Thatcherism left little room for play – and it’s still with us

12 Apr
As Prime Minister, Mrs Thatcher sought to diminish the role of the state in supporting the communities where children could play

Thatcherism diminishes the role of the state in supporting communities where children can play

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.

“Nanny State”

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.

Adrian Voce

6 Responses to “Thatcherism left little room for play – and it’s still with us”

  1. jancosgrove1945 17 April 2013 at 11:05 am #

    It’s odd that Thatcher, who maintained the Tory line that Play was not a subject for a national policy [best left to local government which knows all about it …. remember, ‘localism’ existed for play a long time ago, and look where it got us …], nonetheless allowed Play Board to be created.

    The background there was that when the NPFA dumped its play remit (after the government refused to up its then-VSU grant from £100,000 to £200,000), she tasked Michael Heseltine, that at Environment, to sort it out. He enrolled ED Berman at InterAction, where I then was working, to come up with a plan. Ed talked with me about it as I was then also a Fair Play trustee. My strict warning was, it’s Play, don’t make it top-down, which is what ED then promptly went and did. Result, Play Board.

    Thatcher had a problem – she was committed to getting rid of quangos, and her office told ED in no uncertain terms that Play Board would be such a creation. I was in the next office listening to ED’s end of the chat on the phone – he assured the civil servant there was no problem as Fair Play for Children would be closing, hence no net creation of quango (we were a quango???!!). It soon emerged that the trustees of Fair Play had done a deal with ED (and several would be getting jobs with Play Board …) that Fair Play would be closed and its assets handed buckshee to Play Board, along with its membership list.

    I then wrote as a FP management council member to say that the trustees had no authority to make such a commitment and that as far as i was concerned, unless the membership voted its closure at an EGM, Fair Play would remain in business. ED was livid, I had broken the Official Secrets Act! Oo-er missus. And my phone, no kidding, played up for weeks after ….

    An EGM WAS called but not to close …instead the trustees were sacked and I was tasked to write a new constitution to bring the trustees under proper control. So, we have the current model of Fair Play as to this very day.

    I also speculated with the Iron Lady that Play Board would collapse in around four years due to its top down nature. Hey ho, it did.

    One of fair Play’s 1986 policies was that a national voluntary forum for play should be created, and it was. It became Play England Council but that now is an executive body in its own right and it original forum function has been minimised as the management demands of Play England have taken priority. Time for a new forum?

    We also called for a National Play Bureau, with substantial government funding justified by A31.2 of the UN Convention re appropriate and equal access to culture and recreation – a Play Council a la Arts and Sports Councils with around 20% of their combined budgets t reflect the proportion of children in the population, able to grant aid, publish, research and do a lot more than has been or is being done through existing routes – and able to propose policy.

    THAT remains a major objective, surely. We have been playing at half-a-game, we need such a resource and focus. If Play England is to develop, THAT is its aspiration, with Royal Charter I’d add. An objective for 2015?


    • plexity 17 April 2013 at 1:57 pm #

      I knew about half of all that, Jan. Didn’t know about the Berman shenanigans at all. Never liked PlayBoard, as you say top-down, run by that bloke, was he from the Sports Council? Looked like an accountant. It had some good staff, and if it wasn’t for the crew in the Leeds office we wouldn’t have got the Playwork course at what is now Leeds Met, so it’s an ill-wind, innit.


  2. jancosgrove1945 17 April 2013 at 11:07 am #

    Correction – I was not a Fair Play trustee, I was on its Management Council. These days, the two sets of people are always the same, one of the changes we made after this time.


  3. adrianvoce 17 April 2013 at 11:38 am #

    Thanks for your comments Jan. It’s interesting to hear more of the historical background.

    I think all right-wing governments claim to dislike Quangos; as the epitome of the bloated bureaucracy and waste that they like to blame for economic woes (it’s easier than reforming the banks…).

    On closer examination, though, they tend to keep, bolster even, the ones that are delivering the policies they like (it’s easier than getting the civil service, which they also dislike, to do it…)

    I tend to keep my powder dry about Play England as I am unlikely to be seen as an objective voice. I will say though, in relation to your comment about a Play Council with similar functions to the Arts Council, that I didn’t copy the name from Play Wales and Play Scotland, as is often assumed. In many ways, Play England was the obvious choice of name, but it was Frank Dobson who first coined it – suggesting, similarly to yourself, that if there was a Sport England charged with distributing money to grassroots sport, then there should be a similar body for children’s play.


    • plexity 17 April 2013 at 1:58 pm #

      “Time for a new forum?” asks Jan.

      Yes, overdue, say I.



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