Saturday, April 13, 2013

Thatcher: The Oily Lady

Margaret Thatcher: the first peak oil prime minister

There has been an awful lot of debate raging since former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher died last week. And like many debates that raise the emotional tempo this one is crystalizing nicely into two competing camps, namely the camp that says she ‘saved’ the UK from decline and the camp that says she left it a scorched moral wasteland where only the greedy and the bigoted flourish.

Regardless of what one might think of her policies however, what has been mostly missing is the role that oil played in her ascendency. When she came to power in 1979 Britain was a dark and miserable place. At least that’s the official narrative; from what I remember things were actually not that bad at all. I, as an 8 year-old boy, could roam around my local town at will without anyone regarding this as unusual, the music in the charts was pretty good, television was for the most part entertaining and giant supermarkets had yet to suck the life out of local communities. Things were pretty good if you didn't read the newspapers.

But one aspect of life in the 1970s that could hardly be called good was the price of oil. The two oil shocks that had occurred earlier in the decade has threatened the onward march to a wealthier, more comfortable, future. People might have been watching the Good Life on television, but that didn’t mean they actually wanted to give up their jobs and raise pigs in their own back yards. Something had to be done!

Enter Thatcher stage right. The grocer’s daughter from Grantham hit the moribund political scene like a whirlwind, smashing taboos and giving the whole gentleman’s club a sharp kick up the backside. Like any successful politician in a democracy she had identified a deep craving within the psyche of the electorate and had used the power of promise to unleash a wave which she rode to victory as well as any Oahu surfer.

Although people didn’t realize it, they had just done a deal with the devil. No, not Thatcher, the devil I am referring to is right out of Doctor Faustus and its name is oil. Thatcher, and her ideologist in crime Ronald Reagan, pulled every trick in the book to flood the world with cheap oil. North Sea production was ramped up off the coast of Britain, and Reagan did the same thing, eliminating price controls on oil and natural gas in the US. Deals were struck with other oil producing nations to do the same thing and pretty soon the price of oil – and thus the price of everyday life in the industrialised world – crashed to a level so low that it was hardly worth thinking about. The age of mega-abundance was upon us.

Britain, along with much of the industrialised world, then moved into a peculiar position. The access to cheap energy and materials might have been temporarily secured, but Thatcher had a dragon she wanted to slay in the form of the unions. British industry, as she saw it, was inefficient and stuffed full of unproductive suits and workers – most of whom happened to be socialists. The miners’ strike is the best remembered battle here, and Thatcher, by now power-crazed, refused to back down – and won. 

But who needed industry anyway? It was much cheaper to get poorer countries to make stuff for you. I remember going on a school trip to a factory where they made tennis racquets. The production manager gave us a talk and I clearly remember him saying that they were ‘offshoring’ soon to China where ‘Each worker will make ten tennis racquets for a bowl of rice.’ And we children all nodded sagely at what seemed to make sense.

Instead of industry we got finance. The so-called Big Bang happened in 1986, when the shackles were thrown off the City of London and financial firms were, not to put too fine a point on it, allowed to create money out of thin air. This proved to be much easier than making cars or ships or digging up coal, and the tax receipts were fantastic too. Nobody mentioned the fact that the whole thing looked like a Ponzi scheme, and the boom in the 1980s swept everyone up, including many of Thatcher’s former naysayers who suddenly found they were doing quite nicely out of it. There can be few more spectacular examples of this than the former Marxist comedian Alexei Sayle, whose stock in trade was lambasting Thatcher and the Tories with foul-mouthed invective. Sayle now test drives luxury cars for the right wing Telegraph newspaper and he’s tied himself in quite a few rhetorical knots trying to explain that one. 

But bitter cracks had opened up in the national discourse. Who had the greater moral right to exist? Was it the pit miner, whose family had worked in the same pits for generations, or was it the new breed of financial whizz-kids in the City, who wore red braces and said things like ‘Greed is good,’ into their brick-sized mobile phones? Well, we know who won that battle, if not the debate, in the end.

Individual families were riven – including my own. Once, my aunt and uncle came for dinner. I must have been about 15 at the time, and after a couple of glasses of wine a discussion started between my father and my uncle about the coal miners. My father was ardently pro-Thatcher and had done well out of her policies, whereas my uncle was a socialist through and through, and drove an ambulance for a living. Things became heated and my uncle said to my aunt ‘Get your coat, dear,’ and they walked out. I never saw or heard from them again and have no idea if they are dead or alive. Such were the divisions that opened up over Thatcher.

