The Tories have a relatability problem. And a credibility problem. And a problem understanding basic economics. But let’s consider the first, variously demonstrated by Rishi Sunak showing he doesn’t know how to pay in a supermarket; Jacob Rees-Mogg’s haunted Victorian-esque family photographs; and the Conservative chairman Jake Berry suggesting that people struggling with bills might like to consider being paid more.
Last week’s mini-Budget promised such policies as tax cuts for corporations, a removal of the cap on bankers’ bonuses, and the abolition of the 45p tax rate for those who earn the most – the latter of which Kwasi Kwarteng has since, embarrassingly, reneged on. The Conservatives have never looked more like corporate vampires in their high tower, uninterested in encountering real people other than to transfer wealth from them to the richest.
So perhaps this is one reason why the Chancellor’s use of the phrase “we get it, and we have listened” to preface the aforementioned tax rate U-turn is so grating. It is designed to make us feel like the government is here for us, walking among us, taking notes. It’s the same direct, informal but grave language you see in branded social media content and celebrity admissions of guilt. It says: we’re just like you – listening, learning, growing.
This is more than just classic political buzzwording: levelling up, get Britain moving, get Brexit done. We are supposed to receive this pseudo-Notes app apology, written in the tone of a brand expressing contrition for a poorly worded tweet, as a sign that the government cares about our displeasure. It’s all part of the way social media has allowed politicians and businesses to use the language of responsibility without having to take meaningful action. Online, everyone is “holding themselves accountable” but nobody is ever actually sorry. “We get it” is the exact wording used in an episode of Succession, in which horrifyingly rich and powerful people at a media company skirt responsibility for corporate wrongdoing by coming up with a cuddly, relatable apology to dupe the public. (In another episode, “We’re listening” is mooted and axed as a potential company slogan.)
Who has the government actually “listened” to? The IMF? The Bank of England? The opinion polls? Dissenters within the Conservative Party itself? All of these, probably, but certainly not the general public, practically all of whom stand to get decisively shafted by last week’s Budget. “It is clear that the abolition of the 45p tax rate has become a distraction from our overriding mission to tackle the challenges facing our country,” Kwarteng writes, which is sort of like saying “it is clear that you have become distracted by the knife I’ve buried in your neck, so I’ve decided to withdraw it by half an inch”.
Like any infuriating public statement, this message affects humanity and compassion, and combines it with a comradely tone that only serves the institution or speaker who has penned it. Brands pretend to care just enough to keep consumers on-side; celebrities attempt to maintain a marketable, family-friendly image. So, too, the Tories hope this will be just enough of a conciliation to keep their government afloat. It also distracted from another announcement, which came shortly after: an £18bn a year cut to public services. The Tories will also plough on with the rest of their disastrous economic plan. So the 45p tax cut U-turn is a token concession, enabling the government to continue pursuing this regressive ideology while feigning concern at public outrage. Understood. We get it.