Episode 11: The T-Shirt Cannon

John Lanchester

David Cameron

At sporting events in the US, the organisers sometimes set up a fun thing called a T-shirt cannon. This is what it sounds like: a cannon, or rather a bazooka, which emits a thud and sends a T-shirt across the arena where it softly thwacks into one of the punters. Who doesn’t want to be hit in the face by a free T-shirt?

The T-shirt cannon was brought to mind by the latest round of policy announcements from the Tories. The most recent of these came yesterday: a plan to sell off £4 billion of shares from Lloyds to members of the general public. Lloyds is already 22 per cent owned by the UK public; the sell-off would transfer ownership from everybody to the specific subset of the population who buy the shares at a 5 per cent discount from its current market price. This is a transfer of ownership from the state to individuals, straight out of Margaret Thatcher’s playbook and the British Gas privatisation. The sell-off of Housing Association stock to current tenants is a very similar move from the same political handbook. This is the T-shirt cannon: a policy that brings no general benefit to the taxpayer but instead is aimed at delivering largesse to a specific chunk of the electorate. Another policy to shoot out of the cannon was the raising of the inheritance tax threshold.

So there are now three components to the Tory ‘offer’ (as sales and marketing men call it).

1. Long-term economic plan.
2. It’s either Dave or Ed, and it must be Dave because Ed is rubbish and will deliver England to the SNP.
3. T-shirt cannon.

The Tories had hoped that numbers 1 and 2 would be enough, as they were in the (to them) comparable circumstances of 1992. The problem here is that 3 contradicts 1 – you can’t be both the party of austerity and the party of freebies. The calculation must be that it doesn’t matter, and that the voters won over by the giveaways won’t detract from the core voters who are already onside with 1 and 2.

This is dispiriting in and of itself. But the other thing that happened yesterday is that news came of 700 migrants dying in the latest Mediterranean refugee disaster.

There are no easy solutions to the refugee crisis facing Europe, and no cheap solutions, and certainly no populist solutions, and it may be that there’s nothing one could describe as a ‘solution’. But there are times when we need someone in a position of power to come up with some language that feels adequate to the moment. We get that we aren’t living in Harry Potter World: our leaders can’t just say ‘Refugee Crisis, Disappeario!’ and make everything better. And yet, sometimes, we need to hear something that seems as if it responds to the scale of the occasion. We stand witness to a once-in-a-generation humanitarian disaster in the Mediterranean, and our leaders have nothing to say and no policies to offer, beyond a generalised antipathy to immigration. What they have instead is a T-shirt cannon buying off the electorate, one interest group at a time. I don’t remember a time when our politicians seemed so small.


  • 20 April 2015 at 5:18pm
    Alan Benfield says:
    As I said in another post: one foundation of Keynesianism is that you run surpluses in the good times to pay for counter-cyclical investment in the lean times - but governments of both stripes will give away the shop in good times for either populist or ideological reasons.

    The present government has gone further: they are giving away the shop (in advance) when it's about to go into liquidation.

    So much for the Tories' reputation as economically prudent, surely?

    But who, among the electorate, will even notice?

  • 20 April 2015 at 7:45pm
    Jim McCue says:
    There are two ways to stop the people trafficking across the Mediterranean. Either set up a free ferry service for anyone who wants to come to Europe, so that there is no role for the criminals, or stop rescuing people and send gunboats instead to make the chances of getting across so slim that the risk is not worthwhile. Either make it free or make it very very dangerous. But just watch the EU spend the next few years do just what we do with drugs traffickers: neither undercut their trade by offering drugs for free, nor treat drug-use as a proper criminal offence -- with the result that the risk continues to be worth the profit and the suffering goes on.

    • 21 April 2015 at 10:52am
      Mat Snow says: @ Jim McCue
      Are you serious about the gunboat option? Would you send the Royal Navy? Are you relaxed about our armed forces being ordered to fire on unarmed civilians, including children? And, presumably, once they have sunk the boat, the Royal Navy certainly wouldn't be rescuing survivors in the water. Yes, I can just see the Senior Service agreeing to this.

