What forty years of deregulated free-market capitalism has done to Britain

Russ Jackson
8 min readMay 23, 2021


The government abolished child poverty targets in 2015. Photograph: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images. Caption: Russ Jackson

Britain was a much more equal society before Margaret Thatcher came to power than it has been at any time since.

I want to take stock of what forty years of increasingly deregulated free-market capitalism has achieved in Britain.

The attacks on the welfare state in the 1980s were based on views that saw poverty as the result of individual moral failings, rather than structural inequality. This narrative has become so dominant, it is now unusual to hear the Government attach the prefix ‘structural’ to any issue.

Full-time permanent well-paid jobs and decent pensions for the masses have become a thing of the past.

In 1948, Britain’s economy comprised 41% manufacturing and 46% services. By 2013, just 13% of Britain’s economy was in manufacturing, and 79% was in services. British manufacturing, once one of Britain’s largest sources of employment, and the envy of the world, has all but disappeared.

Now, around 10 million people are trapped in insecure, relatively low-paid work, with declining working conditions.

There‘s been a housing crisis for at least a decade. Prior to the pandemic, rough-sleeping was up 169% since 2010, with well-over 100,000 homeless people. Homeless people have been with issued £1,000 fines & criminal records simply for having nowhere else to live, even during the pandemic. Through no fault of their own, more & more decent hard-working people are having to stay living at home with their parents.

Since the 2008 financial crash — caused by the reckless irresponsibility of a greedy & woefully under-regulated & deregulated financial sector — our once genuinely world-beating public services have been utterly decimated, with tragic consequences for millions of decent people.

Britain has shocking levels of deprivation: we now over 2,000 foodbanks, which nearly 4 million UK adults (1 in 14) have been forced to use; at least 2 million pensioners are living in poverty, as are 4.3 million children — an increase of 500,000 over the past five years — and footballers like Marcus Rashford have to beg the Government to not let children go hungry.

North East England shows the greatest growth in child poverty over the past five years and has risen by a third, taking it from below the UK average to the second highest of any region.

The highest rates of child poverty continue to be in major cities — particularly London and Birmingham.

Three quarters (75%) of children living in poverty in 2019/20 were in households with at least one working adult; up from two thirds (67%) in 2014/15.

Since 2010, 800 libraries have closed, there are 20,000 fewer police, council funding has been cut by 49%, & many essential public services have either been privatised, or replaced with faceless profit-motivated corporate outsourcers with no local knowledge, links, or understanding.

Millions of young people are saddled with massive debt, while a mental health crisis sweeps the country, exacerbated by the pandemic.

The Red Cross has warned that the end of lockdown and furlough payments will drive millions off a cliff edge — leaving them unable to recover from the impact of the pandemic.

For decades, sociopathic Conservative MPs and the hysterical tabloid press have framed unemployed people, carers, & even disabled people as ‘lazy work-shy scroungers’ and an unproductive drain on resources, whose motives and ability to work must be assessed by corrupt organisations incentivised by draconian targets, by profit and by cruelty.

Comparable countries like Japan, which has a higher density population and twice as many citizens as Britain, suffered just 12,000 COVID-related deaths, whereas short-sighted, cruel, unnecessary and purely ideological cuts and privatisations left Britain and our underfunded and undervalued NHS highly vulnerable to coronavirus, which catastrophically led to Britain suffering 128,000 COVID-related deaths, while at the same time, £millions in taxpayers’ money has been handed over to Tory donors, with disastrous consequences.

Yet at the same time, tax-avoidance has become ever easier for the very rich — many of whom help to fund & support the corrupt Conservative Government.

Shell-companies and tax-havens mean that desperately needed taxable wealth can all too easily be concealed from the under-resourced and largely ineffective HMRC.

Hedge-funders, investment companies, and disaster capitalists bet against British businesses succeeding, and wealth inequality has reached unimaginable levels, to the extent that globally, at least $30 TRILLION is hoarded offshore, by people who really don’t need it.

Between 2009 and 2020, the collective wealth of Britain’s richest 1,000 individuals, many of whom donate vast sums of money to the Conservative party, increased by £480 billion.

Shockingly, there are now 171 billionaires in the UK — the highest number recorded in 33 years of The Sunday Times Rich List — 24 more than a year ago, prior to the pandemic.

In the run up to, and since the EU referendum, British society has become more polarized than ever before.

Shaken by the unanticipated outcome of the 2017 General Election, when Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour explicitly attacked the ideology of austerity and the selfish individualism and greed encouraged by deregulated free-market capitalism and the grotesque and rising wealth and opportunity inequality in Britain resulting from it, which resulted in the biggest vote swing to Labour since Clement Attlee’s transformative Labour Government of 1945, and the Conservatives losing their majority, the Conservatives quickly changed tack.

Following the success of Trump and the American Right, the Conservatives shifted from emphasising the supposed benefits of deregulation and unfettered free-market capitalism, which had clearly failed the working class, to a focus on ‘culture’, making populist nationalist and ‘anti-woke’ rhetoric their dominant political narrative, building on the forty years of demonization of migrants, ethnic minorities, & especially Muslims.

Almost daily, senior Conservative Ministers and MPs demonize ‘activist lawyers’, the ‘woke BBC’ and ‘Leftist academics’, shamelessly and irresponsibly mobilising some of the vilest antisemitic conspiracy theories on earth — including the far right conspiracy of ‘cultural Marxism’, which inspired far-right terrorist Anders Breivik, and the ancient conspiracy of the ‘illuminati’ — all gleefully amplified without challenge, condemnation or sometimes even mention by a supportive, sycophantic, and compliant news media.

They demonize those discussing Britain’s colonial past, commissioned a report to deny the crystal clear evidence of structural and institutional racism in Britain, and have recently introduced legislation aimed at voter suppression and the criminalization of protest.

The Conservatives are supported by opportunist Libertarian billionaires, often based overseas, who have the ultimate aim of removing all barriers to free-market fundamentalism, including worker, consumer and environmental protections (“red tape” as they call it), as well as lower taxation for the super-rich and the end to the welfare system which they perceive as ‘inhibiting economic growth’.

These Libertarian billionaires own or invest in myriad free-market-supporting institutes, magazines, think-tanks & ‘charities’, as well as the overwhelming majority of the UK press and vast swathes of the broadcast media, including talkRadio and Andrew Neil’s GB News, the latest vehicle for protecting the interests of the elite, largely by demonizing anyone or anything perceived as a threat to their hegemony.

Our increasingly dumbed-down press and news media function as outrage-machines, designed to drive ad-revenue, push free-market ideology, and keep voters angry and divided yet ultimately docile, productive and obedient, while concealing the fact that the super-rich invest £millions in manipulating public opinion so they can continue unhindered with their exploitation and endemic corruption.

The relentless demonization of migrants and Muslims has not just normalized populist nationalist rhetoric but has also encouraged the resurgence of dangerous far-right ideology — the fastest growing terrorist threat in Britain — on a scale unseen since Oswald Mosely.

And now, with Brexit and the fantasy of British exceptionalism, we have not just turned our back on our neighbours and the world’s largest trading block, forged in the aftermath of two world wars to secure lasting peace, tackle global problems and collectively shape a shared destiny, but we’ve stopped looking for collaborative solutions to the world’s pressing problems.

Just 26% of the current total UK population voted to leave the EU, and fewer than 3 in 10 of the electorate voted for the Conservatives in the 2019 general election, yet the manufactured “will of the people” has resulted in alienating our closest neighbours and continued rising inequality, and now the full force of the Libertarian elite is focused on the only thing stopping an authoritarian kleptocratic post-welfare idiocracy from becoming a reality: the Left.

Progressive organisations and voices are relentlessly demonized, vilified and scapegoated by politicians and an army of highly paid pundits, polemicists, columnists, journalists and broadcasters on well-funded TV, radio and YouTube channels, in print and online newspapers and magazines, in Tufton Street think tanks, as well as on social media, often by anonymous trolls — all despite Labour not being in power for over a decade.

So when the Right are asked to account for the above, all they have left is to scream “WOKE VIRTUE-SIGNALLING CANCEL CULTURE MARXISTS!” and to hope this is enough to distract from the fact that while elites hoard unimaginable wealth, millions of decent people live in quiet desperation.

Frederick Douglass was an American social reformer, writer, and statesman. After escaping from slavery, he became a national leader of the US abolitionist movement, famous for his oratory.

On August 3rd, 1857, he delivered a “West India Emancipation” speech at Canandaigua, New York, which serves as a reminder of the crucial role of the West Indian slaves in their struggle for freedom, and which has valuable lessons for anyone concerned about the parlous state of Britain and the world today:

“Let me give you a word of the philosophy of reform. The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims have been born of earnest struggle. The conflict has been exciting, agitating, all-absorbing, and for the time being, putting all other tumults to silence. It must do this, or it does nothing. If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favour freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without ploughing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters.”

“This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.”

Britain’s democracy hangs by a thread. Anyone concerned about the direction of travel, grotesque levels of inequality, mass poverty or the climate and environmental crises needs to take action and get on the front foot: to stop responding to the Right’s childish provocations; to support publications and groups challenging the free-market narrative; to identify and diagnose exactly what is wrong; to create an appealing vision of what Britain and the world’s future should look like; and to clearly state exactly what policies are needed to get Britain and the world back on track.



Russ Jackson

Sociologist at Sheffield Hallam University. Views my own - informed by years of reading, thinking & listening.