A response to Melanie Phillips ‘Elegy to England’

by Prue Plumridge

I have had occasion today to remind myself why I disagree with the journalist Melanie Philips.

The list is long:

her poisonous campaigns against MMR (the consequences of which we are reaping today) and more recently the Liverpool Care Pathway which has discredited publically a programme to help the dying; she is anti-gay marriage, anti-Islam (she wrote a book called Londonistan), anti-abortion, pro- Palin and a neo-conservative, a climate change denier (according to her it’s one great big conspiracy), decries multiculturalism and believes that ‘Intelligent Design’ comes out of science (delusional).

Ms Philips is dangerous because she takes people’s prejudices and presents them with a mix of misrepresentation, exaggeration and wilful ignorance and then spews out her bile through the Daily Brainwash (aka Mail) to the easily duped public who buy it.

But, as if that were not enough, her article published after Margaret Thatcher’s funeral entitled ‘An Elegy for England’ was a gross insult to all those individuals whose lives were blighted by the former prime minister’s pernicious neo –conservative policies – so called Thatcherism.  Policies which had their origins in Milton Friedman’s shock therapy doctrines and ultimately led to the destruction of whole communities of miners and steel workers, the implementation of a wide-ranging programme of privatisation and deregulation and the beginnings of the dismantling of the State and social welfare.

This is the legacy which has been handed down through successive governments to the present coalition who are forging ahead with an ever more toxic and destructive programme of cuts, privatisations, dismantling of the NHS and minimisation of the role of the State and local government. We are already witnessing the further impoverishment and disempowerment of many of the country’s citizens whilst looking on as the balance of wealth continues ever upward into fewer and fewer hands. We have paid and are still paying a shocking price for the deregulation of the banking sector.  And, as Ken Livingstone commented following her death, instead of using the oil windfall to boost longer-term prosperity as Norway did so successfully our sovereign oil wealth was squandered in a frenzy of tax cuts and the increased benefit payments necessary as a result of rising unemployment.

I would point out to Ms Philips that after decades of self obsession and rising greed we are now beginning to learn what the consequences of rising inequality are.  As Kate Pickett and Richard Wilson argue in their book ‘The Spirit Level’ inequality is not only bad for society but the more unequal it becomes the more damaging it is for us all.  We are increasingly becoming aware, as Clement Atlee’s post war creation of the welfare state is being dismantled,  of what happens when we  allow a government to demonise poor and disabled people and stop recognising the importance of creating a fair and compassionate society which has solidarity at its heart.

The story, which began in 1979 when Thatcher came to power, is not the rose tinted one which Ms Philips has painted for us but is a legacy of rising division and increasing poverty.  In her article she accuses society of having become ‘selfish, brutalised and uncaring’ and claims that these changes have arisen from the assault by the left on the Judeo-Christian values of the west which she claims has destroyed ‘the bonds of duty’ which keep society together to favour the promotion of individualism and selfishness.

As I remember, and I would remind Ms Philips, that it was Mrs Thatcher herself who said there was no society only individuals and families.   It was perhaps this assertion which was in part responsible for the trend towards the supremacy of the individual over the community and not the so called ‘onslaught’ by the left.  As inheritors of her legacy the current state of the nation is proof, if it were needed, that she was no saviour or force for good as has been suggested by some. Ms Phillips observes in her article that ‘young people are so devoid of compassion or respect for another human being and that the young in their uneducated ignorance don’t know what’s been lost and can no longer think for themselves to go against the deadening consensus.’  Just because a few people party, it is no reason to believe that this reflects a lowering of standards of behaviour and moral compass amongst the young.  However, I would suggest that we are seeing increasing angst in our young people as a result of the consequences of Margaret Thatcher’s actions all those decades ago and that of subsequent  governments which has led to increasing unemployment , decreasing  opportunities, lack of security and the waste of the potential of a whole generation.

Is Ms Phillips vision one of returning to some ‘glorious’ past of stiff upper lip, duty, deference and cap doffing to the establishment superiors of church, state and land owning aristocracy?.  And what is this ‘deadening consensus’ she is talking about?  The suggestion that we are all mired in this societal degradation is, I believe, an affront to the millions of decent people in our society who are struggling to do their best in an increasingly hostile and socially unjust society.  I would remind Ms Philips that the very paper she writes for, who have so loudly criticised the lack of respect for Margaret Thatcher, were scarcely respectful at the death of the former Labour leader Michael Foot in 2010.

The old authoritarian frameworks upon which our servility was based are changing and consequently our reliance on Judeo-christian values, which have for so long kept society in check, are now slowly being replaced, I believe, by a more secular vision of society.  I think that a humanistic approach to creating an ethical and fair basis for the good working of society will not be as harmful as the Establishment would have us believe, in fact I rather think that it, unlike the established religions of the world, would be all inclusive in its embrace.  It is clear that people are now beginning to understand the negative consequences of these decades of neo-liberalism and we can look to the examples of those countries who are rejecting this divisive and harmful economic theory and forging new and fairer societies.

Society is in flux and at a cross roads and our choices now will have ramifications as far reaching, perhaps even more so, than the agricultural and industrial revolutions of previous centuries.   We are moving into unknown territory politically, socially, economically and environmentally.  Ms Phillips needs to understand that resistance to change is futile and hanging on to a past which is no longer applicable in its terms of reference is damaging. We cannot avoid change but it is what we do with the challenges presented to us that will count.

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