Thatcher and coronavirus

Have The Tories Finally Put The ‘Iron Lady’ to Bed in the Face of COVID-19?

To say that the coronavirus, or COVID-19, is having a significant impact across nations worldwide would be an understatement – and Britain is no exception. But if there is a silver lining to be found, it might well see the legacy of Margaret Thatcher put to bed indefinitely in the ranks of the modern Conservative government.

In the past weeks, we have mirrored our worst cousins, Australia and America, with panic buying in our droves. British shoppers swept aisles both online and offline with essentials such as nappies, menstrual products, toilet rolls, milk and bread becoming impossible to find, forcing supermarkets to place temporary restrictions.  

An estimated 1 million workers are ensnared in zero hour contracts in the UK. [Image: Buddy Loans.]

As anxious people bulk-bought multiple 24 toilet roll packs, stocked their trolleys full of pasta and squeezed their freezers to the brim with meat, the crisis is shining a painful spotlight on how broken British society is. Such individualistic indulgences as opposed to the relative calm and community-orientated behaviour of other countries, such as Norway which is currently exercising even more “dungad” than usual (people working together for the greater good), shows the destruction of community in Britain ever since Thatcher reigned.

The crisis is shining a painful spotlight on how broken British society is

When societies start behaving selfishly and greedily, the fault falls on its leaders and decision-makers. For decades, Conservative governments have long championed rampantly free markets, and many people bought into the notion that with it comes personal liberation and economic freedom – as Boris Johnson’s hefty majority shows. Yet social inequalities still exist; the wealth and class disparity has never been starker, but people are still pitted against each other, much, perhaps, to the amusement of Etonian senior MPs who are yet to patch up the Brexit fallout that has caused rifts across the UK.

As the self-employed and zero-hour contract workers are left in tentative waters amid COVID-19, the NHS is bracing itself for its biggest battle to date. Yet as the so-called “unskilled” care workers rush to the aid of the vulnerable, Britons are forced to pause and reflect who our everyday heroes really are. Is there scope to embrace as a collective once more?

Prime Minister is running the country from the confines of No.10’s living room due to contracting coronavirus. [Image: CNN.]

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has told citizens to “stay home” and only travel if “essential.” 

Johnson has been forced to awkwardly pretend he didn’t call for herd immunity, despite his previous comments on 5 March on Good Morning Britain stating the UK should simply “take it on the chin” and accept “many of your loved ones will die before their time.”  

Social inequalities still exist; the wealth and class disparity has never been starker

Yet by some ironic twist of fate, Johnson himself contracted the virus and has been forced to run the country from his No.10 living room. Perhaps he has changed his tune on herd immunity now that it’s evident COVID-19 doesn’t care for your bank account or social status.

Still, MPs are somehow securing access to rare coronavirus testing kits and it is unlikely Johnson’s colleagues are being forced to survive on Statutory Sick Pay (SSP). They don’ need to brave the Tube, tram or train. They’re not responsible for driving emergency medicine in delivery vans or stock the shelves of rinsed supermarkets. They’re not deployed to the frontline to clean hospitals or attend to the sick without personal protective protection.

Is there scope to embrace as a collective once more?

Chancellor Rishi Sunak is enjoying a surge in popularity. Just last week, ‘Next Prime Minister’ was trending across Twitter as users heaped praise on the new Chancellor for his unprecedented economic bailouts. In some camps, however, socialists are enjoying a taste of vindication and are pointing out that when it comes down to it, socialism saves the day. Other critics argue that this is a wartime economy, not socialism, and austerity may creep back in as soon as the pandemic is over.

Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, announced unparalleled measures to help the British public through this pressing time. [Image: Sky News.]

The reality is Sunak must spend far and wide to avoid widespread disaster and destitution. Without big spending and state support, businesses will crash and burn and the economy could plummet to Great Depression levels. Sunak’s government scheme to pay 80% of people’s wages under the impression some employers will be able to pay the remaining 20% will undoubtedly help millions.

When it comes down to it, socialism saves the day

However, there are still stones left unturned. The self-employed are still stranded until June, pub landlords remain concerned over paying their rent despite the dramatic footfall of customers while many workers were laid off weeks before the scheme was ushered in. Suffering businesses still can’t afford the 20% wage remainder for their staff, meaning many are taking unpaid or annual leave and are ultimately taking home less money to pay towards rent and utility bills – the latter of which will be rising in the face of working from home.

