The pinched lips of eight cloned Margaret Thatchers smile unnaturally in unison, eyes fixed narrowly. Although a Thatcher far from her 1970s heyday, her rigid, manic expression is unchanged. Each portrait is almost identical, her manner performative, her gaze unflinching. Together they form a strange serial portrait of the woman responsible for changing Britain forever, and rubbishing the society she perversely claimed no longer existed. These images form part of Lisa Barnard’s project 32 Smith Square, arising out of her ongoing documentation of the former Conservative Central Office, commissioned by the building’s current architects Pringle Brandon. In August 2009 Barnard started photographing the building – unoccupied since the Tories left in 2004 – twice every month, so far producing five films’ worth of images. Some picture the building’s strange, decrepit corporate blue spaces, stained carpets and cracked plasterboard; others its surreal wasteland of diplomatic gifts, dishevelled election posters, rosettes and unblown balloons. But it is the portraits of Thatcher, unearthed in an old cupboard, that punctuate the other photographs: her purposeful smile and carefully choreographed image jarring with the shabby, redundant landscape around her. Her presence lurks everywhere behind the detritus of Smith Square, and reanimates its ghosts. Thatcher’s electoral campaign was, after all, plotted in these offices, and they provided the backdrop to her televised victory celebrations. Yet her iconic image exceeds this architectural setting, now synonymous as it is with the twisted moralities of the free market, the capricious exploits of buccaneer capitalism, privatisation and debtor economies. Barnard’s project offers an archaeology of the period of Thatcher’s reign from 1979 to 1990, and an autopsy of the theatre and props which helped direct and shape Tory campaigns as they led Britain into an age of banking, individualism and the free market that has defined politics and reconfigured culture since the 1960s. Barnard’s fascination with the found portraits hinges on their disturbing combination of beauty and terror. Re-photographing old official governmental images, and cropping out the various international dignitaries with whom Thatcher had originally posed, Barnard aptly exposes the photographs’ corrupted state; an ode to the impermanence and instability of colour photosensitive materials. Like Thatcher’s vision of politics, the portraits’ aged and slightly bleached surfaces are diluted and distorted in their present form. Deteriorating at different rates, the yellow, magenta and cyan dyes have reacted to time, humidity and damp, resembling the psychedelic chemical colour swirls of oil slicks. Their tones match the artificial dyed chestnut of Thatcher’s regimented bouffant hair. Her nacreous skin appears brittle, as shell-like and luminescent as the signature pearls clipped to her ears and strung around her throat. A yuppie’s Queen Elizabeth, styled by TV producer Gordon Reece (1978 director of publicity at Conservative Central Office), scripted by the playwright Ronald Miller (the once Hollywood movie man who coined the famous phrase ‘The lady’s not for turning’), and marketed by Saatchi ad men. Barnard’s project engages the tradition of photography’s discursive critique of politics and its always-mediated nature evident in Garry Winogrand’s photographs of JFK, or Paul Hosefros’ images of Ronald Reagan on closed-circuit TV. Barnard’s work also makes for an intriguing dialogue with the photography of Chris Killip, Graham Smith, John Davies, Paul Graham and Martin Parr, who all – in different ways – documented the contradictions, tensions and class politics that defined life under Thatcherism throughout the 1980s.1 However less straight social documentary, artistic documentary or satirical commentary, Barnard’s post-conceptual approach to photography, which often utilises a range of media, is as invested in the political project of realism as it is the in the ways photography and film can be used to access or undercut both collective and individual political imaginations and psychologies as they are produced both from above by the powers that be, or from below, from within different political communities. In Virtual Iraq (2008), this meant interrogating the use of virtual technology for the treatment of service men and women with post-traumatic stress disorder, while the photographs, interviews and texts in Polska Postcards (2009) documented and gave form to the lives and experiences of Polish people living in Eastbourne and Sussex. Like these earlier projects, 32 Smith Square seeks to negotiate the difficult places where politics, psychology, ethics and aesthetics meet, so as to ask how photography might illicit political action and agency. In this instance, this involves examining the relationship between the realities and imaginary projected fantasies of British politics past and present.
Stock Market Wizards, the End of British Industry
and the Rise of Corporate Politics
By the time Thatcher was elected on May 4th 1979, the nature of British politics and its relations to the financial sector were already in the process of being completely transformed. The postwar period had seen significant changes in Britain’s economy and its relation to global markets. Commonwealth countries negotiated new bilateral trade arrangements with local or regional powers. After a period of significant austerity and nationalisation, Britain’s economy shifted away from its manufacturing and industrial origins towards a service-sector economy. By the 1960s, power was increasingly being transferred from the old industrial families of the prewar period to the stock market, as low interest rates and market fluctuation facilitated the rise of conglomerates. One of the prominent figures responsible for this shift in power in the UK was the accountant and investor Jim Slater, who pioneered a hedge-fund style capitalism of hostile takeovers and asset stripping.From 1963-65, after approaching Nigel Lawson, the then editor of the Sunday Telegraph, Slater wrote a column under the pseudonym ‘Capitalist’ which predicted the value of shares, and soon became well known as someone who understood the stock market. In 1964, he and the young Tory MP Peter Walker founded an investment company called Slater Walker Securities. Through this firm, Slater became a major player in the UK, buying up all the shares in old family companies which had gone public in aggressive takeovers – which became known as corporate raids – and then stripping their assets, causing mass redundancies, and selling them to fund the next takeover. By 1969, Slater Walker had become a significant industrial and financial conglomerate, and evolved into an investment bank. Along with his close friend James Goldsmith, Slater and other members of the Clermont set met at John Aspinall’s exclusive gambling club in Mayfair – and whilst literally gambling with the future of Britain’s industry, applauded themselves as risk takers. Slater and his colleagues tore up old industries and opened them out to market forces. From shipbuilding to car companies, and electricity suppliers, thousands of workers were put on the dole. They were seen as the necessary casualities en route to a new kind of global economy, which prioritised the profits of shareholders and traders above all else. No longer concerned with national interests, the asset-strippers ushered in a new period in British history where the UK economy was based on the whims and fancies of the global market. This story should have been concluded in 2008, when the speculative, profit-driven, debt-based bubble finally burst, and we witnessed the financial meltdown which is still with us today – but instead it has facilitated the furthest step yet in the transfer of public wealth into private hands.
Like the management consultancy firms of the 1980s and 1990s, the asset-strippers of the late 1960s and 1970s were seen as the saviours of British industry, and perceived as having magical powers to restructure firms, making them more profitable and productive. Yet there was rarely any real
increase in productivity and the only serious profits made were from selling the companies. As more and more assets were fed into the stock market, the tycoons, not the politicians, gained control of the economy. Slater donated thousands of pounds to the Tory party and was soon acting as an unofficial advisor to Edward Heath’s government, whilst his former partner Walker became a cabinet minister. A new relationship between politicians and the private sector emerged, one that encouraged corruption, fraud, and a culture of personal interests and vendettas. By 1973, ruthless asset stripping had led to a rapid increase in inflation. Because wages were being kept down, there were violent strikes. forcing Heath to put a freeze on wages, which led to prices and profits dropping, a share prices slump, and started a panic in tycoons, who sold off all of their companies. With the Israeli-Arab War in October, and the resulting escalation in oil prices, both the politicians and the asset-strippers realised that they actually had little control over the global economy. With the miners’ strike of 1974, Heath was forced to introduce the Three-day Week (which saw commercial users of electricity limited to three specified consecutive days’ consumption each week, and prohibited television companies from broadcasting after 10.30pm). The Tories lost the 1974 election and conceded power to a minority Labour government under Harold Wilson. In 1975, Thatcher defeated Heath in the party leadership election. During a further banking crisis in 1975, Slater declared bankruptcy and turned to producing children’s books. Following the takeover of the company by the Bank of England, 15 charges were brought against Slater due to the alleged the misuse of over £4,000,000 of company funds in share deals. The case was thrown out in 1977. In 1979, Thatcher was elected Prime Minister.
The Iron Lady, Asset-Stripped Bare
Perversely, Thatcher thought that Heath had failed because he had attempted to control the economy too much, not too little. Influenced by figures such as the Austrian-born economist Friedrich Hayek, who had advocated ‘Free Banking’ and the denationalisation of money in the 1970s, and Milton Friedman, Reagan’s economic adviser, champion of the free market, and chief opponent of John Maynard Keynes’ commitment to big government and state involvement in economics, Thatcher embraced total deregulation. She granted unprecedented power to the City, putting the future of Britain in the hands of a global free market, which was never within the government’s control. Her election promises included a pledge to break union power – which came to a head with the miners’ strike in 1984. Following the tragic defeat of the miners, and Thatcher’s ideological victory, strike action in Britain flatlined after 1989. State-owned industries were privatised, and the wealthy rushed to buy shares. In the beginning, privatisation of already profitable public utilities and organisations was undertaken by the Tories to raise revenues and bring down public-sector borrowing. By the 1980s, Thatcher had embraced privatisation as her primary policy, arguing that opening up business to the free market would make them more efficient and productive, and give British capitalism the competitive edge in Europe and the global economy. Thus, the government sold off Jaguar, British Telecom, the remainder of Cable & Wireless and British Aerospace, Britoil and British Gas.3 Following Thatcher’s third victory in 1987, British Steel, British Petroleum, Rolls Royce, British Airways, and public water and electricity companies were also put up for sale.4 Thatcher’s reign was built upon a reckless post- nationalist faith in the global free market, enterprise culture and competition, as well as a reactionary belief in Great Britain’s imperial past. The various tatty pamphlets, brochures and balloons which Barnard has photographed in isolation, like evidence found at a crime scene, picture these Thatcherist years, and announce the slogans that defined the Tories vision in throughout the 1980s, but many, such as ‘Do you believe in Britain?’ now read quite differently.
