherite days, when England and Scotland were generally content to stay together for their mutual benefit.
I guess it's a matter of personal perspective, moral values and individual choices, as to whether or not you believe in the concept of Margaret Thatcher's free-market, aspirational, Libertarian society, where small government, low taxes and minimal public spending prevail, much as they often do in other developed economies like the USA. If you wholeheartedly buy into the idea of personally keeping almost everything that you earn, believe that most welfare recipients are nothing but indigent scroungers, would much rather see private enterprise handle the charitable side of a society's health and social needs, then clearly you will have welcomed some, if not all of the changes that Baroness Thatcher introduced to the country; and perhaps wished that she had done more?
Maybe some British citizens still wish that she had dismantled the Welfare State entirely, thus heralding an almost unprecedented era of private insurance-based healthcare, food stamps, fees-based education, local taxes, homeless shelters, charitable (tax deductible) donations and a complete end to any sort of publicly funded project or organisation that wasn't directly related to national defence, revenue collection or law enforcement? Clearly, we are already moving towards such socially divisive measures in the United Kingdom, what with hundreds of food-banks supplying hundreds of thousands of needy individuals with foodstuffs, with an estimated 6% of our public healthcare sector already having been handed over to for-profit businesses ventures; and with local communities and businesses being actively encouraged to take on the sorts of social welfare roles that had previously been undertaken by central or local government.
Of course, such criticism of government policy isn't to overlook the fact that individual people must take some sort of personal responsibility for their own predicament, always assuming that government gives them the means to do so. Being a huge enthusiast for our country's long and turbulent history, I'm only too aware that lazy, exploitative and bone-idle people have existed for hundreds, if not thousands of years, willingly taking advantage of any free handouts that might be on offer from their fellow citizens, or indeed from the State; entirely on the basis that they won't or don't have to work for it. However, history also suggests that those who are deliberately indigent or workless are very often in the minority, whilst the majority are often in that same position simply because of unforeseen individual circumstance, infirmity, age or disability, rather than through their own character defaults.
It cannot after all be a coincidence that significant levels of unemployment and Welfare dependency followed on directly from the massive de-industrialisation of the country by the Thatcher government in the 1980's, who then subsequently squandered billions of pounds worth of valuable North Sea oil revenues maintaining millions of former workers on the dole queues, in those areas where thriving shipbuilding, mining, steel production and fishing communities had once existed? It also cannot come as any surprise that regions that were previously some of the most affluent, by virtue of thousands of well paid skilled jobs, have now become some of the poorest, by virtue of some of the lowest paid work in the country. No doubt billions of pounds of public money was and has been poured in by central government, to help mitigate the effects of large scale de-industrialisation in certain regions, but what use are part-time unskilled supermarket jobs in areas where fishing, mining, engineering and such used to be the norm?
Just where is the personal job satisfaction in stacking supermarket shelves, selling mobile phones, or serving a customer with a Big Mac ready meal? Just where is the long term future in a job like that, or indeed where is the prospect for progress, to build a life, to own your own home, to buy a car, or even go on a foreign holiday once a year? And national government's wonder why the unemployed are not flocking to the likes of Tescos, Morrisons, or McDonalds to find themselves a career, but prefer instead to stay unemployed, or in full-time education, where they can then wrack up thousands of pounds worth of personal debt that in all likelihood will never be repaid?
So just whose fault is it that some 40% of the British electorate couldn't even be bothered to cast a ballot for one of the major political parties standing in the recent General Election, thus disenfranchising themselves from our national political life? Whose fault is it that hundreds of billions of pounds worth of British taxpayer's money has been squandered over the past thirty-odd years maintaining and resuscitating former industrialised communities, which are now little better off than they were when their traditional industries were closed down and wiped out? Who was to blame for robbing Britain's children of their industrial heritage, leaving them with little option but to find low paid, low prospect careers in Britain's burgeoning retail or service sectors? Just who was responsible to creating the selfishly divided Britain, where the "haves" utterly despise the "have-nots", where the "wealthy" purposefully ignore the "poor", where the "homeowner" doesn't care about the "homeless", where the "landlord" regards his "tenant" purely as an income stream and where the billion dollar business can legitimately avoid his taxes, yet the small struggling sole proprietor cannot?
