Millennials having no stake in capitalism

millennials capitalism

Though I was no fan of Margaret Thatcher back in the 1980s, one thing she understood was that people needed to believe capitalism was THEIR system. So, she set out to give people a stake in the system. Today, in sharp contrast, millennials seem to have almost no stake whatsoever in capitalism. And guess where that leads? Yep, disaffection with the aforementioned capitalism.

Thatcher wanted to end the ‘mixed’ economy of post-war Britain. That’s where the state owned vast swathes of the economy including energy, telecoms, utilities and transport. She presented the sale of state assets as something liberating, a chance for the public to own a slice of the economy. Some people would have said that they already did through state ownership. But Thatcher wanted people to have shares – and believe in financial capitalism.

The Wider Share Ownership Council was set up to “create a nation of well-informed capitalists, enfranchised in the economic life of the country and supportive of a free-market system”. It didn’t matter that as industries were privatised, wealth inequality actually grew despite the increasing number of shareholders. And many held the shares more like Premium Bonds than equities. They didn’t go on to develop sophisticated stock market portfolios as Thatcher might have hoped. But many Britons bought into the myth of ‘popular capitalism’. And I suppose that’s all that mattered.

I was a financial journalist in the 1990s and people in the City privately mocked or pitied those members of the public who did try to play the markets. Lambs to the slaughter was the usual analogy. At the end of the so-called ‘dot-com boom’ around 2001, there was a 90% club of shareholders who had lost that percentage on the average share in their portfolio. Same thing happened in 2007/8. Private investors got fried every time. Institutional investors bailed out way before.

Millennials and post-millennials don’t tend to have share portfolios – not the ones I know anyway – and neither have they bought their own council house. Because those were sold decades ago in another of Thatcher’s popular capitalism moves. And many can’t afford or don’t want to take out a mortgage. Even if they tried, they’d probably be turned down. So no stake for millennials in the property or equity market.

And now, post-Covid, many millennials have a further reduced stake in capitalism on account of having no job. Young people who thought being a gym trainer or working in the ever expanding hospitality sector was a career for life have been cruelly disabused. Some have even resorted to back-breaking labour on farms to make ends meet.

And pity the poor ‘strategist’ or ‘creative’ – who now finds capitalism doesn’t need their strategic insight or creative flair. In recent years, I’ve met so many people claiming to be strategists that I call myself a ‘tactician’ with pride.

The dream, or nightmare, or myth of popular capitalism has definitely crashed and burned. There is no 1980s privatisation giveaway. There’s no keys to your own home. And now it’s a P45 and good luck for the future. So when I hear some people wondering why capitalism is in the dock – well ask yourself: what stake do millennials have in the system? And then the answer should be clear to you.

Margaret Thatcher – memories of the Poll Tax demo

(This blog post includes some great photos of the 1990 Poll Tax demo taken by an old friend of mine – mostly at the end)

I was 16 in 1979 when Thatcher was elected Prime Minister. I then experienced an eleven-year bad dream from which I woke up in 1990 as she departed. Her reign – and I think it deserves to be called that – seemed like a play in three acts.

Photo taken by a friend during the 1990 Poll Tax riot

There was the years of crisis in her first term from 1979 to 1983. In the steep economic recession from 79 to 81, even The Economist (not an enemy of Thatcher by any means) thought there could be a Labour government by 1983. Within her own party, disgruntled “wets” (the old aristocratic one-nation wing of the Tories) conspired feverishly to oust her.

Then along came the Falklands war with Argentina and an end to the recession – plus the Labour Party was in a mess with an unconvincing leader. Even though the Tories were losing local councils and didn’t enjoy majority support among the public, they won enough votes to sail to victory in 1983.

And so comes the middle act of the Thatcher play. Confident enough to provoke the miners into a year-long strike, which she won largely through divisions on the trade union side. Thatcher, it must be said, was lucky in her enemies.

The 1986 Westland Affair was a case in point. Westland Helicopters was the last UK manufacturer of helicopters. The Defence minister Michael Heseltine wanted to ensure its future by integrating the company into a European consortium. Thatcher, never very pro-European, was quite happy for it to be snapped up by an American rival, Sikorsky.

The ensuing bust-up between her and Heseltine nearly brought the government down. Again, luck intervened. Even though Heseltine resigned his post and stormed out of Number 10 (the prime minister’s residence), the Labour leader – Neil Kinnock – failed to deliver the killer blow in the House of Commons. And so on she went.

I remember her third election victory in 1987. Some pundits were predicting a slimmer majority. But I’d been canvassing for the Labour Party and knew she was set for a thumping majority. So – with a heavy heart – I placed a £3 bet at the bookies on her getting a 97 to 102 majority at odds of 22/1.

And sure enough, she got a 102 set majority and I picked up £66. I suppose that’s almost shorting your own side but I was thoroughly disillusioned by that stage. Any comfort was welcome!

