Thatcherism and Youth Work – Privatising the Public, Marketising the Practice

“Where there is discord, may we bring harmony.
Where there is error, may we bring truth.
Where there is doubt, may we bring faith.
And where there is despair, may we bring hope.”
Margaret Thatcher quoting St Francis of Assisi, Downing Street, 5 May 1979

Deafened by the cacophony of the coverage it is tempting to ignore the demise of Margaret Thatcher. However to do so would be historically negligent. I believe that her legacy threatens ultimately the survival of youth work as defined by our campaign.

By way of introduction though a couple of immediate recollections fired by the news of her death. Back in the early days of her reign we fought back against the Manpower Service Commission’s effort to colonise youth work. Informed by two National Youth Bureau pamphlets by Bernard Davies, ‘In Whose Interests?’ [1979] and ‘The State We’re In’ [1981], led by the Community and Youth Workers Union, we resisted the attempt to undermine the philosophy of our work, to shift us from offering social education to delivering social and life skills training.  For example in Leicestershire we boycotted the Community Programme as a cheap way of providing youth work, whilst we subverted the Youth Opportunities Programme by turning a City and Guilds 926 course into a radical youth work training experience for its supervisors.  The clash ended in a truce, which in retrospect was a small victory. In passing we might ponder whether the National Youth Bureau’s successor, the National Youth Agency, would feel able today to publish cutting critiques of government policy, similar to those of Bernard from nearly 35 years ago.

Thatcher, though, contemptuous about ‘soft-bellied’, liberal youth workers, had eyes only for a ‘macho’ confrontation with the National Union of Mineworkers, By twist of fate I worked in both the Leicestershire and Derbyshire coalfields across the turbulent year of 1984/85 and found myself, amongst many others, in the midst of the conflict. In both cases the assault was fundamentally ideological and political rather than economic. Its primary aim was to smash notions of solidarity and collectivity, of putting the social before the individual. Hers was a dangerous strategy, fraught with contradiction. In Leicestershire activists, including many youth and community workers, rallied to create a vibrant Miners’ Support Group backing the ‘Dirty Thirty’ minority of miners on strike. In Derbyshire the dispute was solid with miners’ wives to the fore.  However Thatcher deployed the full force of State violence in concert with an orchestrated campaign of propaganda in the media to take on the mining communities. I well remember that going to work via Bolsover, home of Denis Skinner, the left-wing Labour MP, to Shirebrook, the quintessential pit village, was akin to a journey into Occupied Territory.  Being stopped at a road block and interrogated by the Metropolitan Police as to my intentions was a regular occurrence. In the aftermath of the strike the abandoned village primary school, which had been the miners’ food distribution centre, was renovated by the County Council to become the Shirebrook Women’s Centre. Genuine though this development was – I was proud to have my office situated therein – it was ultimately a symbolic gesture. Thatcherism, vampire-like, had torn the heart out of this and many other communities. Bypassed they have never regained their full health.

Moving on, getting on for thirty years later, it’s no surprise that in my conversations with students and younger youth workers the struggles touched on above often possess little resonance. The harsh reality is that the neo-liberal project, the first figure-head of which was Thatcher, has altered the political landscape dramatically. Its goals continue to be the privatisation of individual life and the privatisation of all services. It detests with a vengeance a notion of the common good. Like it or not the neo-liberals, including New Labour, have made great strides in bringing this about – so much so that the present social arrangements seem to be the natural order of things. Indeed we might wonder if Michael Gove might restore the following verse to the hymn, ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’, banned by the Inner London Education authority in 1982.

The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
God made them, high or lowly,
And ordered their estate.

Thatcherism was never going to be too keen on an educational practice that sought to promote association and critical conversation ; that actively sought to grapple with issues around gender, race, sexuality and disability. It is to our credit that we staved off efforts to change our outlook till well into the 1990’s. However the last two decades have seen the insidious erosion of both our much lauded values and the distinctive essence of our practice, its voluntary character. This has been achieved via the imposition of the discourse of business and the market upon our work with young people.  The decimation of youth work as a public service and the marketisation of our practice are indeed a legacy of Thatcherism, She would have welcomed the turn to building neo-liberal ‘good’ character as defined in the much-touted Framework of Outcomes with Young People. She would have loved the world of bright-eyed, upwardly aspiring Young Entrepreneurs. She would have loathed young people at the gate, who do not know their place.

Perhaps the greatest success of Thatcherism and neo-liberalism has been to induce such a high degree of political passivity amongst the population, including many a youth worker. Of course they have not quelled us utterly. In recent times we have seen the Choose Youth campaign fighting to save services. Most recently young people and workers across the community have been on the streets in Newcastle and Birmingham. But it’s tough and sometimes disheartening. The truth is that not enough of us are throwing off the chains of compliance to the status quo.

If we are to mark Thatcher’s funeral in positive way for ourselves, perhaps we can promise each other that we will meet at least once a fortnight to begin talking about and questioning what’s going on, finding ways of being creative and unpredictable.  And from there, who’s to know? What’s certain is that we need one another if we are to turn back Thatcher’s tide. Renewing our collective spirit would be a fitting response to the death of an authoritarian foe, who knew absolutely ‘which side she was on’.

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For an antidote to the mainstream sycophancy this sweeping and informed piece is well worth a read.