The answer as to who lies at fault for these catastrophic events and divisive attitudes is of course national government, principally that of Margaret Thatcher during the 1980's, but also those of Harold Wilson, Edward Heath, James Callaghan, John Major, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, as well as the previous and current governments of David Cameron. Between them all, Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat allies, these various administrations have acted, connived and conspired to not only alter the industrial landscape of our country, but also to manipulate its ethnic base, its social cohesion, public attitudes, accepted norms and its cultural practices, to the extent that what was once a tight-knit homogenous society, has now become a loose-fitting, ill-at-ease heterogeneous one instead. As a result, where once there was commonality and understanding based on a shared history, sense of values, culture, language and laws, now there is misunderstanding over any common theme, with increasingly little in the way of shared histories, values and cultures, as well as too many foreign tongues and no widely accepted view of a common law.
As well as national governments, Britain's employers and trades union movement must also bear their fair share of responsibility for the almost inevitable breakdown of the country's previously accepted norms in terms of working practices and employment guarantees. With the country's industrial base wracked by endemic restrictive working practices, the closed shop and extortionate wage demands, employers were thought to have responded by delaying much needed financial investment, or by refusing vital manufacturing orders altogether, with the result that Britain's deteriorating industries were further undermined by the very same people who relied on them for their personal livelihoods. So it was that in an increasingly globalised marketplace, which was itself affected by the rise of new Asian industrial giants like Korea, Taiwan, Japan and China, with their huge untapped industrial capacity and extremely cheap labour, Britain found its own manufacturing base largely undone by the very people who were supposed to be protecting and overseeing its existence, the government, employers and workers.
For communities around Britain, the loss of their hugely important industrial heritage and futures is undoubtedly one of the major reasons why so many of them have been beset by an ongoing culture of rising and long term unemployment, social decline, economic stagnation and personal antipathy to the very concept of personal responsibility. It can hardly be a surprise to anyone that a generation of British workers seemingly abandoned by the State, employers and even the traditional Trade Unions movement, feel it is entirely appropriate to put aside their duty to society, when that same society has so clearly abandoned them to the prospect of an uncertain low wage, few prospects future, that offers them little to build a safe and meaningful future on.
Perhaps, it is that sense of hopelessness, futility, anger and resentment that explains the rise of the Scottish National Party north of the border, its message of hope, rebirth and better times ahead resonating amongst the deprived and the dispossessed who were essentially abandoned by the English dominated parliament in London. These feelings of abandonment, frustration and anger at government, employers and trade unions are not just present in Scotland, but undoubtedly exist in many of the great cities of Northern England, in the Northwest, the Northeast and down along the entire East coast, in numerous former industrial heartlands, where hundreds of thousands of people are forced to labour for a minimal level of pay, or face the prospect of unemployment and the various punitive sanctions that can be levied for not playing by the rules.
Is it any wonder then that Britain feels more divided than at any time during the past hundred years or so, with an almost semi-independent Scotland, being joined in its rejection of a Southern based centralised government by the likes of a Northern Powerhouse centred around Manchester; another one in Liverpool; and yet another in Yorkshire. We have seen Cornwall call for its own devolved assembly, whilst Wales and Northern Ireland already have their own working and well established regional legislatures, which sort of begs the question, what's the future for; or more importantly what's the point of a single Britain anymore? If the people of the various parts of the United Kingdom, be it Scotland, the Northwest, the Northeast, Wales, Northern Ireland, or even Cornwall, feel as detached from, or as indifferent to the rest of the country, as London clearly does, then what does that say about us as a single country? Does it actually mean that there is far more to divide us, than to bind us; and if that's the case, then does that mark the end of our nation as a single United Kingdom; and if so, whose fault is that?