The Rise of Margaret Thatcher and the Fall of Sunshine Desserts

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THE FALL AND RISE of Reginald Perrin a novel by the British writer, David Nobbs, was published in 1975. A year later it was adapted for television and became a BBC sitcom starring Leonard Rossiter. Three series of the wildly popular programme were produced, the last of them screening in 1979.

What made TFARORP so popular was its satirical portrayal of the lives of middle-class middle-managers in 1970s Britain. Perrin’s eccentric personality is the product of Britain’s thoroughly domesticated post-war capitalism. Life at Sunshine Desserts is so utterly devoid of challenge or meaning that to compensate Perrin loses himself in his own, increasingly bizarre, inner life. Eventually, he becomes so desperate that he “disappears” himself and returns, incognito, to Climthorpe as someone entirely new.

Interestingly, TFARORP ‘s run as a popular cultural artefact coincided almost exactly with the four years Margaret Thatcher spent as Leader of the British Opposition. She was elected to replace the hapless Conservative Party leader, Edward Heath, in 1975 and became Prime Minister in May of 1979.

No one hated the absurd and ineffectual Britain satirised by David Nobbs more fiercely than Margaret Thatcher. The Britain of nationalised railways that never ran on time; the Britain of shop-stewards, strikes and shoddy workmanship; the Britain run by pompous ignoramuses like “CJ” – Reggie Perrin’s insufferable boss.

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Labour’s Britain.

Thatcher empathised with Britain’s Reginald Perrins because, in many ways she was one of them. A grocer’s daughter from Grantham: the intelligent, ambitious product of England’s abstemious and hard-working lower-middle-class.

Thatcher was always acutely aware of the distance separating her own from the other classes of Britain. Not for her the coarse collectivism and strong-armed solidarity of the British working-class. Nor was she ever much impressed by the snobbish gentility of the professional middle class. For inherited wealth and the aristocratic illusions it fostered she had nothing but contempt. The qualities Thatcher most respected were hard work and enterprise. As far as she was concerned it wasn’t the meek, but the industrious, who should inherit the earth.

Like Perrin, Thatcher wanted a new beginning. But for her personal re-invention was not enough; resurrection needed to be on a national scale. The ridiculous Britain of Sunshine Desserts, with its union-dominated shop-floor, it’s incompetent CEO and its grossly under-utilised and poorly rewarded middle managers would have to fall. So that, in its place, a new, striving, energetic, innovative, productive and above all, disciplined, Britain – could rise.

And discipline came only from the market. Thatcher was, after all, a grocer’s daughter. Buying and selling was a skill individuals either possessed, and prospered; or lacked, and fell into the black hole of poverty.

Thatcher’s world contained only two categories: market-literate wheat and market-illiterate chaff. And the best way to sort them out was to toss them up into the air over and over again until the chaff was carried away by the wind and only the wheat remained.

It is fitting that TFARORP came to an end in 1979. Nobbs’s characters had mocked Labour’s Britain and made fun its many shortcomings. But the humour was always affectionate and forgiving – a celebration of the Heath Robinson implausibility of so many British institutions.

In Thatcher’s eyes, however, that was the problem. She despised her compatriots’ almost infinite capacity to “make do” with what they were given. The nation had fallen into bad habits. The British people had forgotten they once inhabited a place called “Great” Britain. Tragically, seduced by Labour’s socialists, they’d rejected their glorious past – and had chosen, instead, the expensive comforters of the character-sapping Welfare State.

That was going to change.

Because, as things turned out, the laughter prompted by TFARORP had always possessed a bitter edge. Millions of Britain’s upwardly-mobile, lower-middle-class, middle-managers shared Thatcher’s impatience with both the born-to-rule complacency of their superiors and the dangerously inflated expectations of their inferiors.

At the gates of the Eighties, the Conservative Party’s first female leader found herself joined by an angry army of feral Reggie Perrins.

