Culture wars and moral panics in the history of Thatcherism

I originally posted this late last year on Patreon but have been working on this topic for the last few months and decided to post it here as well, following a Twitter discussion about the overlooking the social conservatism of Thatcherism in the historical narratives of the Thatcher years.

An infamous cartoon from the Daily Express in the mid-1980s

The agenda of Boris Johnson’s Conservative government has often been described as a ‘war on woke’ and members of this government have certainly leaned into this discourse, supported by sections of the press and other commentators. In The Guardian, I have argued that this current culture war against ‘wokeness’ and ‘identity politics’ revives targets and tropes from the 1980s and 1990s when both the Thatcher and Major governments pursued their own culture wars. While the Tories and the press wring their hands about the ‘woke left’, in the 1980s, it was the ‘loony left’ and in the 1990s, it was ‘political correctness’.  Just as in previous decades, we can see the mobilisation of government, state agencies and other institutions is response to a series of intersecting moral panics, such as free speech, trans rights, critical histories of empire and climate change activism to name a few.

The concept of moral panic was first developed in the late 1960s and early 1970s, pioneered by Stanley Cohen (amongst others) in his book Folk Devils and Moral Panics, which explored the media reporting and subsequent policing of youth subcultures in Britain during the sixties. Stuart Hall and others at the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies demonstrated in their 1978 book Policing the Crisis that moral panics were often developed, if not created, by the media, but used by the government and agencies of the state (such as the police and the Home Office) to further their own ‘law and order’ agendas. Hall et al show that the moral panic about muggings led to a police focus on black youth and a broader anti-immigrant stance by the government. The argument made by Policing the Crisis was that moral panics gained more purchase in times of (capitalist) crisis and I would argue that it was Margaret Thatcher’s government which came into power in 1979 that fully embraced the power of moral panics to pursue its neoliberal and social conservative programme.

The concept of the culture war developed on the other side of the Atlantic, used to describe how certain issues, such as abortion, homosexuality and gun control, became seen as a new battleground for Republicans in the 1980s and 1990s. As Jeff Sparrow argues in his book Trigger Warnings, culture wars came to the fore in period when neoliberal capitalism had achieved a bipartisan consensus and were used by the Republicans to mobilise their base (which had begun under Reagan) and create a distinction between themselves and the Democrats, particularly under Bill Clinton. In some cases, it created a clear distinction between the right and the liberal centre (such as abortion), yet in other cases, it dragged the liberal centre to the right (see the Clinton administration’s ‘tough on crime’ politics in the 1990s). Similar culture war processes were happening in Britain under Margaret Thatcher and John Major, as James Curran, Julian Petley and Ivor Gaber show in their book.

The Thatcher government pursued its culture wars throughout the 1980s, even when the economic ground was still being contested. It could be argued that the Thatcherite culture wars went hand in hand with its economic agenda. For example, the attacks on the left-wing Labour councils across Britain in the 1980s, such as the Greater London Council, the Liverpool City Council and the Sheffield City Council, were about taking on municipal socialism, but also tapped into the notion (publicised by the right-wing press) that local councils were sites where the ‘loony left’ obsessed with identity politics had taken hold. For Thatcher, there were many ‘enemies within’ that needed to be confronted, intertwining the political, the economic and the cultural/moral.

Back in 1979, Martin Jacques wrote in Marxism Today that Thatcherism was a combination of laissez-faire economics and a regressive ‘law and order’ agenda. Historians of Thatcher and Thatcherism have often focused on her government’s neoliberalism at the expense of examination of its social conservatism. This social conservatism, such as appeals to ‘Victorian values’, is key to understanding Thatcherism in the 1980s and the ways in which the Conservatives built support beyond those championing her economic and industrial relations policies.

Moral panics, about feminism, homosexuality, immigration, football crowds and drugs (to name a few), were the tools by which the Thatcherite culture wars were waged. Many of these had emerged earlier, especially in the 1970s, but under Thatcher (and her successor, John Major) these moral panics informed reactions from the government (in terms of legislative changes and policy directives), but also other institutions of the state, such as the police and the border control system. Some died away in the 1980s and 1990s, but others were reconstituted and reconfigured to be employed again. For example, some have argued that the moral panic around homosexuality which led to Section 28 in the late 1980s has been repurposed as a moral panic around trans rights.

An exploration of the moral panics and culture wars that were mustered in the 1980s and 1990s under the Conservatives is important for understanding the historical context of today’s culture wars and how moral panics can be assumed by government and used to drive their own policies, particularly when a government like Johnson’s leans into the ‘war on woke’ rhetoric. As I argued in the above mentioned Guardian piece, the current culture war discourse has a much a longer history that needs to be acknowledged and examined.

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