COVID-19 doesn’t care for your bank account or social status

Homeowners are now eligible for a three-month reprieve, but the millions of renters are not. Social media is awash with anecdotes from compassionate landlords who are offering a period of free or reduced rent. But others remain heartless: one landlord asked a tenant to leave within 12 hours on the assumption he’ll contract COVID-19 due to his job as a paramedic, with others sending harsh reminders about rent despite people’s lives being turned upside down.

Margaret Thatcher former British Prime Minister
Margaret Thatcher, ‘the Iron Lady’ was the Prime Minister of Britain between 1979-1990 and boasts an unrivalled record, winning three consecutive terms and two landslide majorities. [Image: NME.]

However, the move is still a far cry from the likes of Thatcher and perhaps all Tory government’s ever since, including Theresa May.

Dubbed the ‘Iron Lady’ for her relentless stringent measures and often unapologetic leadership, Margaret Thatcher was inarguably one of the most famous politicians in history. She also gave us one of the most memorable political quotes, a quote burnt into my mind: “there is no such thing as society”.

“There is no such thing as society” – Margaret Thatcher, 1987 

There are two ways to interpret these ambiguous words. The first is that she meant there is no such thing as community. However, the second is to interpret that there is an individualistic type of freedom, one where each of us is bound to look after one another without turning to blame society and how it is governed – and that’s certainly how Thatcher saw it. The woes of the homeless and the poor were not the government’s problem or fault to fix.

Thatcher and all senior Conservative policymakers and leaders ever since have always enforced this idea of the individual above all. Encouragement to care for each other with compassion and to work together as a unified force has been kicked into the long grass and stayed there for decades. The romanticisation of baby boomer’s childhoods with backdoors left unlocked and neighbours raising families is often touted as a sad loss in contemporary society. Yet the majority of the electorate still, to this day, overwhelmingly vote in favour of the individual over the collective. The result would have seen the Tories sat comfortably in No.10 for almost forty years had the Blair years not temporarily disrupted the status quo.

Encouragement to care for each other with compassion and to work together as a unified force has been kicked into the long grass and stayed there for decades

But Boris Johnson has recently – and rather pointedly – disagreed with Thatcher, saying there “really is” such a thing as society. Could COVID-19 force a genuine turning point? 

Johnson’s Government does markedly emerge as marginally progressive from the Tories that we have known – consider that security and safe housing is currently being provided for homeless individuals in the UK right now amid the coronavirus. But the question remains, will they be turfed back out onto the streets come wintertime?

Still, it’s certainly in the Government’s favour that Britons resort to infighting and focusing on their individual circumstances: divisions prevent unifying and holding MPs to account for their policies, such as the brutality of welfare cuts that affect our neighbours and friends.

The number of working families in the UK in poverty hit a new record this year with an estimated 14 million ensnared in hardship. [Image: NZF].

Whatever happens post-coronavirus, it is difficult to see how we will return to the same world we were in beforehand. The Tories might struggle to implement savage austerity measures and pursue their culture war that has spiralled into an underfunded healthcare system and unequal divisions, but they may well return to it nonetheless.

But Boris Johnson has recently – and rather pointedly – disagreed with Thatcher, saying there “really is” such a thing as society. Could COVID-19 force a genuine turning point?

Soon to be former Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, said: “I didn’t think it would take only three months to prove I was right about everything.” And although some have scoffed at his words and accused him of being egotistical, Corbyn was, and is, right: investing in the state cannot be avoided. His broadband policies were ridiculed as communist, but now children are being taught online and staff are working from home. If education, now a virtual endeavour, is a human right then surely internet connection is a right too.

This pandemic is a tragedy, bringing countries to their knees as it ruthlessly claims the lives of thousands. Johnson cannot hide his party’s pre-existing flaws from COVID-19, but one can only hope the measures indicate a change of heart than a change of strategy. Either way, it is our duty to take the broken pieces out of the rubble and build a future that is something better than we have had – together.

[Header image: Nils Jorgensen/Rex/The Guardian.]