David Cameron: from foolhardy champion swimmer to panicked doggy-paddler

The prime minister's party conference speech had only regurgitated rhetoric, with no policy, ideas or budget to back it up.

 

Do you remember that funny 1980s film, Weekend at Bernie’s? Two losers trying to pretend that their boss hadn’t really died, so that they may continue to party at his expense? That, for me, was the inescapable image of the Conservative Party conference.

The corpse, in this case, is the government’s neoliberal economic policy, complete with comedy hat and sunglasses. The rigor mortis of contraction and unemployment is making it increasingly difficult for George Osborne to manipulate the arm into nonchalantly waving at a passing Christine Lagarde. She’s not buying it. The party is over.

I was fully prepared to write a piece attacking all the erroneous figures, the misquoted statistics, the circular arguments. But I won’t. Firstly, because it is futile; the depressing truth is that nobody with the intellect to be interested in such writing believes much of what this (or any) government says. Secondly, because, having heard Cameron’s evangelical call to arms, there are more fundamental things to address.

“I'm not here to defend privilege. I'm here to spread it”, says Cameron. The delegates cheer ecstatically. But what is the reality behind the one-liner? Privilege is by definition what one has above what others have. The very core of privilege is inequality. In short, the prime minister of a country in which less than 10 per cent of the population control more that 50 per cent of the wealth, wants more inequality. Of course he does, he is part of that 10 per cent.

Still, we mustn’t resort to the “politics of resentment”, we were told with metronomic regularity this week. We mustn’t think ill of those hard-working people who do well. The implication being that, if you’re not doing well, you’re just not working hard enough. Also, that all those who do well, have worked hard. Like Osborne and Cameron who inherited their wealth.

Cameron saluted “the doers” and “the risk-takers”. The Doers and Risk-takers in the City of London and Wall Street, those arsonists largely responsible for setting the world on fire, salute you back, David. And why shouldn’t they? They are seemingly untouchable by regulation, prosecution – and now, even resentment.

On the other hand, when it comes to resenting the poor, the unemployed, the unionised, the immigrant, the sick, the squatter, the public servant, the European, the young, the old, the intellectual, the Muslim, the demonstrator - resentment is not only allowed. It is encouraged.

In this current climate of unemployment and misery, it has never occurred to me when leaving home for a job, to be anything other than grateful that I have a job. I have never glanced at a neighbour’s drawn blinds and thought “you lucky sod, surviving on sixty quid a week”.

The reason 2.6 million unemployed cannot be shoe-horned into three hundred thousand vacancies is mathematics. Not a lack of aspiration.

That word - aspiration… Repeated again and again. “Conservatives are the party of aspiration.” They are here to help those who aspire. “The young people who dream of their first pay cheque, their first car, their first home – and are ready and willing to work hard to get those things.” More cheers from the hypnotised delegate-flock.

It doesn’t occur to David Cameron how utterly depressing it is for the leader of this country to define “aspiration” as the lust for money, cars and property.

It never occurs to him how hypocritical it is for this to come from someone who knew they would get a car as a present on their eighteenth birthday, always have a comfortable home to live in and a pay cheque guaranteed upon graduation because daddy could pull strings.

It does not occur to him how hilariously at odds this is with his rhetoric on the big society. How it exposes the idiocy of the expectation that once this fictional young person, bred to be selfish and materialistic, has accumulated enough pay cheques, enough cars, enough homes, they will go out and run a soup kitchen for those “less aspirational”.

It never even occurs to him that this mass psychosis, of judging success solely by reference to what each person can grab for themselves, is at the root of the social decay he bemoans; at the root of crime, poverty, environmental damage, the looting last summer, the financial crisis in 2008.

But most frighteningly, it does not appear to occur to him that the position of prime minister involves more than passionately delivered, hollow words.

Last year, he framed his speech with “Britannia didn’t rule the waves with her armbands on”. This year he says “it is time to sink or swim”. An elegant, if unwitting, indication of how his thinking has moved on; from foolhardy champion swimmer to panicked doggy-paddler.

The UK economy is fast becoming a small makeshift raft, cobbled together from antiquated dogma, U-turns and fiascos, adrift in a sea of global uncertainty. Selling off the planks to passing sharks is not a solution. When the water is ankle-deep, crew and passengers look to the captain for action, not regurgitated rhetoric, however deftly delivered.

All he can do is stand there and shout passionately “The Free Market will save us! Enterprise will save us! Aspiration will save us!” Abstract, deified, neoliberal concepts without a smidgeon of policy, detail or budget to back them up.

I recognised his speech for what it was: A drowning man’s gurgling prayer.

 

David Cameron. Photograph: Getty Images

Greek-born, Alex Andreou has a background in law and economics. He runs the Sturdy Beggars Theatre Company and blogs here You can find him on twitter @sturdyalex

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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”