Quick quiz, aimed particularly at any readers who are outside the UK (or who don’t go past phone boxes very often).
Each of the following slogans has been used in street advertising by one of the main political parties contesting this election (by which I mean, one of the parties standing candidates across the country – Labour, the Tories, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, UKIP and the BNP). But can you match the slogan to the party?
1. GET BRITAIN WORKING
2. BYE BYE, BUREAUCRACY
3. WE’RE ALL IN THIS TOGETHER
4. PEOPLE POWER
5. SOCIAL RESPONSIBILITY NOT STATE CONTROL
6. BIG GOVERNMENT = BIG PROBLEMS
Answers after the jump. No peeping!
How did you get on? Let’s see… 1 is the Tories, 2 and 6 are probably UKIP, 3 is Labour (worldwide crisis, all in this together, don’t blame us), 4 is a bit radical for anyone standing at this election (RESPECT maybe?), and 5 is definitely the Greens unless it’s the Lib Dems.
Or not. Actually it’s a trick question – they’re all Conservative Party slogans. (That’s right: PEOPLE POWER – VOTE CONSERVATIVE.) These posters are now available from the Conservative Party’s marketing arm, and I’d advise any collector of political ephemera to snap them up – they’re going to be quite a curiosity in years to come. Or months to come, for that matter. Apparently one of the lessons being learnt from the current surge in Lib Dem support is that this stuff doesn’t work, and a more traditional approach is needed in order to rally the “core vote”. A traditional approach, eh – are you thinking what I’m thinking?
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. What stuff doesn’t work? To put it another way, in what intellectual universe can the Conservative Party, of all parties, run under the banner of “social responsibility” and (by gum) “people power”?
The answer seems to lie in Cameron’s “Big Society” rhetoric and its intellectual fountainhead, the bizarre political philosophy of Philip Blond (recently dissected by Jonathan Raban). The sudden ascendancy of Blond is interesting in itself, but also in what it shows ex negativo about the Tories’ need for some sort of big idea. It’s a question of political power and who wields it. One of the distinguishing characteristics of Thatcherite Toryism is its hatred of political power being exercised by any institution other than the state: the unions, local councils and institutions like police committees had no place in the post-Thatcher order, their place being taken by business or by the government itself. This is a harsh and impoverished vision, which Labour have quietly rolled back in many areas. Hence a diffuse sense among thinking Tories that Thatcherism both went too far and didn’t succeed in going far enough; hence the Blond vision, whose peculiar distinction is to attack the intermediate institutions (a.k.a. BUREAUCRACY) while also attacking the central state (BIG GOVERNMENT). Moreover, their workings are to be replaced, not by market forces, but by a kind of extension of Neighbourhood Watch active communitarianism into every area of life (PEOPLE POWER). Or rather, every area of life that we might have expected central or local government to take care of (SOCIAL RESPONSIBILITY NOT STATE CONTROL). Blond’s brave new world has no room for Thatcher’s hate-figures, but it’s got no room for the state or the market either. The vacuum thus created is to be filled by a sustained level of active citizenship – and unpaid work, not to put too fine a point on it – that has probably never been known anywhere in Britain, supported by intermediate non-political institutions (such as churches) which have been in decline for the last 40 years. Thatcher destroyed institutions that worked reasonably well and replaced them with institutions that work badly; Blond wants to destroy them as well and replace them with something that doesn’t exist. It’s an eloquent testimony to the self-consuming nature of Thatcherite radicalism – and to the exhaustion of its project now that everything solid has already melted into air.
It’s also not much of a vote-winner. Why Cameron kept the “Big Society” theme under wraps until the eve of the election is unclear; however, it’s not surprising that he’s spent most of the election campaign edging quietly away from it, or that he’s been advised to drop it altogether and go back to pitching for the bigot vote. As far as I’m concerned, a bit of clarification can’t come too soon. The other day I was out with my daughter when we passed an SWP stall. My daughter is ten and uninterested in politics (my son was an outspoken Green at her age, although he’s currently leaning Lib Dem); when she asked me who the SWPers were, it seemed like a good opportunity to kindle her youthful idealism by introducing her to the idea of revolutionary socialism.
“They’re the Socialist Workers, they’re a revolutionary party. That means they don’t believe in changing things by getting people elected, they believe in changing things by overthrowing the government.”
My daughter reacted to this very much as if I’d said they believed in changing things by banning shoes.
“That’s crazy! You’re never going to get rid of the government!”
At this point I realised that I’d left quite a big bit out – the bit about the self-assertion of the organised working class leading ultimately to a crisis of capitalism within and against which proletarian counter-power would establish and consolidate its grip over the productive forces of society, and so forth. Still, we could come back to that another day. I decided to press on.
“Well, I think they think that if people… got together… they could run things for themselves, without the government getting in the way.”
Even as I said it I realised that I’d skipped another big bit – after all, the government not getting in the way only comes with the achievement of communism itself, after the completion of the phase of socialist construction. But we were nearly home by then and I didn’t want to drag it out. Besides, I told myself, collective self-management of social life by the working class is what all Marxists are aiming for, irrespective of how long we think it’s going to take to get there and what intermediate stages society will have to go through.
My daughter was deep in thought. People getting together… running things for themselves… not such a bad account of the revolutionary programme, I thought to myself; quite inspiring in its way. My daughter reached a conclusion and looked round at me.
“Right – are they the ones who want us to run our own hospitals?”
“No,” I replied. “That’s the Conservatives.”