Made in the USA? Letter From London
The chapter in which Sinclair tells the story of his canceled book launch ends with him encountering a neighbor who tells him, “It’s going to kick off very soon, mark my words, just like the ’80s.” (There were riots throughout the Thatcher years, usually in response to mistreatment by the police or the state of ethnic minorities or the poor.) Sinclair doesn’t say whether this prophet was an expert in urban history, but there is a strong connection between government interference—and lavish royal weddings—on the one hand, and rioting on the other. The August 2011 eruptions that Tina Brown described as a “sort of Clockwork Orange…scum-of-the-earth kind of uproar,” were closer to a cry for help.
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If the last few years have marked the height of the storm, then this one might offer a somewhat calmer vantage point. In July, Margaret Thatcher’s first election victory will be as distant to us as it was from the 1945 election in which Clement Attlee won a Labour majority and introduced a series of reforms that built the foundation of the welfare state. Speaking a few months after Attlee’s election, the historian A.J.P. Taylor said that the few Europeans who believe in “the American way of life—that is, private enterprise”—are a “defeated party,” with no more of a future than the Jacobites in England after 1688. It wasn’t to be the case. In broad terms, thirty-four years of social democracy have been followed by thirty years of Thatcherism, defined by the Conservative politician Nigel Lawson as “free markets, financial discipline, firm control over public expenditure, tax cuts, nationalism, ‘Victorian values’…privatization and a dash of populism.”
Although Lawson doesn’t explicitly mention the Thatcherite taste for centralization, he might have included it under “firm control over public expenditure,” because the local councils were thought to be profligate. But in reality, centralization was an offshoot of privatization: not of public assets (“selling the family silver”) but of public spaces. Thatcher despised local government all her life, and when it came to sorting out the notorious “inner cities,” she passed legislation that took power away from the elected, often Labour-dominated local government and gave it instead to Michael Heseltine, her secretary of state for the environment, a blond-maned magazine publisher who thought that the profit motive concentrated the mind far more effectively than any notion of public service. (The year 1986 would prove a symbolic one in this regard, with the abolition of the Labour-led Greater London Council and the passing of the Financial Services Act marking a transfer of power from left-leaning local government to a deregulated financial economy.)
One of Heseltine’s early acts was to place selected areas under the power of Urban Development Corporations, quasi-autonomous nongovernmental organizations—as ridiculed in Blur’s song “Mr Robinson’s Quango,” written after a visit to Thatcher’s hometown—that would be run by appointed, right-leaning businessmen and “free,” in Heseltine’s words, “from the inevitable delays of the democratic process.” The aim of the exercise was to create “new towns in old cities,” though these new towns didn’t always comfortably accommodate the people who had previously lived there. One of the first UDCs operating in the capital, the London Docklands Development Corporation, transformed a part of the failing East End into what another leading Conservative, Norman Tebbit, called “Manhattan-on-Thames”: the glinting business district and photogenic advertisement for the enterprise zones known as Canary Wharf, now home to more than 15 million square feet of office and retail space, as well as three 200-meter-plus skyscrapers. The urban historian Sir Peter Hall pointed out that the underlying concept of the UDCs was “the American one of leverage,” with public investment used to kick-start projects that would then attract private investment. Anna Minton went further in Ground Control, arguing that a whole “culture of authoritarianism and control” had been “imported” from America, and that English cities were being remade according to “an American approach.”
The borrowing, for a different climate, of ideas developed in America was just one of the habits in which New Labour followed Thatcher, whose true heroes were not reformist Victorians but monetarists of the Chicago School. Blair and colleagues like Jack Straw, Gordon Brown and the late political consultant Philip Gould all took study trips to the United States during Labour’s years in opposition, bringing home with them such terms as “reclaiming the public realm,” “the war room” and “the third way.” Whatever the problem—whether it related to domestic policy or “image”—America, and usually Clinton’s Democrats, offered the solution. Blair the “presidential” prime minister had his own version of the Arkansas Mafia, unelected advisers whom he consulted obsessively, among them the former diplomat Jonathan Powell, holder of a new position: Downing Street chief of staff. It was baffling for old Labour politicians to see their younger colleagues not just aping American policies but also striking American poses. Ken Livingstone recalled (with a dodgy grasp of chronology) that the New Labour “apparatchiks…were obsessed with American politics…preferring to watch The West Wing than question Denis Healey and Tony Benn about how to handle problems with the civil service.”
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