Within Thatcher’s legacy of a help-yourself culture with “no such thing as society”, there is little room for play policy. This aspect of Thatcherism is alive and well in today’s government and speaking out, writes Adrian Voce, is the only rational response.
The death of Baroness Thatcher has given rise to more reflection, analysis and comment than that of any British politician since Churchill. A major figure who changed the history of our country – some have called her the greatest peacetime Prime Minister since Gladstone – she was also one of the most divisive, and her capacity to polarise opinion is undiminished. For every tribute, there has been an indictment. She took no prisoners: you were either for or against her. To the Murdoch empire, she was a “symbol of liberty and strength”, to the Guardian “her legacy is public division, private selfishness and a culture of greed”.
I wrote here a couple of weeks ago about the need for our policy positions – the making of our case for play provision and playable space – to be non-aligned to any broad political ideology. Yet, within the UK children’s play movement there is a seemingly unquestioned consensus that Thatcher’s influence was, and is toxic. Many are openly celebrating her demise. The New Labour years of Blair and Brown do not command a consensus of endorsement from play campaigners by any means, but Thatcherism is almost universally regarded as the antithesis of what we stand for.
Why is this so? What is it about wanting to provide for children’s right to play that so unequivocally sets us against the free-market economics and right wing politics of Thatcher’s conservatism?
More Ball Games?
Many aspects of the play agenda – greater freedom for children, a less risk-averse approach to provision and a return to more traditional “free-range” childhoods – are, at least superficially, highly sympathetic to modern British conservatism. And so it was not just the Labour government that adopted play as a serious new policy area in the noughties. In 2007-8 – at the same time that the idea of a national play strategy was taking hold with a newly restructured Department for Children under Ed Balls – as director of Play England I was not only advising Balls’ team but also that of David Willets, the shadow minister who was drafting his party’s new child policy review. The resultant More Ball Games (which also had Tim Gill as an advisor) contained much that the play sector could welcome.
On closer examination, however, the document is revealed as opportunistic, cynical even. Keen to be seen to respond to the concerns about “shrinking childhoods” that had been part of the zeitgeist for a couple of years – from front page headlines in the Sun to academic letters to the Telegraph – the Tories, ahead of the emerging play policy being developed by Balls, were clearly aiming to steal the government’s thunder.
By calling for a return to traditional, “three-dimensional” (as opposed to screen-based) play, “everyday adventures” and “free-range childhoods”, they were tapping into growing concerns about the sedentary, indoor lives that were coming to be seen as a big factor in the childhood obesity epidemic, and much else besides. They also knew this would play well to their heartlands, resonating with the nostalgic idylls of middle England where children play conkers in leafy gardens, scrape their knees climbing trees and play out until dusk with not a Health and Safety regulation in sight.
In fact, More Ball Games proposed nothing material other than a review of Health and Safety law and a sideswipe at European standards for fixed equipment. If you believed the rhetoric, these favourite Tory whipping boys – regulation and Europe – were the real culprits, not the traffic, crime, commercial domination of planning or lack of investment in community play provision that the evidence suggested. When challenged at its launch about what more a Conservative Government would do about “battery-reared” children David Cameron let slip his party’s true position: this was not really the territory for central government. He would, instead, “free up” parents and local areas to respond in their own way.
Although Cameron, at that stage, fell short of describing play policy as symptomatic of the “nanny state” (he could hardly do anything else at the launch of what was the closest his party got to one), the message was clear. Responding to barriers to children’s play was part of the “big government” that he would be rolling back. And so it proved.
This laissez-faire strain of conservative thinking has always been there but had been held in check by the more patriarchal, One Nation Tories until the Thatcher revolution. It was the Iron Lady and her team who, if they did not coin it, certainly popularized the term “nanny state” as the antithesis of the unshackled free market economy in which there was “no such thing as society” (with the implication that there was scant need for much social policy). Dissenters were known as “wets” and did not last long in her government.
Contrast this with the Labour Government thinking that led eventually to the Play Strategy. Writing for the left-of centre think-tank, Compass in 2007, David Lammy, who as a culture minister had children’s play in his portfolio, was clear about “the limits of the market” in supporting children and families. Highlighting the UK’s poor showing (bottom) in that year’s UNICEF child-wellbeing table of wealthy nations, he compared Britain to Holland (top), where the Home Zone concept was created and “free range” children were the norm. “We need to embed the concept of child friendly planning … within our own policies for the built environment and open spaces”, he said. “Children should be central to spatial planning principles and playable landscapes, not just the beneficiaries of the occasional playground”.
Compared to the similar rhetoric about conkers and climbing trees, here was the real difference between the main parties. Labour, recognising that even the children of affluent families are not independent players in the market but “need to have a real stake in the common spaces of their neighbourhoods”, would need the power of the state to calm the traffic, redesign public spaces and police the low level crime that was keeping children indoors. This thinking led quite logically to an ambitious ten-year strategy to create a playable, child-friendly public realm across England. The Conservative thinking, just as inevitably, led to the underwhelming policy breakthrough of a “High Level Statement” by the Health and Safety Executive about the value of risk-benefit assessments. Oh, and an abandonment of the Play Strategy and an end to ring-fenced funding for new provision.
This week, free play advocates shed no tears for Margaret Thatcher: because her government’s policies massively increased the economic inequality that still sees so many children growing up in poverty and play deprivation; because it was her regime that introduced market forces into public services, bringing to an end the culture of local authority grants on which so many adventure playgrounds and other community play projects had depended; and because her administration gave birth to the childcare industry which would subvert so much play provision to the needs of the economy.
More instinctively though, play advocates loathed and dreaded Thatcher because the notion of community – of “it takes a village to raise a child” – was not just alien to her: she was contemptuous of it. For most of us, a fighting response was the only civilized one.
Why this all matters more than 20 years after her departure from government, is that Thatcher may have gone but her legacy is alive and well. The Big Society pretext for Cameron and Osborne’s true mission to ‘roll back the frontiers of the state’, like the good Thatcherites they are, has long since been thrown. A national children’s play policy of any substance has no hope with a government as keen to devolve, deregulate and dismantle as this one. The Lib Dems would have us believe they are a counterbalancing force, but as an illustration of how effectively, just ask what happened to the Task Force that Nick Clegg announced in 2010 “to find new solutions … to the need for spaces where children can play”, of which nothing has been heard since.
Common decency should give us pause – dancing on graves is not for us – but speaking out clearly against what Margaret Thatcher stood for, at a time when she is being lionised by her successors and canonised by the right wing press, is as important as ever.