North Korean Flavour

John Lanchester · The Tory Manifesto

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.’