|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.