Now, almost thirty years later, it is clear what Thatcher’s legacy was. She, and others like her, rode to power on a gusher. People wanted a cheap way of life and she gave it to them. The billions of barrels of oil that have been wasted over the last few decades could have been used to build a new infrastructure that didn’t rely on the assumption of an infinitely available and cheap energy source. Instead, we wasted it on expensive plastic yachts for the rich and cheap holidays on the Costa del Sol for the poor, and a million other things in between. The chance we were given was squandered.

Was Maggie to blame? Yes and no. She might be a figure of hate for the left and a source of quasi-religious devotion for the deluded neoliberals on the right (including, I might add, Tony Blair) but ultimately, if she hadn’t come along, someone very like her would have seized the same opportunity. Is this how democracies seize up in the end? With two ultimately competing blocks of voters vying for their own share of the pie and regarding the competing faction as ‘evil’? What would Jung say ...

People often accuse her of making Britain a crueler, nastier place. Is this true? I have no idea. Looking at it the other way around it could be said that a modern industrialised lifestyle was making Britain a crueler, more atomized, society and that Thatcher was merely our totem. She was the crucible that allowed the 60 million residents of these islands to access vast material riches at the expense of the Third World, and to burn our way through oil supplies that took billions of years to form. She allowed the proud nationalists among us to perpetuate the myth that Britannia had not quite finished Ruling the Waves, and that it was our manifest destiny to remain Great. 

Without her, or someone like her, our energy descent would have proceeded in a nicely linear fashion. It’s fun to do a thought experiment on this one. Imagine, for a moment, that instead of electing a Thatcher, we had elected a dull leader lacking in charisma but with the nation’s long term security at heart. This leader, instead of throwing her weight behind motorway and airport expansions, chose to support and invest in bicycle power and energy from windmills. Her government made it law that every house should be thickly insulated to cut down on energy loss, and that cars should be taxed at 200% so that you had to be quite well off to afford one (reinvesting the money in public transport instead).

Yes, Britain would have looked like a larger version of Denmark, where all of the above were followed through on. But instead we got a massive road network that is constantly jammed and unsafe to cycle on, millions of new flimsily-built properties that leak heat like sieves (I have freezing toes as I write this in the fairly expensive 1990s-built house we are currently renting) and an energy grid that is geared for failure.

So, instead of a painful but relatively gentle transition to a future where the ability to harness energy slips slowly from our grasp what we can expect instead is a traumatic and sudden drop-off of available energy exacerbated by a painful financial crash that will likely be the most traumatic time since the cities were bombed to rubble by Hitler.

Luckily for Maggie, though, she won’t be around to experience all that. That joy is all ours.


  1. Looking at it, Britain seems in a really bad position. Vastly overpopulated, at the extreme end of any trade routes and constantly antagonizing Europe. Having Thatcher (or at least her policies probably hasn't helped, but I wonder how much they shifted it anyway.

    Being already rural and having the necessary skills and land is a good bet.

    1. Historically, the British Isles haven't had much of a large population. I'm not looking forwards to seeing it revert to that again.

      The best we can hope for now is some kind of favourable position with the global hegemon - whoever that may prove to be. So, actually, no change there then.

      Being close to Europe will help, and being separated by the English Channel might help even more.

    2. True, any wrath from Europe will mostly be directed at London and the financial economy. Once all that's sorted out it'll be an advantage.

      Who will be the global hegemony and what use for Britain they'll have is an interesting question. Russia will probably just use Germany as the local control point, while China could use Britain as an aircraft base like the USA does. Same goes for Brazil.

      All you can hope for is that the reverting to a sustainable population is fairly peaceful. Most of it should take place in the cities and rural areas could easily see their numbers increase.

    3. Britain's food security in a post-peak future is a vexing issue given the 60m+ population. I consider Gwynne Dyer's ideas in 'Climate Wars' a likely solution: A political union between land-rich/population-poor Ireland and the UK, which will still be able to offer a common defense for the entire archipelago from the inevitable outside migration pressure arising from peak-oil, climate change and the economic long descent.

      The recent rapporchement between UK & Irish governments may be the first step on this path. Would Thatcher have wanted anything else but "Fortress British Isles"

      Keep up the good work Jason!

    4. That's one option. I think that with climate change making things every more difficult for southern Europe, we can expect large scale migration northwards, though. So, in other words, Ireland might not have a low population density for long!