They just couldn’t wait to burn their own, unbearable, personal versions of Sunshine Desserts right down to the ground – and erect in their place a Britain fit for the heroine of middle-managers everywhere to live in.

20 COMMENTS

  1. I am reminded of Napolean Bonaparte who stated England was a nation of shop keepers. He meant it as an insult. We all know what that nation of shop keepers did to his empire of new men.

    • Always one – who said it was a socialist paradise? Always like financial history, not pushing neo-liberalism or nothing – is it? Inflation at 5%, bloody luxury that is – At least you could save to buy a home when 5%. What is it now – and if you give the official rate your just lying to yourself. The free-market is a lie, built on lies and impeded by it’s own lies. Thatcher was the biggest and best liar of them all. Good riddance to lazy thinking, I say. Nice article Chris, enjoyable read.

      • Ummmmm… sorry mate bit of a fail there on your part. You look to have misread the 5% figure as inflation when it was about pay being capped at that much of an increase. Inflation was around the 15% mark. That meant workers effective earnings were falling by about 10%. Still, so long as they could save for a home eh? Strangely less people had their own home then than at the end of the Thatcher era.

    • Who said such a thing as a “socialist paradise” existed?

      That’s akin to me calling Somalia a Libertarian Nirvana. Would you agree with that,Gosman? If not, why not?

      • I think you have failed to grasp the point I am making.

        The UK prior to 1979 was an economic mess. Inflation was rampant, production was down and inefficient, days lost to strikes was at historical highs.

        In short the country was facing conditions caused by the failure of left wing policies. That is what I mean by it was not a Socialist paradise. I’m not stating anybody claimed it was.

        Interestingly the problems of the UK in 1979 seem similar to France now. However the French are taking a more left wing approach. Do you know how that is going for them ?

        • The UK is presently forecast to narrowly avoid a triple dip recession, but the economy is very much stagnant. Would you say the modern economy isn’t a mess?

          • Nope. A country entering a recession is pretty standard. A country with funds.mental structural problems lime France is another matter entirely.

            Given they are already following standard mainstream left wing prescriptions, including increasing taxes on the wealthy, what other policies would you recommend they follow give their failure to make a difference to date?

          • The low and precarious growth, along with other major problems (present and forecast) suggests the global economy is far from stable and possibly teetering on the precipice. But I have to agree with you, standard left-wing economic prescriptions are rather unlikely to deliver results – largely based on the influence, extent and penetration of neoliberal orthodoxy globally. The reduction of state influence in the market over the decades has effectively meant any intervention is unwelcome and precarious. Trouble in my opinion is that over the years the state has been eviscerated to a point where it’s toothless along with democracy and the government a puppet to corporate and wealthy interests.

            Proponents of neoliberalism may constantly refer to economic indicators, but remain indifferent to human values. For the many disadvantaged from the skew of redistributed wealth over the decades, they remain in a static scrap heap with little opportunity of advancing or possibly retaining a dignified existence.

            The only possibility of a benevolent left-wing economy of wealth distribution existing today is through a state with strategic resources and the ability to extract and exploit them, as well as genuine majority support from the population. The “Petro-socialism” of Venezuela comes to mind. But even then it’s a pariah state with the system teetering on the precipice of collapse through global market influenced intrigue.

            Continued indifference to those disadvantaged and the swelling of their ranks potentially pose a threat to the current status quo and those at the top of the hierarchy. Improving their predicament is overlooked, managing them the norm. Anyway, usually throughout history many revolutions are the result of those with wealth and power backing various groups to use them for their own ends. Then with a global economy with a wealth creation agenda in hyper-drive, exploiting and depleting the Earth’s natural resources opens up the possibility of dooming us all.

            To conclude my rant, I basically think the situation is such a mess that snowballed over time, neoliberalism no saviour. With regards to human nature, I have no faith any of the major problems will be resolved without catastrophic events preceding. Further advancing towards the extreme ideological ends will never bode well, a more considered, inclusive and compromising position is needed – whatever that is.

