What can The Young Ones teach us about Thatcherism, pt 4: Neo-liberalism, market populism and crony capitalism

The previous post in this series looked at theme of unemployment on The Young Ones as a key feature of Thatcherism, while this post will look at broader trends in economic thinking under Thatcher. Nigel Lawson in his autobiography (via Wikipedia) described Thatcherism as standing for:

Free markets, financial discipline, firm control over public expenditure, tax cuts, nationalism, ‘Victorian values’ (of the Samuel Smiles self-help variety), privatisation and a dash of populism.

This encouraged many to believe in the supremacy of the market and for laissez-faire capitalism to be embraced by many in the middle class, who invested heavily in property and shares. It also encouraged consumerism at an unprecedented level and for ‘cultural capital’ to be obtained by many through the acquisition of consumer goods – what Stuart Hall described in this article as ‘consumer capitalism’. Getting rich quick (and showing it off) became a key idea amongst significant sections of the British population, often at the expense of others. The Young Ones, while critiquing Thatcher herself in several episodes, also satirised other examples of neo-liberal capitalism and the ‘get-rich-quick’ hedonism of the 1980s.

In the first episode ‘Demolition’, the group are facing eviction from their home as the council have revoked the status of their house as protected housing for students (at 2.37 and 7.27). This reflects the effects of the Housing Act 1980 which saw councils across Britain sell off many of their council housing, many under the ‘right to buy’ scheme, but also to investors who started the process of property redevelopment that has fed several housing bubbles in the UK since the early 1980s.

With the fall in affordable housing under Thatcher, exacerbated by the effects of the Housing Act, many lower class Britons fell prey to the slum landlord, which we can see represented in the same episode by Jerzy Balowski (played by Alexei Sayle). Balowski enters the house without permission and demands his rent on the spot (at 4.05).

In the final episode ‘Summer Holiday’, Jerzy Balowski makes a re-appearance for a surprise inspection. After charging exorbitantly for damages caused by himself (as well as an elephant mask left over from a previous sketch), Balowski evicts the group for not having the money to pay for these ‘damages’.

Alexei Sayle also plays another ‘get rich quick’ type in the guise of ‘Harry the Bastard’ in the episode ‘Nasty’. Harry, the manager of the local Rumbelows and who may or may not be a local gangster, allow Mike and Vyvyan to rent a VCR overnight with a fine of £500 if it is not returned first thing the following morning in working condition. In order to get this £500, Harry dresses up as a South African vampire, which causes the group to forget about returning the VCR in the morning and Harry surprises them by asking for his money in the graveyrard, popping up from the Habitat sofa-coffin (at 5.32).

But most of the ‘get rich quick’ schemes featured on The Young Ones come from Mike ‘the Cool Person’ himself. In the episode ‘Oil’, we see two examples of this. Firstly, Mike finds Buddy Holly hanging upside in his room, apparently being there since 1959. Mike quickly gets Holly to play a song, which he records on his cassette recorder and while Holly plays, Mike is seen calculating the money he’d make from selling this new Holly song. Unfortunately for Mike, Holly’s parachute straps come loose and he falls into the floor, thus dying.

Secondly, when Vyvyan discovers oil the basement of the new house, Mike establishes himself as ‘El Presidente’ (a mixture of Arab dictator, such as Gadaffi, and Latin American junta leader) and owner of the oil’s potential profits. Mike employs Vyvyan as his head of security and forces Rik and Neil to dig for the oil. This may also be seen as a critique of Augusto Pinochet, the Chilean dictator, who became a friend of Thatcher’s during the Falklands War and the authoritarianism experienced under the junta.

In the episode ‘Bomb’, Mike also sees the potential of making money in selling the bomb they discover in the kitchen, with Mike auctioning of the bomb between various criminal organisations and dictatorships – very much in a similar way to what the Thatcher government were doing in the arms trade in the 1980s (Mark Phythian has written that the Conservatives under Thatcher had a ‘very permissible approach to arms sales’) In one scene, Mike is seen trying to get hold of Colonel Gadaffi in Libya and in another tells Neil that the CIA, the Mafia and the Chinese are all interested in purchasing the bomb (at 8.30).

In ‘Bomb’ we also see another of the Balowski family involved in illicit trading, with Reggie Balowski acting like a dodgy East End geezer who calls himself an ‘international arms dealer, scrap metal merchant and French cabaret chanteuse’. But in the colour red, Balowski isn’t interested in buying the nuclear weapon.

One of the problems that the British left encountered under Thatcher was explaining why so many working class and lower middle class people, who usually supported Labour, voted for the Tories between 1979 and 1992. One of the reasons why these sections of the British population may have voted for the Conservatives was that they believed in the rhetoric of self-sufficiency and ‘rewarding’ hard work, which Thatcher tapped into with her ‘no such thing as society’ comments. This is addressed in The Young Ones when Rik talks about his father voting Tory in the episode ‘Summer Holiday’:

And Daddy, alright, so he’s an old square. And maybe he does vote Tory. He’s got where he is today by hard slog, and he’s got to put tax concessions first.

But while many working and middle class people endeavoured to make more money for themselves under Thatcherism, it was the super wealthy (colloquially now known as the ‘one per cent’) that benefitted the most of under Thatcher and under the neo-liberal economic agenda that has endured for the last 30 years. The Young Ones parodies the influence and world outlook of this class in the episode ‘Bambi’ when the Cambridge Footlights come on University Challenge to ‘smash the oiks’. In this episode, the ‘toffs’ are seen bribing the show’s host, being given the answers to questions answered wrongly because the host ‘knows his father’ and declaring themselves the ‘richest person in the world’, as well as complaining that the only job for them was chairperson of the BBC and buying the Socialist Workers Party.

As the host of University Challenge says, ‘the posh kids win, they always do’ – an apt sentiment for the neo-liberal agenda that the Tories have pursued since 1979.

Thanks to @_The_Young_Ones for the topic suggestion.

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