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  • Mo Stewart

A Culture Of Cruelty: A public health crisis created by Thatcher’s ‘dark legacy’


Note: This blogpost is written by Mo Stewart, Independent Disability Studies Researcher and the research lead for the Preventable Harm Project (2009-2019). Mo has written extensively about the demolition of the UK welfare state, and the impact on disabled people. Mo's website, containing peer-reviewed articles, think-tank papers, blogposts, letters and more, can be found here.


By definition, any political administration that adopts oppressive social policy reforms guaranteed to create a public health crisis has adopted tyranny. When successive administrations continue that tyranny, by definition, that’s an atrocity as now ongoing in C21st UK with no-one held to account.


There is a lot of published evidence demonstrating this identified public health crisis linked to sick pay, and to disability benefit claims, but few authors identify the historic links which generated the future preventable harm of those in greatest need with the adoption of a culture of cruelty.


Two weeks before he died in September 2003 the acclaimed Guardian political columnist and Thatcher biographer, Hugo Young, wrote an article about the former Prime Minister (PM) (1979-90) which identified her ‘tolerated harshness’ and ‘dark legacy’ that had negatively impacted on society. The article was later reproduced by the paper in April 2013 following Thatcher’s death and, almost twenty years since it was first published, those in greatest need continue to live with the late PM’s ‘dark legacy’, as adopted by every successive neoliberal administration since Thatcher, which created the politics of fear for anyone whose too ill to work.


Credited with moving the Conservative Party to the right, Margaret Thatcher was elected as the leader of the Conservative Party in 1975, and she became PM following the 1979 general election. Thatcher was not only the first UK female PM, but she was also the first UK PM totally devoted to the extremes of neoliberal politics, which Guardian columnist George Monbiot later identified as being ‘the ideology at the root of all our problems’. Thatcher went on to win another two general elections, and her aggressive commitment to free market Capitalism became an ideology identified as ‘Thatcherism’. Although adopted by many, ‘Thatcherism was often characterised by authoritarianism’ which has been continued by subsequent social policies adopted by her successors. She stepped down as PM in November 1990 following a challenge to her leadership, but all social policies adopted in the following decades by successive administrations have echoes of Thatcher’s past extreme doctrine.


Thatcher’s well-documented informal transatlantic alliance with the US President Ronald Reagan (1981-89), and her insistence that the welfare state was an unacceptable financial burden on the public purse, opened the door to the influence of corporate America with UK social policy reforms and the future planned demolition of the UK welfare state. Historic Cabinet papers identify that during her first term in office (1982) Thatcher announced her ultimate political ambition was to remove the UK welfare state, including the NHS, in favour of the American system of healthcare funded by private insurance. This began by the adoption of a fatally flawed disability benefit assessment model.


Over time, extremes of social policies adopted by successive neoliberal administrations have worked towards this ultimate political ambition when influenced by the right-leaning international Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) 2003 recommendations for the disabled community to find employment. It was the UK that subsequently adopted the most extreme social policy reforms, when guided by the OECD.


Extreme welfare reforms were always destined to cause preventable harm to those in greatest need, and created an identified public mental health crisis as disability benefit claimants were relentlessly demonised by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) during the Coalition government’s term in office (2010-15). Attitudes to the chronically ill and disabled community changed to a relentless rhetoric suggesting vast numbers of fraudulent claims, which always was untrue. Aided by the tabloid press, there would be a reported 213 per cent increase in prosecuted disability hate crimes, including murder, during the Coalition government’s term in office with no-one asking why?


Constant political claims that the rising welfare budget was unsustainable always was a political smokescreen, but worked well. In reality, with the exception of an emergency created by the pandemic, the UK has funded the smallest amount of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) for public spending when compared with 14 affluent European countries and, as demonstrated in Figure 1, the UK administration have plans to continue to reduce spending by 2026 to the equivalent of what was spent in the 1980s.


Figure 1: Public spending in the UK, and elsewhere in Europe, 1980-2026



Source: Courtesy of Professor Danny Dorling https://www.dannydorling.org/?page_id=8349


The DWP enthusiastically enforce brutal sanctions, which remove all income for disability benefit claimants who are too ill to attend a meeting. Consequently, some of those in greatest need would be starved to death by the State, as all evidence of a past moral compass has disappeared from UK social policy legislation, designed to reduce costs regardless of human consequences. The British public didn’t elect any administration to use starvation as a form of discipline, but there doesn’t appear to be any authority to stop this ongoing persecution of the chronically ill and disabled community who are unfit to work and who now live in fear of the DWP, as Thatcher’s ‘dark legacy’ is gradually created.


(Originally published December 2022)



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