Thatcherism had brought about a newly volatile and dangerous relationship between government and monied powers. In the political climate, MPs increasingly rendered powerless in relation to the City sought personal gain and profit with corporate positions and memberships. By the end of the 1980s, politics, like everything else, had been turned into a business. Yet Thatcher’s proposed ‘poll tax’ of 1989 – a tax built on individualism, and to benefit the rich, as everybody paid the same despite their earnings – was the final straw for much of the population. In 1990, riots broke out around the country, which were particularly vehement in the North of England, Scotland and London – the latter saw 2500 to 3000 people gathered in Trafalgar Square on March 31st, with 340 arrested and 113 injured. Thatcher had lost touch with reality, and resigned in November that year. Her successor, John Major, immediately announced the abolition of the tax. Thatcher’s reign has since been romanticised and mythologised by those on the right and the many faithful converts to neoliberal capitalism. Yet, during the Thatcherist years, unemployment climbed to its highest since WWII, as the UK’s manufacturing and coal production rapidly declined, Champagne and luxury-goods imports increased dramatically. Council house sales and mortgages rocketed, house prices soared – but so did interest rates and mortgage repayments – and, whilst the disposable income of the poorest flatlined, that of the richest rose dramatically.
In Barnard’s corrupted portraits of Thatcher, the warped form of each photograph creeps up Thatcher’s body, transforming the appliquéd blue fabric of her jacket into that of a velvet dressing gown. Thatcher is ageing, suffering from dementia, being domesticated right in front of us. Yet Barnard’s timely project makes it explicitly clear that the lady is still not for turning. In 2010, we ushered in a blue Britain once again. This time around, the Tory Central Office where David Cameron’s Conservative-led Coalition celebrated their ‘victory’ was the same Millbank Tower where Tony Blair saw in his 1997 triumph. Indeed, although Barnard’s project might appear to document the end and aftermath of a certain kind of British politics, it makes the explicit point that Thatcher’s warped ideology lives on, and the past continues to shape the future. Just as Thatcher’s portraits provide the magnetic and psychological pull – the personification of an aggressive political fantasy – which draws together the spaces and objects photographed by Barnard, her personality and policies continue to be re-engaged in contemporary politics. In the 2005 leadership election, all five of the nominated candidates – Cameron, David Davis, Ken Clarke, Liam Fox and Sir Malcolm Rifkind – mentioned her by name or invoked her memory in their campaign speeches. Further, the current Coalition’s lack of ideological confidence was clear in Cameron’s recent insistence that he is no less driven than Lady Thatcher was to achieve ‘massive radical and structural reforms’.5 In fact, although Cameron’s new Coalition might appear too distanced from Thatcherism for the old guard, the ideologies she championed live on in their rampant and senseless privatisation and ceaseless outsourcing of formerly public interests (from the probation service, roads, fire service, and now the police). Thatcherism emerges in their current plans to dismantle the NHS and remodel it as a global profit-making franchise; in the establishment of free schools and academies; in the ‘big society’ (a legislative programme designed to ‘empower’ local people and communities and take power away from politicians, but which in reality means an unethical pursuit of entrepreneurial culture and the withdrawal of the state in its responsibilities to the most vulnerable); and in the maintenaning of City bonuses, even after the State had to step in with the nationalisation of the failed banks. In their continuation of the Thatcherist project, the government have simply fraudulently rebranded the crisis of global capitalism – caused by the continued transfer of wealth upwards from public to private and what David Harvey has termed “accumulation by dispossession” – as a crisis of public sector spending. The ongoing transformation of British society by deregulated finance, privatisation and individualism is even more hideous than Thatcher could have ever dreamt of. Yet dementia prevents her from seeing the culture of destruction and corruption she helped bring about.
