Neo-liberal capitalism, Margaret Thatcher, and suicide rates since 1979


John Robertson considers the debate about whether neoliberal capitalism is bad for your health

‘Academics have clashed with the Scottish Tories over claims that the policies of Margaret Thatcher left a generation in Scotland at increased risk of [male] suicide for decades.’

Judith Duffy opened with the above, in the Sunday Herald on 21st August 2016. She gives a clear and thorough explanation of the initial research by Dr Gerry McCartney’s team at the Public Health Observatory based in NHS Scotland. At the end, Duffy allows the Scottish Conservatives spokesman to accuse the research of being ‘crass, ludicrous and desperate’ to ‘blame politics’.  It was only fair that she let them have their say even though their critique of the research was far from scientific. Indeed it was more crass, ludicrous and desperate, I’d say.

Of course the researchers don’t claim to have proved that the high unemployment triggered by the Tories’ neoliberal policies from 1979 onwards caused increased suicide rates. What they suggest is that there is a strong positive correlation, in that time, between increasing and long-term unemployment, consequent poverty and increasing male suicide rates. It’s not something you could prove but it’s a more than reasonable suggestion that depressing economic circumstances lead to more mental health problems, including suicide.

Strengthening the thesis, an NHS/ISD report from 10th August 2016 said:

‘Suicides were around three times more likely in those from the most deprived areas than those in the least deprived areas.’

So, it’s a far from ludicrous suggestion that politics, in the form of economic policy, can have a strong effect on suicide rates. Further evidence of the particular problems in the eighties, might lie in the more recent decline in suicide rates amongst men. See this from the Samaritans in 2016:

‘The male suicide rate decreased in the UK (by 5.6%), England (by less than 1%), Wales (by 37.6%), Scotland (by 17.6%), Northern Ireland  (by 10.2%) and Republic of Ireland (by 6.4%) between 2013 and 2014.’

Notice the greater reduction in Scotland than in England? Credit the devolved administrations at least a wee bit? By contrast, suicide rates among women in Scotland are increasing. The Samaritans reported:

‘Female suicide rates increased in the UK (by 8.3%), England (by 14%), Scotland (by 7.8%) and Republic of Ireland (by 14.7%) between 2013 and 2014. Female suicide rates decreased in Wales (by 38.2%) and Northern Ireland (by 17.7%).’

I have nothing concrete to explain these data. Perhaps where there have been increases this might be due to austerity and the disproportionate impact that can have on women?

As I read the Herald piece, I was reminded of something that also might strengthen the thesis that Thatcherism played a big part in the suicide rate spike reported by the researchers and that was the question: ‘Why were rates lower in the seventies?’

Readers of a certain age will remember the 1970s as I do and, also, may remember how that decade has been characterised since as pretty miserable, by commentators such as Dominic Sandbrook and David Peace, the author of the dark Damned United and Red-Riding Quartet. So awful were the seventies painted, you might have expected suicide rates to fall after that.

I wrote to the New Statesman in 2009, criticising what I felt were unfair representations of the period and they published this shortened version of my letter:

‘Summers of love

Both Dominic Sandbrook’s essay on football in the Seventies (30 March) and the Red Riding series recently on TV paint a bleak and frankly inaccurate picture of life for most of us in that glorious decade.

With higher wages for the working classes, access to affordable housing, free health care, free higher education and low levels of crime, all in a much less unequal society, life then was superior to life as experienced by most of us today. 

In 1976, I was a fully funded sociology undergraduate on a new parkland campus. I had a lovely girlfriend, a motorbike, hair down to my armpits, Neil Young on the stereo. And it was a glorious summer. Bleak? It was bloody marvellous!’

Sandbrook was to quote my letter in a later book. A librarian showed me it. Sandbrook attempted to patronise me, as I remember. Needless to say, I didn’t buy his bloody book.

The full letter had, as you would expect, provided a reliable source for my argument but this had not ‘made the cut’ as they say. I had based my argument, partly on my own experience, for comedic effect, but more seriously on research from the respected New Economics Foundation:

‘A new measure of the state of Britain’s economy, MDP or Measure of Domestic Progress, shows that social progress in Britain has become increasingly decoupled from economic growth over the last 50 years and has stalled completely in the last three decades, never regaining its 1976 peak.’

In 1976, still, one wage-earner could support a family, job security was relatively high, more working-class children were going to university, decent quality reasonable-cost council housing had become available to many more families and crime was much lower than it would become under Thatcher. In 1981, only two years into Thatcherism, 4129 men took their lives in the UK. By 2012, after 31 years of all-party neoliberalism, the figure was 4590.  In the same period, the figure among women had halved from 2466 to 1391. Of course more recent austerity cuts may be causing the suicide rate among women to climb again.

Finally, here’s another piece of evidence that we can justifiably blame suicide rates on politics, whatever the Scottish Tories might say. Here’s a quote from a review of the research by epidemiologists, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, whose book ‘The Spirit Level’ correlates levels of inequality with a whole raft of social problems:

‘Around a quarter of British people, and more than a quarter of Americans, experience mental problems in any given year, compared with fewer than 10 per cent in Japan, Germany, Sweden and Italy.’

I should mention, to be accurate, that Japan and Sweden buck the trend with low inequality and higher suicide rates. The authors try to explain these. I’ll stop there. I hope that’s enough evidence to satisfy the Scottish Tories that there is something in the notion that their great leader has blood on her hands.  I doubt it will though.