Our political leaders are so bereft of ideas that they have taken to plundering the slogans of yesteryear.
In his speech to the Labour Party Conference earlier this month, leader Ed Miliband declared he was going to ‘do something different today’, to ‘tell you my story. I want to tell you who I am. What I believe. And why I have a deep conviction that together we can change this country.’ Such self-conscious attempts to give identity to hollow political leaders of tired political parties in empty political contests are now a ritual in British politics.
Every political leader in recent years has overstated his vision as a new vital force. Yet each attempt to do so belies the narrowing of political discourse, the hollowing out of ideas, and the terminal vacuity of today’s political poseurs. The spectacle of Miliband delivering a personal statement was nothing new at all. Like many political leaders before him, he was forced to talk about himself because he had nothing else to say.
Miliband is not the only leader to have emphasised his humble origins to claim that it gives him insight into a divided Britain. Nor is he the first to try to revive Victorian prime minister Benjamin Disraeli’s idea of One Nation politics. John Major also sought to reverse the Conservative Party’s decline by reinventing Disraeli, claiming in 1996: ‘Decent homes, rewarding jobs, a good education, shares, quality of life. Giving more people those opportunities is what One Nation Conservatism is all about.’ Five years earlier, and just prior to an unexpected election victory that produced a government hobbled by constant in-fighting, he, like Miliband now, paraded his humble roots. For Major, that meant Brixton and grammar school rather than Miliband’s Hampstead and a comprehensive school, as this 1992 Conservative Party campaign video shows.
The two fundamentals of Miliband’s speech are the same as Major’s. Twenty years separate them, but both consciously eschew the socialism that we might imagine their backgrounds would make them sympathetic to. Both claim that their origins give them insight that people from more privileged backgrounds cannot develop. Both claim to be able to unite Britain. And both emphasise merely basic educational standards as the means to economic recovery. Miliband wants to offer ‘that 14-year-old who is not academic’ a ‘gold-standard vocational qualification, a new Technical Baccalaureate’, which is ‘a qualification to be proud of’. It is as if nobody had thought of it before. Yet Major said in 1996: ‘Some children will choose to learn vocational skills. I’ve had enough of people who look down on those children and treat them as second best… So practical skills are being put on an equal footing with academic subjects… The old divide between universities and polytechnics has gone.’
The observation that very little separates political leaders is not new, of course. But the motifs repeated over the past three decades of Britain’s political history are stark, and begin to offer a clue as to what might be going on.
At the Conservative Party conference in 2009, David Cameron’s Big Society idea was being hatched. He would put ‘Broken Britain’, he said, ‘back on her feet’: ‘Do you know the worst thing about their big government?’, he asked of New Labour. ‘It’s not the cost, though that’s bad enough. It is the steady erosion of responsibility. Our task is to lead Britain in a completely different direction.’
But the idea that the state had deprived people of ‘responsibility’ was something Tony Blair, of New Labour, had emphasised just five years earlier. In 2004, he announced a strategy that he claimed was ‘the culmination of a journey of change both for progressive politics and for the country.’ He added: ‘It marks the end of the 1960s liberal, social consensus on law and order… It was John Stuart Mill who articulated the modern concept that with freedom comes responsibility. But in the 1960s revolution, that didn’t always happen… Here, now, today, people have had enough of this part of the 1960s consensus…. That is the new consensus on law and order for our times.’
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Even that was hardly new, though. At the Conservative Party conference more than a decade earlier, John Major had taken issue with people who believed that ‘criminal behaviour was society’s fault, not the individual’s’. Major, too, emphasised responsibility: ‘Do you know, the truth is, much as things have changed on the surface, underneath we’re still the same people. The old values - neighbourliness, decency, courtesy - they’re still alive, they’re still the best of Britain… It is time to return to those old core values, time to get back to basics, to self-discipline and respect for the law, to consideration for others, to accepting a responsibility for yourself and your family and not shuffling off on other people and the state.’
But even a decade before Major’s speech, Margaret Thatcher told political interviewer Brian Walden: ‘I think we went through a period when too many people began to expect their standard of living to be guaranteed by the state, and so great protest movements came that you could, by having sufficient protests, sufficient demonstrations against government, get somehow a larger share for yourself, and they looked to the protest and the demonstrations and the strikes to get a bigger share for them, but it always had to come from the people who really strived to do more and to do better. I want to see one nation, as you go back to Victorian times, but I want everyone to have their own personal property stake.’
For Thatcher, ‘one nation’ meant harking back to Victorian Values. Major similarly sought to get us Back to Basics. Blair thought that this could be achieved through his Respect Agenda. Cameron ordered the creation of the Big Society. Each leader promised that they could encourage personal responsibility, which would in turn transform British culture, end dependence on the welfare state, and reverse economic woes.
In spite of such ambitions, however, governments have found it increasingly difficult to let people actually take responsibility for themselves. The welfare state has not diminished, and endless policy initiatives find new ways to intrude on private life. As early as 1997, the then Labour government conceived of a ‘Quality of Life Barometer’, which would measure the government’s performance in improving individuals’ subjective sense of wellbeing - a project now more fully realised by the Lib-Con coalition’s Happiness Index. Political leaders who emphasise personal responsibility don’t even trust the people to look after their own emotional lives, let alone smoke or drink in public or find their way out of dependency on benefits.
Miliband’s grand projet - One Nation - doesn’t even bother to rebrand the nineteenth-century idea with a new name. Nor does he even attempt to give it substance. Instead, he merely offers a list of grievances, attached to his personal history. ‘That is who I am. That is what I believe. That is my faith’, he urges.
Today’s politicians have become increasingly hollow pastiches of their predecessors, echoes of long-passed political moments that ring around a public space as empty as the vision of Cameron, Clegg and Miliband. Unable to conceive of new political ideas, they recycle a diminishing pool of insipid slogans that they wave at the country’s very real problems. The constant refrain of ‘One Nation’, ‘personal responsibility’, ‘sense of wellbeing’, ‘rebuilding Britain’ and the rest belies the paucity of ideas about actual development. Instead of building things like roads, industry and homes, modern leaders emphasise instead restraint, austerity, and external crises that are beyond our control - the global economic crisis, climate change and terrorism - which might let them off the hook.
Instead of answering the question ‘Who am I?’, the answer to which may be spun and invented to suit any given moment, it would be far better if politicians answered a far more difficult question: ‘What will I do?’ The fact that they have no new answers to that question is the real message of the party-conference season.
Has welfarism gone too far? Is it time to trim this massive machine? And more importantly, shouldn’t it be trimmed for the *right* reasons - that is, not in order to save the state money but as a way of protecting communities from the negative impact of constant welfarist intervention?
We’ll be debating these issues at the next session of our spiked drinks events at Portcullis House in London on Monday 3 June at 6.30pm. Find out more here.