The relevance of a project which asks us to dig over the remains of Thatcher’s Conservatism is profoundly clear today, in the aftermath of the most serious global financial crisis since the 1929 Wall Street Crash; after last year’s summer riots and looting exploded around the country, with televised images of suburban London burning; with the global spread of the Occupy movement; and with the recent eviction of protestors from St Paul’s where they had been for four months, having been diverted from their original target of the London Stock Exchange. Barnard’s archaeology of Thatcherism is so pertinent in such times, because it asks us not only to assess the impact of Thatcherism on the present, but also to contemplate the processes of political memory and the construction of political identification and fantasy. Thatcher looked into the past and sought to project it into the future, but her version of the past, however – the once ‘great’ Empire also sought by Churchill – was a skewed and selective version of British history.
It was a vision that played a fundamental part in her election. It also framed her foreign policy, particularly in relation to Northern Ireland and the Falklands, and was consequently crucial for her re-election. Under the slogan ‘Britain is going backwards’, the Saatchis’ 1978 political broadcast for the Tories showed black-and-white film of Stephenson’s Rocket steaming backwards, jetliners landing in reverse, and Big Ben’s hands winding anticlockwise. Walter Benjamin argued that not all nostalgia is reactionary. He believed that with the benefit of hindsight we have the possibility to make more sense of the past than we could hope to at the time of its unfolding.6 As Terry Eagleton reminds us, Benjamin believed that how we act in the present has the potential to change the meaning of the past, in the sense that the past doesn’t literally exist (any more than the future), and only lives on in its consequences, which are a crucial part of it.7 More than this, Benjamin claimed that with this privilege comes the power to correct the future. Barnard’s 32 Smith Square brings the past into the present, and asks us what we have learnt from our position of hindsight. What we should have learnt is that Thatcherism was built upon a reckless and often illogical commitment to privatisation that didn’t result in increased productivity. Instead it produced short-term financial gain, social disintegration and despair. Given the fact that the production of popular history is now in the hands of an increasingly privatised and reactionary mass media – who for the most part support the hegemonic neoliberal vision of the past and future, which has affectively resulted in an unprecedented privatisation of history – the lesson of Barnard’s work is profound, and one well known by Benjamin: that true power means sovereignty over what has already happened, not simply the capacity to determine what happens next.
Entirely in keeping with the often unbelievable and absurd detailswhich shape the nightmare story of Britain’s brutal transformation under deregulation and the free market, the sale of 32 Smith Square in 2007 – brokered by Christopher Moran, who made his millions on the stock market in the 1980s – netted the Tories £30.5m. However, although senior Tory sources said the cash would allow the party to be debt-free for the first time in a decade, figures from the Electoral Commission revealed that the Tories owed nearly £20m in loans, and had arranged for a £15.6m overdraft to buy another neighbouring freehold necessary to seal the sale. Getting rid of their former HQ still enabled the Conservative Party to pay off debts estimated at around £14-20m, and put them in a stronger financial position than the other major parties leading up to the 2010 election. But because it was sold via the purchase of a mysterious holding company based in the British Virgin Islands, the British taxpayer did not benefit from the stamp duty.
Welcome to Chateau Despair… Do you believe in Britain?
1 The work of these photographers was shown in the 1990 exhibition British Photography from the Thatcher Years, organised by Susan Kismaric at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Kismaric’s exhibition appears radically political in the present climate, given the privatisation of culture and the corporate encroachment of the art world which has led to the rise of saccharine apolitical blockbusters. One New York reviewer proclaimed that the photographers ‘roll out acidic remarks on class, social consciousness, and the devastations of industry from a decade dominated by Thatcher conservatism’. See Kay Larson, ‘The Woman in Question’, New York magazine, March 4th, 1991, p. 78.
2 This shift in power from government to the financiers and tycoons in the City is brilliantly examined by Adam Curtis’ four-part documentary series The Mayfair Set, 1999, while the making of Thatcher’s political persona is explored in his earlier The Living Dead (Part 3, the Attic) 1995.
3 On privatisation under Thatcher, see Harvey Feigenbaum, Jeffrey Henig and Chris Hamnett, Shrinking the State: The Political Underpinnings of Privatization, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1998, and Richard Seymour’s ‘A Short History of Privatisation in the UK: 1979-2012’, March 29th 2012, http://www.guardian.co.uk/ commentisfree/2012/mar/29/short-history-of-privatisation.
4 Andrew Marr, A History of Modern Britain, Pan, London, 2007, p. 428.
5 See Patrick Wintour, ‘David Cameron says he is driven like Margaret Thatcher’, The Observer, May 20th, 2012, http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2012/may/20/david-cameron-driven-like-margaret-thatcher.
6 See Walter Benjamin, One Way Street and Other Writings, trans. Edmund Jephcott and Kingsley Shorter, Verso, London, 1979.
7 See Terry Eagleton, Walter Benjamin: or Towards a Revolutionary Criticism, Verso, London, 1981.