Thursday, December 07, 2023

Keir Starmer was right: How Margaret Thatcher bankrolled a generation of left-wing entrepreneurs and artists

I don't subscribe to the Telegraph, so I may not have read everything Keir Starmer had to say about Margaret Thatcher earlier this week. But what I did see was wholly unobjectionable.

Starmer was quoted as saying Thatcher had "set loose our natural entrepreneurialism".

Well, that was what she dreamed of doing. Most Conservative measures to help small businesses turn out to help large businesses rather more, but in one area at least Thatcher's policies did have a positive effect. And it often involved young entrepreneurs with very unThatcherite views.

A Guardian article from this summer remembered the summer of 1983:

That same month, a new government initiative was rolled out nationwide. The Enterprise Allowance Scheme was the brainchild of a Treasury civil servant called Peter Kemp and had been trialled over the previous two years. 

Despite its bland name, it was a daring concept. If citizens wanted to set up a small business, the government would guarantee an income of £40 a week for up to 12 months, and an escape from dole checkups. 

If your business plan and a savings test passed muster – and for three-quarters of applicants it did – you were good. For the decade or so that it ran, more than half a million people ended up using it. Many were under 25.

And the article continued:

There was one unlikely side-effect, almost certainly unplanned by Treasury mandarins – the birth of an entire generation of British creatives. Successful EAS alumni included Alan McGee of Creation Records, Laurence Bell of Domino, and Julian Dunkerton, who founded Superdry; musicians such as Jarvis Cocker and Shaun Ryder; artists including Tracey Emin, Jeremy Deller and Edmund de Waal.

Forty years after the scheme was rolled out, it’s a faintly astonishing thought: would Britpop and the YBAs have happened without a hardline Conservative government? Was Thatcherism, widely detested by the arts establishment, actually good for culture? When I put these questions to the artist Rachel Whiteread, she chuckles. “Yeah, it’s a little bit strange, the whole thing. I don’t think they had a clue what would happen.”

Well that's the good thing about markets: they can overturn the existing order. It's why we Liberals support them.

Labour was at pains to associate itself with the arts in the run up to its victory in 1997, but mutual the love affair didn't last. 

This report appeared in the Herald in March 1998:

Tony Blair has lost his cool. According to a band of leading figures in the music world, the Prime Minister has betrayed the principles on which he was elected and should no longer be regarded as an honorary member of the ''Cool Britannia'' movement.

The ''band'' is fronted by two Glaswegians, Bobby Gillespie of Primal Scream, and the head of Creation Records, Alan McGee, who gave £50,000 to Labour's General Election fund.

And McGee's complaint?

Alan McGee said the Government was making it harder for musicians. Mr McGee serves on Government task-force committees - but refused to go to a meeting with Employment Minister Andrew Smith a fortnight ago in protest at Labour's Welfare to Work policy.

He said he wanted the Government to introduce a scheme to allow young artists to by-pass requirements to take the first job on offer so they could develop their musical skills.

The NME went so far as to produce the front page and report you see above. An account of Tony Blair's response to it says of the paper's original report:

Singled out for heaviest objection were Government policies on curfews for young people, the abolition of supplementary allowances for those without work, imposition of thousand-pound tuition fees for university students and a total rejection of any debate on repealing Britain’s outdated drugs laws.

This just suggests that someone at the paper had got round to reading Labour's 1997 manifesto.

My memories of Labour's polices on youth unemployment from this era are summed up by this BBC News story:

A pilot scheme in Coventry to remove unwanted tattoos from the unemployed has received a £2m government grant.

Many jobless people believe their colourful designs put off employers, but tattoo removal costs between £500 and £1,000.

The employment service in Coventry is considering removing tattoos for nothing as part of a broader programme to help jobseekers become more employable.
A generous policy in its way, but it was all about fitting people into existing employment opportunities. It was never going to give rise to new artistic movements or musical styles.

Under the Conservatives (and under the Lib Dems during the Coalition years) unemployment problem has been about using poverty to force people off benefits one way or another. And there are few signs that Labour will be much different after the next election.

There are many among the young employed who would benefit from a revival of Thatcherism.


Matt Pennell said...

Apart from the absence of the Enterprise Allowance Scheme, young people looking to embark on a career in rock + pop these days are faced with:

A decline in specialist small music venues, pubs, clubs and theatres
A lack of rehearsal space
Difficulties in playing European tours due to increased paperwork and restrictions in access
Cut backs in music and art teaching in schools
Receiving paltry royalties from digital streaming

There's a lot that needs putting right in arts & entertainment!

Phil Beesley said...

The gig thing, indeed. Once the expression gig was used as an understatement for a professional performance or optimistically for a semi-professional show. Amateurs played gigs for fun or maybe the steps to something more serious.

Today, gig economy is used to describe insecure or exploitative work. It is not a euphemism I care to use.

Frank Little said...

Some credit must be given to Benn's legislation (on the initiative of John Pardoe if I recall correctly) to support worker co-operatives as a result of the Lib-Lab pact. The headliners like Meriden may have failed but many local co-ops survived the Thatcher-Howe interest rate hikes while medium-sized enterprises were wiped out.