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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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle