Margaret Thatcher’s absolutist neoliberalism had a particular effect on Liverpool. Its reputation diminished, community on the verge of collapse, Liverpool was a city emasculated. Industries disappeared, and with them the hope of those whose livelihoods depended on them. A generation and a world away, the echo of Thatcher’s Liverpool can be heard in Adelaide’s northern suburbs.
Sir Geoffrey Howe was Thatcher’s longest-serving minister. A kindred spirit and respected voice in Thatcher’s all-male cabinet, Howe in 1981 wrote to his prime minister, advocating a “managed decline” for Liverpool. According to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, to spend finite resources to support the “concentration of hopelessness” would be akin to “pushing water uphill”. Neoliberalism is unsentimental.
Thatcher’s views were shared by many in the Abbott Government. His cabinet was sworn in on September 18, 2013. When compared to Thatcher’s cabinet, Abbott’s boasted superior female representation (one), but many of its members were similarly inclined to free-market fundamentalism and were disdainful towards unions. Joe Hockey, as treasurer, was antagonistic towards General Motors Holden, even though the company was widely acknowledged as the glue that held together the communities of Adelaide’s north.
The region that roughly sits within the boundaries of the City of Playford, named after former premier Sir Thomas Playford, is responsible for developing the automotive manufacturing sector. Playford was a planned industrial region that was an outstanding success until the 1970s when the tendency towards deindustrialisation began. This gradual decline went into free-fall in 2014 when the Abbott Government removed support and rejected the company’s offer of public-private partnership.
The people of the northern suburbs of Adelaide were suddenly asked to push water uphill, alone.
Prime Minister Abbott conceded it was a dark day when GM Holden announced its intention to leave, but insisted there were better days ahead. Australia would “build on the strengths we have… which will offer hope to the people of the regions impacted”. Far from a managed decline, the government of the day hoped solutions would be found in the same concept responsible for the existential threat faced by the community: neoliberalism.
The futures of many were placed in a fantasy that ignores precedent and existing realities. According to this fantasy, the market will restore balance; new industries will emerge, bringing employment to those whose work in declining sectors was made redundant. The lives of people reliant on the automotive manufacturing sector were placed in the wolf’s mouth. If concerted efforts by the State Government have softened the blow and, at 5.6 per cent, unemployment in March 2018 was third lowest of the states, there remain dark nights ahead.
When the working class of Liverpool felt marginalised by policy settings consciously designed to bring about their decline, there remained institutions through which their solidarity could be expressed. Unions remained strong, with 13 million members when Thatcher was first elected prime minister in 1979 (membership has since halved). Liverpool Football Club was a prominent institution through which the community could express resistance to a government it believed antithetical to their identity and hopes for the future.
Liverpool has yet to recover from the sustained attacks of the Thatcher Government. The community of Playford was similarly underpinned by a major economic institution, and the loss of General Motors Holden has in turn put significant strain on social institutions. It is critical that political parties, unions, prominent institutions, even sporting clubs, offer light at the end of what appears to be a very long tunnel.