There is a deep problem with David Cameron’s promise to “spread privilege”, and it’s not the obvious one the left might pose, but rather it’s a specific criticism that lies at the heart of Thatcherism.
Rather than celebrating privilege, Thatcher squarely placed the blame on it as one of the causes of Britain’s decline.
There were two books that framed the start of the Thatcher government.
The first, “Too Few Producers” was published in 1976; the second, “English Culture and the Decline of the Industrial Spirit”, written by Martin Wiener, was published in 1980 – Keith Joseph gave a copy of Mr Wiener’s book to every cabinet minister.
According to The Economist, each book was of “equal significance” and the “English Culture and Decline…” provided:
“…a powerful condemnation of England’s ruling establishment, which had privileged rural and aristocratic values over middle-class, industrial ‘Victorian Values’. Mrs Thatcher set out to exactly reverse this.”
Of course, Thatcher’s policies ended up collapsing industrial production and releasing an enormous financialisation of the economy, but one of her targets was precisely the privilege Mr Cameron has just sought to promote.
Indeed, Mr Wiener’s thesis was not that privilege was exclusive, as Cameron has framed the problem – on the contrary, it was the too-easy access to privilege that had created a problem for the British economy. Because the upper classes were only too welcoming to the new wealthy class of industrialists, the industrialists bought estates and married in, disastrously abandoning the “industrial spirit”.
After Kate Middleton’s marriage, it is hard for Cameron to argue the upper classes have changed to now being sniffy about the rest of us. At the same time, the Duchess of Cambridge’s fairytale fate emphasises Martin Weiner’s point – does anyone see either Middleton daughter taking on the industrial spirit shown by their parents and expanding their company further, benefitting another generation of Britons through higher employment, greater tax receipts and more innovation? No, nor do I.
Thatcher believed that solving the dual problems “The Decline of the Industrial Spirit” and “Too Few Producers” meant privilege had to be challenged; Cameron needs to explain why he disagrees with her.