Scarier than Thatcher the milk snatcher

From 'fetal ASBOs' to calorie-counting on the curriculum: the Blairites intervened in family life in ways the Tories never dreamed of.

Jennie Bristow

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Topics Politics UK

I was one of Thatcher’s children. I started school in 1980 and did my GCSE exams in 1991; a childhood and adolescence spent entirely under that Tory prime minister’s beaky nose, absorbing all the emotional anti-Thatcherism of the times. I remember Thatcher as a pantomime villain, like the child-catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, immortalised in the Spitting Image puppet that gave you nightmares. When she resigned, it seemed like a happy ending in the making.

But the Blair years have been worse. As a young person under Thatcher, at least you knew where you stood – you hated her, and you assumed that she hated you. Blair seems the opposite – a devoted daddy who wants to get down with the kids and help their parents, who professes to appreciate us and feel our pain. In reality, his reign has been a constant process of family-fiddling and therapeutic intervention, which has undermined parents and unsettled childhood. For example:

No such thing as society

When Margaret Thatcher famously argued, back in 1987, that ‘there is no such thing as society; there are individual men and women, and there are families’, this was understood as the apex of Thatcherite individualism. Forget the poor, the needy, the lonely – Eighties Britain was a place of sink or swim, and the family was seen as life-raft enough. That government’s promotion of Victorian values and the virtues of home ownership, backed up by its intolerance of more ‘diverse’ lifestyles or family forms (remember the ill-fated war on single parents?), have all entered the liberal lexicon as examples of just how bad the Tories were at looking after families. But Thatcher was more likely to leave us in peace and privacy than Blair’s lot.

Blair’s government had been in office a mere year when it published the consultation document Supporting Families. (One critique of the document had the apposite headline ‘Supporting Families like a rope supports a hanging man’.) As I have previously argued on spiked, the document’s ‘message was clear: for too long, it has been assumed that families are best left alone to live their lives in private. Now the state should become more involved – through processes called supporting, helping and advising families – to encourage people to live their lives in the right way.’ (See What future for the family?)

Under New Labour, the dynamic towards greater state involvement in everyday family life has intensified year on year. You can see this in initiatives such as the planned creation of a national database that effectively puts all children under state surveillance (see Children: over-surveilled, under-protected), in the routine use of parenting classes and the more punitive parenting orders, and in the Sure Start scheme, which purports to be an anti-poverty childcare provision initiative but in reality is about sitting by the elbows of low-income parents and guiding them in the right way to bring up their kids (see A Sure Start for the therapeutic state).

Parents under Blair are treated like irresponsible children, in need of constant guidance and monitoring by the state. If this is what is meant by society ‘supporting families’, we’d be better off cut adrift.

Thatcher Thatcher, Milk Snatcher

One of Thatcher’s most famous ‘nasty’ moves was her decision, when education secretary in Edward Heath’s government, to abolish free school milk: earning her the childish nickname ‘Thatcher Thatcher, Milk Snatcher’. But at least she never went down the Blairite route of demanding ‘Let them eat carrot sticks’, and sending in a sort of Obesity Special Branch to check the contents of children’s school lunchboxes.

The obsession with children’s diet, formalised in New Labour’s healthy schools initiative, is to me one of the most depressing aspects of bringing up children in today’s society. Given a hysterically high profile by the celebrity chef Jamie ‘Parents Are Tossers’ Oliver, the question of what children put into their mouths at breaktime is now considered of utmost political and educational importance. School prospectuses burble on about how keen they are to follow the government’s healthy eating agenda and advise parents to ask themselves if their children really need a midmorning snack; reports by the schools inspection body Ofsted rate educational institutions on how well pupils are doing on their diet-and-exercise programmes and whether skinny-limbed kids come home refusing to eat their dinner because some teacher has told them that sausages are ‘bad foods’ and chips ‘aren’t healthy’.

Most parents are more concerned that their kids are eating enough than that they will turn into doughnuts, and we relish the enjoyment that children get out of eating the food they like. The Blair government’s mean-spirited attitude to children’s food is already poisoning the atmosphere around the dinner table and providing a bitter distraction from the fact that, when schools are not shoving the National Fruit Scheme down children’s throats, they are filling their heads with junk. Yes, Thatcher messed about with the curriculum and got on the wrong side of most teachers. But she did not create a situation where calorie-counting was considered more important than maths.

FASBOs, SASBOs, stick-em-up-your-***BOS

Thatcher was hardly considered a teenager’s best friend. Hers was the party of law’n’order as well as (unofficially) the party of youth unemployment, which would later, under John Major, push through the Criminal Justice Bill, widely perceived as a law against the ‘repetitive beats’ of rave culture and other activities beloved of young people.

But Thatcher never tried to give teenagers a criminal record while still in the womb.

In September 2006, Blair unveiled plans to identify and intervene in ‘problem families’ at the earliest possible stage, to prevent their children becoming criminals later on in life. The UK media branded the scheme ‘fetal ASBOs’ – a new extension of the Blair government’s Anti-Social Behaviour Orders, which are used to whip teenagers into line for such offences as hanging out on the street. This has also been a government that issues on-the-spot fines for all manner of trivial misdemeanours and sends parents to jail if their children play hooky from school (see Parents: we are not the law). The politics of behaviour is promoted through a policy of ‘Respect’ – as though the long arm of the law is any way to get teenagers to respect anything. (See Respect for what?)

Already it is reported that teenagers wear their ASBOS as a ‘badge of honour’, and if they have stopped wearing hooded tops it is presumably not because of the government’s sartorial advice on the subject. But it all creates a climate of conformity in which the young, typically more adventurous and energetic than the rest of society, might find themselves in counselling simply for wanting to cross the road.

Of course, none of this means that I pine for the Thatcher era. I remember it as being quite grey and bleak, with the sense of any political alternative crumbling before one’s eyes. But the chrome-covered Blair years have been unable to disguise the mistrust, the lack of vision, and the narrow authoritarianism that has powered this government’s regime. And now it’s about to go Brown….

Jennie Bristow is former commissioning editor of spiked and now writes the monthly column Jennie Bristow’s Guide to Subversive Parenting. She is also a mother-of-two, a freelance writer and researcher, and editor of the bpas journal Abortion Review. Email her at {encode=”jennie@bristow.com” title=”jennie@bristow.com”}.

After Blair

What’s worse than Blair? A Blair-basher by Brendan O’Neill. The road to Baghdad was paved with good intentions by James Heartfield. And coming up on spiked this week: Why Blair’s critics are wrong about everything; revisiting the Blairites’ tyranny of health; how New Labour intensified community divisions, and more.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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Topics Politics UK

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