The last act of this tragedy I saw as her descent into madness. Her language and appearance became so imperious that it was mocked on the very popular Spitting Image satire show. And then she decided to implement the Poll Tax – replacing a property based local tax with one on every citizen. Like all her tax changes – it redistributed wealth upwards – and was as popular as a lead balloon.

Spitting Image – satire of Margaret Thatcher

Many resisted paying the tax. I freelanced an article to The Guardian at the time about how people were being chased for the tax and the threat of back payments being taken from pension savings.

In March 1990, I went with a journalist friend on a poll tax demonstration in Trafalgar Square. There was a march feeding into the square from Whitehall but no sign of trouble. That was until the riot police and small groups of anarchists decided to do what they’d really set their hearts on doing all along – having a massive bust up.

While Labour Party and trade union speakers addressed the crowd, the first missiles soared overhead. And in a short period of time, we found ourselves in a scene of total chaos.

Police tactics involved kettling us into the square while the rioters set light to a nearby building being renovated and threw pieces of kerbstone. Then riot police on horseback charged past the South African embassy trampling somebody underfoot. We huddled on the steps of St Martin’s church wondering what the hell to do next. What became clear was that the many thousands of us were now regarded as de facto criminals.

Somehow, eventually, we ran into a restaurant where the customers were huddled against the back wall. An American women shrieked: “Sterling is ruined after this”. Not really a huge concern at the time, I must admit. And then a stroppy waiter insisted we buy a meal!!

And so – in one of the more surreal moments of my life – I ended up eating spaghetti bolognese at a first floor window of the restaurant watching rioters overturn an Aston Martin on St Martin’s Lane. And all the way up the road, looters smashed shop windows including Macari’s instruments.

I later heard somebody was arrested on Regent Street with a brand new saxophone!

Royal Wedding and a Riot – flavour of 1981

In the summer of 1981, I got a place at Liverpool University. In July of the same year, the Toxteth district of that city exploded in riots over unemployment and a breakdown in community-policy relations. At the same time – Prince Charles married Princes Diana in front of three generations of the Royal Family.

The front page of the newspaper featured here sums up the mad contradictions of that long hot summer. Britain was convulsed with rioting in every major city – particularly Liverpool and London. While at the same time, millions tuned in to the “fairy tale” wedding of Charles and Diana – which ended up being more of a horror story.

This was the massively divided Britain of the early 80s. Half the country north of the Watford gap took the brunt of a two-year economic recession that decimated manufacturing industry. While the south-east – I think it’s fair to say – coasted through. At least that was the impression I got at the time.

Something snapped that summer. Youth jobless rates had gone through the roof. The government was bent on a monetarist economic policy that had turned a recession into a disaster. And there’s no getting away from the polarising affect that Margaret Thatcher had on people. She was either idolised or vilified. There really wasn’t much by way of a middle ground.

What this newspaper front page reports is the sole death that occurred during the Liverpool riots – in the Toxteth area of the city. It’s a very sad story. A disabled guy, David Moore, unwisely decided to take a closer look at the rioting near where he lived and was crushed under the wheels of a police van.

As Charles and Diana said “I do”, David died in hospital.

When I turned up to university, I was totally unaware that my halls of residence had just been used as a police dormitory for officers drafted in from all over the country to quell Toxteth. I only found that out years later.

Power cuts in the 1970s – my experience

The recent Coronavirus lockdown in many countries will have come as an unpleasant shock to millions of people – especially the young. To have bars, clubs, shops and meeting places closed by order of the government must seem very disturbing. But to us Boomers, there’s a ring of the familiar. And here’s why…

Because in the early 1970s we endured regular government authorised power cuts. This was a measure in the United Kingdom by the Conservative government of prime minister Edward Heath. He was locked in battle with the National Union of Mineworkers – an episode dramatised in the Netflix series, The Queen.

In order to conserve coal stocks and face the miners down, Heath ordered that energy consumption needed to be reduced. To achieve this – at a time when coal-fired stations provided most of our energy – he demanded that at certain times of the day, the lights should go out.

And I wrote about this in my Holiday Diary in 1972 (aged 8 or 9) – a journal we were ordered to keep by our teacher at school. Amusing to read how my piano lessons were cancelled (oh the horror!); the local swimming pool was freezing and we couldn’t go to Sunday school.

The latter was a particular relief – not being browbeaten by nuns in order to get my First Communion. Because I went to a state school – or “Protestant” school as our local parish priest called it – I had to endure an hour of the Sisters of Mercy (inappropriately named) every week. Thankfully, they couldn’t bully us without the lights on for some reason.

Then there were all the TV shows I had to miss. A serialisation of Ann of Green Gables – which clearly had me hooked. But mercifully, they still managed to screen the Cliff Richard Show with the UK’s Eurovision Song Contest entry for 1972 – The New Seekers singing Beg, Steal or Borrow. We lost that year.

What I don’t mention in the diary below is going to the local library and the whole place being illuminated by candlelight. Could you even imagine that being allowed now? Rows of highly combustible material with candles flickering on the shelves alongside. Different time.