Margaret Thatcher. Between Icon and Hate Figure

How the Iron Lady’s policy divided the British society

Term Paper 2016 19 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Culture and Applied Geography



1. Introduction

2. Definition and genesis of "social class" as a system
2.1 The United Kingdom as a class society in course of history

3. Public & social life in the UK before Thatcher (1945-79)

4. The impact of Thatcher's policy on the British class society
4.1 Privatisation, liberating the economy and reforming the unions
4.2 Reforming the British welfare state
4.3 Financial - and tax policy

5. Public & social life in the UK after Thatcher (1990 - Present)

6. Final conclusion


1. Introduction

"[...] They're casting their problem on society. And, you know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first. It's our duty to look after ourselves and then, also to look after our neighbour [...]."

Margaret Thatcher to Womans Own magazine, 31st Oct. 1987

In course of its long democratic history, the United Kingdom has gone through many governments whose influential Prime ministers had formed the British society. But probably no other British Prime minister (PM) has ever left his marks so much as Margaret Thatcher, who held longer office than every other PM before. However, the assumption that her almost twelve years lasting term of office could be taken as an indicator for her great popularity as great politician is not applicable at all. Indeed, the "Iron Lady" and her revolutionary economy and welfare policy, known as Thatcherism, polarised and still divide the minds of the British society. Whereas her supporters are prizing her policy as the basis of Britain's power and wealth for millions, her critics blame her to be responsible for the ruin of the social sector and the destruction of a social community sense.

This seminar paper is concerned with the controversial policy of Margaret Thatcher. For my work, I argue that "The policy of Thatcher has cemented the British class system rather than loosen it". As a theoretical background I will examine the British class system and define the term "class" itself. The main part is structured into three linked chapters dealing with the main features of Thatcher's era in order to reveal how Thatcher's policy affected the major classes in the UK: Working -, Middle - and Upper Class. Thereby, it will be illustrated and concluded in the final part of this work if Thatcher can be seen rather as an icon or rather as a hate figure for the UK and its classes. The entire work is embedded in a short portray of the social life in the UK before and after Thatcher's legislative period in order to compare the development objectively.

2. Definition and genesis of “social class" as a system

The term "social class" and its complex meaning have mainly been shaped by the famous German socialist economist and sociologist Karl Marx who regarded the "social class" as an inevitable consequence of a hierarchic social classification in capitalistic societies. Marx's understanding and definition of "class" is determined by the means of production in a society. This means that every member of a modern, capitalist society can be placed in certain collective groupings according to his relations to the means of production (Cannadine). Thereby the society is grouped into three fundamental, constitutive classes: the aristocracy that has land and unearned wealth as a means of production; the bourgeoisie that obtained its earned or unearned income from its means of production and the "proletarians" or working class, selling its labour to earn its income (Cannadine). Furthermore, Marx argued that the relation between these three classes is marked by a "class conflict" which is based on the unequal distribution of wealth and labour. Additionally, Marx claimed that these classes had no corporate identity, common sense of collectively or same shared values (Cannadine).

From today's perspective, the understanding and proportion of "social class" among modern societies have changed. Marx's perceptions of "social class" may still serve as a basis for social researches of hierarchical society systems, but need an extension of the term "class" in due consideration to social changes since the modern welfare state has been built (Abercrombie p. 110). By way of example, according to Marx's theory and perception, every individual who does not belong to the aristocracy or affluent capitalist upper class is automatically regarded as the "working class". Smaller subgroups or groups between the three classes found no attention in this approach of Class (Abercrombie p. 110). Since the social layer of the newly raised "middle class" represents the social majority in western societies, the term of "class" has to be shaped by more than property or means of production. Twenty years after Marx's theory of class, Max Weber, as another German sociologist, defined the term social class as "a person's economic position in a society", arising from one's personal skills, education and consequently his income and status (Stark).

Today, Karl Marx's perceptions as well as Max Weber's theory of stratification provide the two basic ideas for the modern understanding of the term "social class". The approach to combine both perceptions allows treating "social class" as social fragmentation rather than a unified social grouping. As a logical consequence of both, an inner-class specific differentiation becomes possible (Abercrombie p. 111). Thus, there are for instance great social and economic differences between skilled and unskilled workers among working class members. Even within the middle class, as a merging of different occupational groups with same standard of living, many differences can be found (Abercrombie p. 111). Consequently, today's public conception of the term "social class" is closely linked to an individual's occupation and its resulting market and work situation (Lockwood). Market situation refers to "the economic position [...] size of income, degree of job security and opportunity of upward mobility". Work situation compromises "the set of social relationships in which the individual is involved at work by virtue of his position in the division of labour [...]" (Lockwood in Abercrombie p. 111). According to an occupational structure approach there are three main social classes which can be characterized as follows:

Working class: - is the lowest social class, which is traditionally assigned to people who traditionally work as manual labourers in manufacturing or low service sector. The class is subdivided into unskilled or semi-skilled working class and skilled working class. The latter is characterised by a higher social status resulting from a better market and work situation through higher income and education (Abercrombie p. 169).

Middle Class: - is the so called diverse middle of the social class system, consisting of three graduations - lower -, middle - and upper middle class. Whereas employees such as office workers or service employees with relatively small incomes belong to the lower middle class, high professionals and affluent entrepreneurs with great property are considered as upper middle class (Abercrombie p. 185).

Upper class: - smallest but wealthiest part of class society which is distinguished by its great wealth, its property, its profound coherence and its power. It is the class with most prestige and highest level of occupy of powerful positions (Abercrombie p. 195).

2.1 The United Kingdom as a class society in course of history

The primal origin of the British class society traces back right up to the early Celtic era (400 BC). There are archaeological evidences which revealed at least four rigid social distinctions within the Celtic tribe structure (Marwick p. 74). The Roman conquest (440 AD) established a more sophisticated social hierarchy which has been taken over from the Anglo-Saxon "wergild" - a financial valuation about a person's life (Marwick p. 74). During the age of feudalism (900-1600), a land- and property-based social hierarchy was established, which meant the rise of a commercial understanding of "class". The terminology of "social class" within the meaning of "social rank" or "social order" has been spawned during the industrial revolution of the late 18th and 19th century. Under the impact of the industrial revolution and its profound political reforms, a new capitalistic society with diverse social groups came into existence. The labels "working", "middle" and "upper" first appeared in the 19th century as a way of classifying the sharp social differences that arose in Britain as effect of the industrial revolution. The arising social groups were more unified within themselves than ever before (Marwick p. 74). However, the difference between each class in regard to standard of living and influence differed extremely. The subject of "social class belonging" and the emerging importance of class as a social status has mainly been shaped during the Victorian age (1837-1901). Admittedly, the upper class's aristocracy as still wealthiest and most influential social class kept most of its prestige, but had to give way to an arising middle class gaining its power and economic income through their commerce. Simultaneously, the working class's living situation and position of influence did only change slowly until the first half of the 20th century (Marwick p.74).

After the Second World War the British class society experienced a great public and social change; including an expansion of higher education and home-ownership, a shift towards a services-dominated economy, mass immigration, a changing role for women and a more individualistic culture. These changes had a considerable impact on the social landscape and the existence of "social class" in Britain (Savage). "Social class" still received a significant function in the British society, but lost its importance in social interaction among different class members. At this time of the century, the class system lost some of its rigidity and even allowed social upward mobility for some parts of society (Savage).

After Margaret Thatcher's 1980s, which were determined by a divergent social development (see main part), John Mayor as newly elected Prime Minister announced: “We are all middle class now." This lead to a new and closer examination of the understanding of “social class". 1999, nine years late, Tony Blair even proclaimed the end of the long-lasting class conflict (Niedlitz-Hart p. 153).

On the 2nd April 2013 the magazine “Sociology" published the analysed results of the “Great British Class Survey” - a survey which researched the social structure of the United Kingdom by asking 160,000 people in the UK (86% England). Thereby, the term “class" as a multi-dimensional construct was defined and measured according to the amount and kind of economic - (income & property), cultural -(interests & activities), and social capital (friends & contacts) (BBC Lab UK). The survey revealed seven new classes which update the former classification of British society. There is a wealthy and influential "elite"; an “established middle class" and less socially-rooted new "technical middle class"; a class of “new affluent workers” - former working class members with middle class income; the “traditional working class"; and at the lower levels of the class structure, “emergent service workers” and “precariats" characterised by very low levels of capital and low, precarious economic security (BBC Lab UK).

Although the UK got rid of the most offensive trappings of a class society, class distinction in modern British life remain sharper than in every other country of Western Europe. Especially within the field of education and housing class belonging still matters. However to some extent, the aspect of class division has now been partly overlaid by the increasing importance of ethnicity, nation and even, with the rise of feminist movement, by gender (Marwick p. 75).



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Margaret Thatcher Thatcherism British Class Iron Lady British society




Title: Margaret Thatcher. Between Icon and Hate Figure