  2. Living in Australia with Scottish parents the various goings on of Margaret Thatcher , in her heyday were a big deal in our household. Thou to me being half a world away seemed totally irrelevant.
    You will probably laugh, but the show you mentioned. The Goodlife had a much more lasting and positive impact on my life. As a child living in suburbia that show opened up my eyes to a alternate reality. A seed was planted in my young mind. Then due to some forward thinking librarian. Putting a copy of "Permaculture one" on prominent display at our local library in the late 70's.( I must of read that book a dozen times)The seed sprouted.
    Now 30 years later I live in rural Tasmania with chickens, ducks, bees,fruit and nut trees and vegetables and herbs growing year round.
    I think to myself those two influences set me on a path.That now has my family in a much better place. Living a lifestyle that has us well along the path ,I now think we will all have to lead anyway. Well that is if we want to survive the coming crash that is.

    1. Growing up, I thought the Good Life was the norm. My own father was a bit of a Tom, and we grew quite a lot of vegetables in our back garden. Every autumn we'd tramp out into the countryside looking for fruits for him to turn into wine, and my mother made a very good crab apple jelly.

      It probably had more of an effect on me than I realise!

  3. Thatcher and Reagan, both, were caricatures of greed. But how faithfully did they epitomize Everyman? Pretty damn well, if you ask me. You have only to look at the Chinese suburbs of acre-lot "Tudor" mansions, and monarchically-French-pseudo-manses of the Russian recently upwardly-mobile classes, and monstrously grand casino-loot estates favoured by American Indian casino-proprietor bands -- to see Everyman's face in all it's cunning cupidity and stupidity. Those people aren't mourning 'civilization': they -- "don't know anything about [civilization], but they know what they like", just as is said of art, eh. (And their taste in housing is on a level with the 'art' they produce and 'consume'. Did you know the younger Bush ex-president counts himself an 'artist'? He paints doggies with all the skill of a 10- or 11-year-old child.) The only thing Everyman is regretting is that the gorging is ending -- and when the tinsel confetti is all irretrievably blown into one or other of the oceanic plastic-rubbish vortices, and the cheap champagne dries up, then we're going to see Everyman's naked face as he starts howling in earnest. Already there are riots in Europe, protesting austerity measures, as if Everymen can just 'vote' themselves back into the land of milk and honey! What bothers me about the Thatcher hee-haw is that most of the participants are too young to have had any actual experience of Thatcherism, and what-is is the only normal they know, in which they willingly participate to the limit it can still be utilized/exploited, and if the oil were still flowing, they'd all choose mega-mortages on Versailles mock-ups if they could -- so that their malice is just exactly that, targeted free-floating malice, just 'something-to-do', whatever, eh. If this building Zeitgeist were a piano string, it would be quivering to breaking point. Cassandra gibbers, during her infrequent lucid intervals, off Prozac.

    1. "Did you know the younger Bush ex-president counts himself an 'artist'? He paints doggies with all the skill of a 10- or 11-year-old child."

      Yes, I had heard. Did you know that the last thing Thatcher did before she left us was look at a YouTube video of puppies, apparently smiling as she did so?

    2. Dubyah a painter...wish I could buy one of those.

      Quite a memorable meme it'd be stenciled with:
      "Nero fiddled, Dubyah painted."

  4. Thatcherism relies on a faith in the free market. A cheap source of fossil fuels allowed it to serve UK interests but without that, the free market will prove to be a less kind master.

    I don't know how to predict the future. The European project is still in the stage of kicking the can down the road, but there may come a tipping point where a radical wave of change shakes things up. What Europe will look like after that I don't feel able to guess.

    I thought I'd also mention I'm also in Cornwall, have you been following the local political situation, where the powers that be remain wedded to a growth ideology based on high levels of housebuilding, without considering whether the economy can provide jobs for a large number of additional residents or the environmental and infrastructure issues. Have a look at The Great Sale of Cornwall

  5. Hi Jason.

    Great post. I hated all the privatisation that went on during the Thatcherite era, which we are still suffering for. Huge ammounts go to company profits and we get a rough service in return. I'm talking trains, energy, water.... I mean who wants a private company controlling your water supply?

    And people have forgotten about the poll tax and subsequent riots. I was so amazed at the last election how people my age had forgotton the Thatcher legacy and just voted for the most charismatic candidate, not that there was much charisma on offer! Luckily David Cameron doesn't have the same strength of character and a lot of his governments policies end up having U-turns.

    You are right about the oil though. If only we could undo that one! I have just bought 'The Spirit of 45' DVD, directed by Ken Loach, which will hopefully cheer me up.


  6. “This comment has been banned under the CISPA Bill.”

    Thank you for your cooperation, now move along. Nothing to see here.


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