Leader: The new mood of conservative triumphalism is at odds with reality

The coalition’s record remains one of failure, even on its own terms.

The opening years of this parliament provided few opportunities for the self-congratulation that comes so naturally to the present generation of Conservative politicians. The economy barely grew, the NHS was left in chaos by Andrew Lansley’s reforms and the coalition government’s promise of a “new politics” was tainted by repeated scandals.

But in recent weeks a mood of triumphalism has taken hold in the Parliamentary Conservative Party and among its press supporters. In the final Prime Minister’s Questions before the summer recess, David Cameron declared: “The deficit is down, unemployment is falling, crime is down, welfare is capped and Abu Qatada is back in Jordan. Every day this country is getting stronger and he [Ed Miliband] is getting weaker.”

And yet, by any reasonable measure, the coalition’s record remains one of failure, even on its own terms. The economic recovery of which ministers boast is the slowest in more than 100 years, with GDP nearly 4 per cent below its pre-recession peak. In the US, by contrast, where the Obama administration maintained fiscal stimulus, the economy is 3.2 per cent larger than in 2007 after growth four times greater than that of the UK. And rather than rebalancing the economy away from debt-driven consumption and towards investment and exports, as was promised and was desirable in 2010, George Osborne appears intent on creating another housing bubble through his Help to Buy scheme, which will reflate demand without addressing the problem of supply.

The headline fall in unemployment, which remains unacceptably high at 2.51 million (7.8 per cent), masks the sharp rise in so-called underemployment, with a record 1.45 million people in part-time jobs because they are unable to work full-time. To compound this, long-term unemployment has reached a 17-year high of 915,000 and youth unemployment is at 959,000 (20.9 per cent). That total joblessness has not risen to the heights experienced in the 1980s owes more to workers’ willingness to price themselves into employment (real wages have fallen by a remarkable 9 per cent) than the success of the government’s strategy. To voters enduring the greatest squeeze in living standards in recent history, ministers offer scapegoats – “welfare dependants”, “health tourists”, “troubled families”. In the meantime, Britain’s core problems, such as its economic short-termism, its lack of social mobility and its extreme income inequality, remain largely unaddressed.

As global competition intensifies, the UK needs a government that, as well as encouraging enterprise and enabling small businesses to flourish, will be prepared to use the state innovatively to promote balanced growth, that is capable of maintaining old international alliances and forging new ones, and that can revive a sense of national purpose of a kind that, for now, is largely absent.

David Cameron greets Olympic volunteers whilst on a visit to the former Olympic site on July 19, 2013 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

This article first appeared in the 29 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue

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Rarely has it mattered so little if Manchester United won; rarely has it been so special they did

Team's Europa League victory offers chance for sorely needed celebration of a city's spirit.

Carlo Ancelotti, the Bayern Munich manager, memorably once said that football is “the most important of the least important things”, but he was only partly right. While it is absolutely the case that a bunch of people chasing around a field is insignificant, a bunch of people chasing around a field is not really what football is about.

At a football match can you set aside the strictures that govern real life and freely scream, shout and cuddle strangers. Football tracks life with such unfailing omnipresence, garnishing the mundane with regular doses of drama and suspense; football is amazing, and even when it isn’t there’s always the possibility that it’s about to be.

Football bestows primal paroxysms of intense, transcendent ecstasy, shared both with people who mean everything and people who mean nothing. Football carves out time for people it's important to see and delivers people it becomes important to see. Football is a structure with folklore, mythology, language and symbols; being part of football is being part of something big, special, and eternal. Football is the best thing in the world when things go well, and still the best thing in the world when they don’t. There is nothing remotely like it. Nothing.

Football is about community and identity, friends and family; football is about expression and abandon, laughter and song; football is about love and pride. Football is about all the beauty in the world.

And the world is a beautiful place, even though it doesn’t always seem that way – now especially. But in the horror of terror we’ve seen amazing kindness, uplifting unity and awesome dignity which is the absolute point of everything.

In Stockholm last night, 50,000 or so people gathered for a football match, trying to find a way of celebrating all of these things. Around town before the game the atmosphere was not as boisterous as usual, but in the ground the old conviction gradually returned. The PA played Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds, an Ajax staple with lyrics not entirely appropriate: there is plenty about which to worry, and for some every little thing is never going to be alright.

But somehow the sentiment felt right and the Mancunian contingent joined in with gusto, following it up with “We’ll never die,” – a song of defiance born from the ashes of the Munich air disaster and generally aired at the end of games, often when defeat is imminent. Last night it was needed from the outset, though this time its final line – “we’ll keep the red flag flying high, coz Man United will never die" – was not about a football team but a city, a spirit, and a way of life. 

Over the course of the night, every burst of song and even the minute's silence chorused with that theme: “Manchester, Manchester, Manchester”; “Manchester la la la”; “Oh Manchester is wonderful”. Sparse and simple words, layered and complex meanings.

The match itself was a curious affair. Rarely has it mattered so little whether or not United won; rarely has it been so special that they did. Manchester United do not represent or appeal to everyone in Manchester but they epitomise a similar brilliance to Manchester, brilliance which they take to the world. Brilliance like youthfulness, toughness, swagger and zest; brilliance which has been to the fore these last three days, despite it all.

Last night they drew upon their most prosaic aspects, outfighting and outrunning a willing but callow opponent to win the only trophy to have eluded them. They did not make things better, but they did bring happiness and positivity at a time when happiness and positivity needed to be brought; football is not “the most important of the least important things,” it is the least important of the most important things.

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