British citizens or UK customers?

British citizens or UK customers?

by Gwydion M. Williams[1]

“King Coal” is scheduled to be beheaded. Large chunks of British Rail are due to be sold off to almost anyone who may want them, including French Railways. The NHS is being whittled away and basic social security rights are under attack. All this from a party committed to preserving British distinctiveness.

The Tory party’s latest round of ‘reforms’ go a long way towards abolishing British society. Accepting the Maastricht treaty is fairly minor by comparison. The original six EEC nations have made it clear that they will go ahead with some sort of union no matter what Britain does. The core of Western Europe is united on the matter, and Russia is no longer an alternate centre of power. Tory bungling – and also some Labour bungling, it must be admitted – have ensured that Britain will be part of the periphery rather than part of the core. But Britain is no longer strong enough to disrupt the core, or even do much to affect the way in which it is developing. The French referendum reflected various forms of discontent at the way Europe was integrating, rather than rejection of integration as such.

Europe is in crisis because its strongest member, West Germany, was obliged by national fellow-feeling to take over East Germany when the Soviet Empire fell apart. Also because it was done at an unreal exchange rate, in a way that made most of East German industry worthless, even those sectors that had been successfully exporting to Western markets. But Europe is not in any worse a crisis that the rest of the advanced world, so Europe cannot be said to be failing. Yugoslavia has given a hellish example of what can happen when old nationalisms are revived, and the rest of Europe seems to have profited from their example.

Rejecting Maastricht would not mean restoring Britain as a distinct and sovereign state. Too much has already been destroyed for that, during the Thatcher years. Rejecting Maastricht would mean a total social void, a road to nowhere. The anti-Maastricht Tories are also, by and large, the Tories who have been the most enthusiastic for the demolition of many essential elements of British society.

[In 1992, actually leaving the Union was a fringe idea.  The decision by a thin majority to try this has exposed just how hard it actually is.]

What does it mean to be British? Lorri Tebbit recently defined it as willingness to cheer on a particular sports team. Lord Tebbit is a lout. He has never at any stage in his career understood what it was about Britain that made it a decent and admirable society, a society that foreigners used to be very impressed by. For the benefit of those who grew up in the Thatcher era, British society up until maybe the 1970s did receive genuine and sincere cries of admiration from a wide variety of foreign visitors. Things had rather come apart in the 1970s. But the Thatcherite ‘restoration· did nothing to restore the decent, honourable or likable elements in the social mix. Quite the reverse, in fact

Cheering sports teams is the very lowest level of social awareness, a simple tribalism. This simple tribalism may be combined with all sorts of other higher qualities, or it may not. In Tebbit’s case, it is not. He has nothing of the feeling of solidarity and community that you find among workers. But he equally bas nothing of the sense of proper conduct and decent behaviour that used to be the core of ruling class values, and which are not quite extinct in most Tories. Tebbit’s sense of Britishness amounts to nothing more than a simple dislike of foreigners, (My computerised spell-checker hadn’t beam of ‘Britishness’, and suggested ‘Brutishness’ as an alternative. The gap between the two is very much smaller than it was in the days before Thatcher.)

Tebbit shouts loudly about bis love of British uniqueness. The joke is that Tebbit was by trade an airline pilot, before he became ‘upwardly mobile’ through Tory party politics. This dedicated preserver of British distinctiveness was part of an industry that has done an astonishingly large amount to erode national barriers and bring the peoples of various nations into contact with one another.

Thatcher and Tebbit have been sidelined. They overreached themselves when they tried to do to Western Europe what they have done to Britain. Particularly since they did it at a time when the spurious boom that they had produced was falling apart. Never forget: things started to go wrong with the stock market crash. Dithering over European Monetary Union made matters worse – the ‘Iron Lady’ showed her feet of clay by her repeated failure to make a decision and stick to it.  But productive industry had in any case continued to decline under Thatcher, with most growth coming from consumption based on dubious credit. The stock market crash showed up the underlying weakness. Things have got steadily worse since then.

The latest ‘reforms’ are in social security. Like most Thatcherite measures, they are a mad monkeying with institutions that have actually worked quite well, and which a proper Tory would have left strictly alone. Proper Tories know, even if Thatcherites do not, that the nation is basically a vast accumulation of established habits. Radical seeking to ‘build a new world’ may, very sensibly, disrupt things so as to undermine the old order. Thatcherites seem to want to disrupt things so as to preserve them, which is mad and stupid, and has failed to work. Thatcherites have spread greed and reduced social feeling. The old-fashioned feelings that they hoped to see restored are even less respected now than when Thatcher came to power.

The Welfare State had a simple formula for the nation. Everyone was a part of the community. If you did well within that community, you compensated by paying more income tax. You might or may not have earned that prosperity, but it would certainly not have been possible without the whole community, past and present, who kept the particular society in being. You could think of income tax as a sort of rent or fee. If you stay in the best room at an hotel, you pay more than you would for an ordinary room.

Communities must also protect their weak, young, old, sick or unfortunate. In traditional society, when people lived in small settled communities, this was often done on a personal basis. It was also sometimes not done at all. People in great need would often simply starve to death – a Victorian Value that the Thatcherites seems intent on reviving.

Thatcher was an unsuccessful research chemist who had the good luck to get herself a rich husband. Tebbit was a very ordinary airline pilot. Both of them had the good luck to be in the right place at the right time in Tory politics. Had Heath been wise enough to step down quietly after his second election defeat, Whitelaw would almost certainly have been elected, and Thatcher would never have been a contender. Yet these pampered beneficiaries of pure good fortune show a total callousness to those whose luck has run the other way. They blame unemployment on the moral failings of the unemployed.

No one has ever accused the miners of being afraid of hard work. You might have thought that after their victory over Scargill, the Thatcherites would have tried to tum coal into a model industry, a determined hard-working labour force producing a vital national resource. Such a policy could have many patriotic overtones. British prosperity was in large measure built on coal. For a time things did seem to be going that way. But now they’ve killed the coal industry. World markets can for the moment offer fossil fuels below the price that most British mines can manage. The privatised power industry is being allowed to bum our finite reserves of natural gas. Therefore a whole section of British identity and heritage is being shut down.

The other foundations of British industrial greatness were the clothing industry, steel and the merchant fleet. All of these are very nearly gone, destroyed by foreign competition. How much is left of Britishness, apart from the crude tribalism of the soccer hooligan?

Did someone mention the “sunrise industries” that were supposed to make up for the loss of older trades? Sorry, most of those had a very short day indeed and are now suffering their own sunsets.

Are we British citizens, part of a community with much shared history and many common roots? Or are we customers of ‘UK Ltd’? Tory social policies are rooted in the assumption that we are customers, entitled to expect a decent return for what we pay. Even the so-called Citizens Charters are rooted in this belief. Yet it is logically at variance with the deep and often rabid nationalism that is the other pillar of Tory thinking. With one hand they salute the flag, with the other they saw down the flagpole!


[Sadly, Tony Blair led ‘New Labour’ to an abject surrender to the notion of British citizens as mere customers of ‘UK Ltd’.  After Major, the Tories reverted to pure Thatcherism.


This article appeared in November 1992, in Issue 32 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs.  You can find more from the era at and


[1] Using the pen-name ‘Dan Ackroid’.