« | Home | »

North Korean Flavour


John Self, anti-hero of Martin Amis’s novel Money, is forced to sit down and read Animal Farm. A determined non-reader, he finds it very hard work indeed, though the book does have a few points in its favour. ‘I must admit, I admire the way in which Orwell starts his book fairly late in, on page seven.’

The party manifestos are a bit like that. They aren’t really made for reading. I say that with feeling, since having managed to get to the age of 48 without ever having read an election manifesto, I’ve now read three in a week. The Labour and Lib Dem manifestos are especially stiff going. They are heavy on detailed policy specifics, and both take an essentially managerial view of Britain: they list specific proposals and aspirations, point-by-point.

The Tory manifesto is different. It has more blank pages, for a start. John Self would like those. It has some pages which are just slogans and others which are diagrams and others which are chapter titles and others still which are pretty photographs accompanied by little pen-sketches of a place such as Glasgow or Aberystwyth or Japan or Sweden or Freiburg or Silicon Valley or (honest, I’m not making this up) Iran. The pen-sketches say something that is positive about some aspect of the place, usually to do with jobs or low carbon output or both. The implication, I think, is that there are lots of ways of succeeding in the modern world and no one has a monopoly of good ideas; the subtext is that the Tories are open to new thinking and don’t hate foreigners. (In case you’re wondering, the thing about Iran is that is shows the democratic impact of social media.) Taken all together, the 118 pages pretty much fly past.

‘An Invitation to Join the Government of Britain’, as the manifesto is ludicrously called, is genuinely an attempt at setting out a new direction for Conservatism. In a way, that seems more important than the specifics. The idea of increased voluntarism, localism, decentralisation and opening-up of access to power runs through it, and show that the Tories really have been thinking about this stuff. I had always assumed that the localism talk was just window-dressing and that may well be true; but if it is, it is very thorough window-dressing. The implied direction of travel is completely different from any that any modern British government has taken. The UK, an Italian foreign correspondent once remarked in my hearing, ‘is the most centralised state in the world after North Korea’. If the Tories enacted their policies, that would no longer be true.

There is a problem, though. In the words of Huw Edwards on the news, ‘Where is the evidence that people have the time, the appetite or the inclination for this stuff?’ Michael Gove, who increasingly resembles a defrocked pantomime dame, did quite well under post-manifesto interrogation from Jeremy Paxman, but I’m afraid that while he spoke at least half my brain was taken up by a heckler who was yelling: ‘I don’t want any sermons about democratic participation from a man who claimed a £34.99 foam cot mattress on his Parliamentary expenses’. Internal dialogues of this type may be why the election isn’t really connecting with the electorate.

As for the Big Society idea, my hunch is that people don’t want to take over their schools and hospitals and other local institutions, they just want them to be there and well-run. The manifesto says, ‘Our ambition is for every adult in the country to be a member of an active neighbourhood group.’ That’s nuts – and has a North Korean flavour of its own. There is already a whole area of British life given over to people who want to run local things: it’s called local government, and the Tories seem very unkeen on it. Also, as Matthew Engel points out in the FT, there is a blatant oxymoron in the whole pitch: ‘Vote for Change. Vote Conservative.’ But with all these caveats duly entered, the Tory manifesto is impressive and is worth a read, and it’s going to be interesting to see if it has any impact on their electoral prospects.

By now this pretty much goes without saying, but I’m going to say it anyway: all three manifestos wholly fail to address the economic realities of our situation. They imply huge cuts that they say nothing about, and all of them promise increases in spending at a time when there is simply no more money. The Institute for Fiscal Studies puts the missing amount of cuts in all three manifestos at £30 billion a year. In the words of Robert Chote of the IFS, ‘The skirmishes over tax and spending that we have seen so far during the campaign hardly reflect the scale of the fiscal challenge that will confront whichever party has the misfortune to emerge victorious.’

The only senior political figure who seems willing to speak plainly about this is Nigel Farage of UKIP. ‘It really is time for some straight talking. Frankly, we’re skint.’

Comment on this post

Log in or register to post a comment.

  • Recent Posts

    RSS – posts

  • Contributors

  • Recent Comments

    • mideastzebra on Swedish-Israeli Tensions: Avigdor Liberman was not foreign minister November 2015.
    • lars hakanson on Exit Cameron: Europe will for good reason rejoice when the UK elects to leave. The country has over the years provided nothing but obstacles to European integration...
    • Michael Schuller on Immigration Scandals: The Home Office is keen to be seen to be acting tough on immigration, although I'm not sure that the wider project has anything to do with real number...
    • Geoff Roberts on What happened in Cologne?: The most surprising thing about the events in Cologne (and the most disturbing) is that some 600 incidents of theft, harrasment and rape were reported...
    • EmilyEmily on What happened in Cologne?: The author's argument is straightforward: Sexual violence is one beast; fears about migrants is another - let's not confuse the two. Alfalfa's poin...

    RSS – comments

  • Contact

  • Blog Archive

  • From the LRB Archive

    Chris Lehmann: The Candidates
    18 June 2015

    ‘Every one of the Republican candidates can be described as a full-blown adult failure. These are people who, in most cases, have been granted virtually every imaginable advantage on the road to success, and managed nevertheless to foul things up along the way.’

    Hugh Pennington:
    The Problem with Biodiversity
    10 May 2007

    ‘As a medical microbiologist, for example, I have spent my career fighting biodiversity: my ultimate aim has been to cause the extinction of harmful microbes, an objective shared by veterinary and plant pathologists. But despite more than a hundred years of concentrated effort, supported by solid science, smallpox has been the only success.’

    Jeremy Harding: At the Mexican Border
    20 October 2011

    ‘The battle against illegal migration is a domestic version of America’s interventions overseas, with many of the same trappings: big manpower commitments, militarisation, pursuit, detection, rendition, loss of life. The Mexican border was already the focus of attention before 9/11; it is now a fixation that shows no signs of abating.’

    James Meek: When the Floods Came
    31 July 2008

    ‘Last July, a few days after the floods arrived, with 350,000 people still cut off from the first necessity of life, Severn Trent held its annual general meeting. It announced profits of £325 million, and confirmed a dividend for shareholders of £143 million. Not long afterwards the company, with the consent of the water regulator Ofwat, announced that it wouldn’t be compensating customers: all would be charged as if they had had running water, even when they hadn’t.’

Advertisement Advertisement