There was a day – back in the far mists of time – when we used to talk about the rise of the inner-directed consumers. It was a language which derived from radical marketing thinking in the 1950s, and it was put into practice by consultancies in the 1980s like Taylor Nelson – regarding people’s fundamental motivations as more important than their traditional class or income bracket.
The ‘inner directeds’ were that small but growing group of people who were no longer motivated primarily by where the next meal was coming from (sustenance-driven), nor by keeping up with the Joneses (outer-directed). They were motivated by independence, health, education, self-help. And the fastest growing group of inner-directeds were – guess where? – in the UK, by then heading to over 40 per cent.
You can understand a great deal about the economic changes of recent decades in that way, but there was a political element to it as well. The sustenance-driven voters were traditionally Labour. The outer-directeds were mainly Conservatives. What did the inner-directeds vote, those people who lived in the places dubbed by my friend Martin Stott as the ‘muesli belt’?
Paddy Ashdown, who paid attention to this, believed that they would vote Liberal Democrat. Some certainly vote Green. But the hard truth for people like me was that, in the 1980s, it was clear that – for many of them – independence trumped all.
They voted for Margaret Thatcher because that was her rhetoric. It may be that when people use the language of independence, others respond – even though what they get as a result (Trump or Brexit) leads sometimes in the very opposite direction.
The problem was that Margaret Thatcher was not actually the author of Thatcherism. If you read the cabinet papers of her early months in office – as I have when I was researching a book about the middle classes – it is clear that she had little idea what she wanted to do, or how.
On the contrary, it was Howe and Lawson, meeting every Tuesday evening in Howe’s Vauxhall flat, who grasped the opportunity.
The revolution that the Thatcher governments offered was only, as it turned out, very narrowly about independence. It was an independence offered to a few, high-profile entrepreneurial types, to the privatised industries, and – well, then it seemed to reach a limit.
The rhetoric was about setting people free, but in practice – after the abolition of the metropolitan counties, laboriously reinvented now in the shape of the metro mayors – the independence revolution never really came through for the inner-directeds. To the extent that it did, it was, given the staggering rise in house prices (giving unprecedented independence to a section of the population), achieved by closing the door on it for the next generation, who now can’t afford to live where they were brought up.
It isn’t politically correct to interpret recent events in this way, but I do – because in this respect the independence revolution offered by Margaret Thatcher in 1979 has never really been thought through, let alone put into practice.
What it implied was that people and institutions are more successful when they are more flexible, more imaginative, more creative and more entrepreneurial, and that when you unleash people’s imaginative spirit it is more humane and effective than systems, protocols and processes, and they solve more problems. They respond faster, as I argued in my Tickbox book.
It is all true – but you only have to look at local government, which is only just coming alive thanks to the city deals and devo deals shaped in the coalition years, to see how successive governments failed to put these ideas into practice.
This is not to argue that localism was somehow a suspiciously Thatcherite solution. We know she couldn’t abide the idea. It is to argue that setting
people free to innovate and make mistakes is as relevant to the public sector as it is to the private sector – and it hasn’t been tried.
The truth is, actually, that it hasn’t been tried in either sector. It has been stymied by the fear of bureaucrats in the public sector, and by the stultifying embrace of monopolies and systems in the private sector.
There is the truth: the entrepreneurial revolution which spoke to so many in the 1979 election has still not been attempted, except for the further liberation of the ultra-rich. Personally, I think it is time it was tried – and not least because of the government’s obvious failures during the covid crisis.
I mean of course the abject centralisation of testing, when we all know that so much more would have been posssible if every hospital had been part of a huge revolution called, maybe, small plus small plus small – as they say in the USA – equals big.
It could also have been called something like We Don’t Need Deloitte…