        • The UK prior to 1979 was an economic mess. Inflation was rampant, production was down and inefficient, days lost to strikes was at historical highs.

          Compared to these days; unemployment is rampant; production has been transferred to low-wage societies; fewer strikes – but more companies collapsing.

          On top of which, the top 1% are getting richer; poverty is increasing; society is more materialistic and Individual-oriented.

          The neo-liberal experiment is as much a failure as Soviet central planning. When economic models/dogma takes priority over the needs of individuals and communities, the resulting imbalance will create dire social and economic consequences.

          Eventually, Gosman, you’ll get this.

          However the French are taking a more left wing approach. Do you know how that is going for them ?

          No idea. Haven’t been looking.

          • Of course you haven’t. You seem to only look at overseas examples that you think match your preconceived world view. Might I suggest you widen your exposure?

  2. Who ever said the UK was a socialist paradise pre-Thatcher? Or ever, whence comes to that?

    But Thatcher was a monetarist like Ronald Reagan, and Kiwiland’s own Roger Douglas and Ruth Richardson, and many others world wide, who presided over the evisceration of the productive sectors in their own countries. These people were advised by Neo-Classical Economic soi-disant ‘Theory’ that had and has absolutely no relationship to what happens in the real world. The ripple effects of their incompetent bull-in-a-china-shop policy (if we can call it it ‘policy’ with a straight face) remain with us today. Those ripple effects are global in impact because the damage was global.

    It is Thatcher’s adoption of Milton Friedmanite Economic crackpottery that leads me to wonder how competent she was (or would have been) running a shop. I don’t believe she ever actually did, beyond minding the counter for her dad.

    We forget, too, that the Falkland War saved her political bacon when it looked for all the world that she was going to be a one-term Prime Minister, and Labour would be swept back into office. She must have gone down on her knees in humble gratitude to the God that induced the Argentine Government to act in such a precipitate manner at the time they did. For it was that brought her back from the brink of the oblivion she richly deserved.

    I find that I can conjure within myself not a shred of respect for Margaret Thatcher as a statesperson, as a politician nor as a human being. That wasn’t leadership we were watching. That was dictatorship.

  3. to paraphrase C.J; “we didn’t get we are today by selling ice-cream tasting of bookends, pumice stone and West Germany…” or, did we.
    Tip Top Chris. (just a little “symbolic interactional, dramaturgical analysis seeing Erv presents elsewhere.)

  4. Another satire of Britain was “The Prisoner”, with Patrick McGoohan. Reviewing the series, it could be seen as an Ayn Randian struggle of the Individual against the State. At the weird conclusion of the series, Number 6 discovers who Number One really is; we are all Number One.

    At the time (and since), no one got it.

    Now, with the Cult of the Individual, it’s blatantly obvious what that meant; we are Number One, and devil take the hindmost.

  5. I can remember watching repeats of TFARORP years ago as a youngster. A series of episodes as I understand or can remember them was when Perrin, set up/worked in, a shop called “Grot” selling useless nonsensical goods, eventually “Grot” becomes a successful expansive corporation. That story parallels very much today’s consumer culture. Factories and companies in China producing some of the cheapest products (both in quality and price) that deserve to be called rubbish, many customers buying it and the CEOs billionaires.

    I always enjoyed the comedy of that era; entertaining, witty and intelligent. Too bad the modern system and media industry seldom delivers anything that can match it.

    • I am disinclined to rubbish Chinese stuff. Having ‘bought Chinese’ in my own spheres of interest I have on the whole been impressed with the quality.

      Recall that Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea went through a phase of ‘cheap and nasty’ as they developed their industries producing consumer goods. China bids fair (so far) to abbreviate that phase, methinks…

      It is my belief, too, that the U.S. Economy’s balls are now warmly nestling in China’s fist. Sooner or later, when the time is right, China will squeeze…

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