      Or is this all by way of a Modest Proposal?

    • 22 April 2015 at 12:55pm says: @ Jim McCue
      Either accept them all or apply criteria. If the former, I suspect the supply is effectively limitless. If we apply criteria, then such is the pull of the 'civilised' world that it would still leave a lot of people trying to cross illegally on rickety boats.

  • 21 April 2015 at 4:29am
    tony lynch says:
    Well Jim, we could also stop destroying countries in the first place.

    • 21 April 2015 at 7:30am
      Jim McCue says: @ tony lynch
      We could certainly stop spending the money, since Syria, Libya and central Africa seem to have been just as successful at tearing themselves apart without us as Iraq and Afghanistan have been with our help. Whether turning our backs will bring a magical end to tribal and Shia-Sunni civil wars in the non-LRB-reading parts of the world, I am not quite so sure. But all that is irrelevant to my question about what we are going to do about the flood of migrants. Which politician will be brave enough to say that in truth we are not so worried about the ones who drown as the ones who don't?

    • 21 April 2015 at 10:39am
      Simon Wood says: @ Jim McCue
      People are saying some of the LRB was available in cuneiform on walls in the old city of Nimrud until it was destroyed by ISIS the other day.

      The first thing such conflicts and afflictions like the "flood of migrants" (excellent phrase) needs is us literary types to dramatise and imaginate the proceedings. Byron and Shelley did the same.

      The truth, so to speak, by contrast, is off-putting. I was sacked overnight in 2004 and watched, late at night, alone, subdued, on Channel 4, a brilliant documentary filmed on the migrant run, all the way across, from south of the Sahara to the Med. Canny 3-ton truck traffickers stopped in the middle of the desert and said, pay more now, else we'll dump you here. I think they passed human skeletons - that might be my own orientalism.

      That was 10 years ago. There was dust on the camera, the ride was bumpy, I think the filming was secret. But I did not feel so bad about my own economic slump after seeing this chilling and desperate stuff.

  • 21 April 2015 at 11:21am
    Geoff Roberts says:
    The deaths of those refugees is a bigger issue than these non-events that we read about here. Why doesn't the EU hire a dozen of those hideous Aida ships and equip them with medical staff, immigration teams and organisation people and send them over to solve the problem? The bigger ones can take on two thousand or more, can't they? That would be cheaper and more humane than sending a few ships over to try and fish out the survivors when one of those fishing boats sinks. It might show that we still believe in human rights and the protection of people from repression and torture.

    • 21 April 2015 at 11:38am
      Jim McCue says: @ Geoff Roberts
      I agree, as I wrote above: if we are to rescue people, better from the shore than the sea. How many would you propose to bring? (Assume, say, 1 million in the queue within the first six months, and all with a perfectly good claim to our protection.)

    • 21 April 2015 at 5:49pm
      Mat Snow says: @ Jim McCue
      Indeed, Jim. And how many Jews fleeing Nazi Germany in the '30s would you have let in?

    • 23 April 2015 at 10:12am
      Jim McCue says: @ Mat Snow
      That's a very very good question. Could Britain have let in six million? Politically, economically, socially? If the government had tried, would Britain have succumbed to Fascism?

    • 23 April 2015 at 10:35am
      Mat Snow says: @ Jim McCue
      According to the census of June 16, 1933, the Jewish population of Germany, including the Saar region (which at that time was still under the administration of the League of Nations), was approximately 505,000 people out of a total population of 67 million, or somewhat less than 0.75 percent.

      I think the UK, France, the US, Sweden and many other countries could have absorbed that number between them to the immeasurable benefit of their economies, polity and intellectual life.

      Don't you?

    • 23 April 2015 at 11:53am
      Jim McCue says: @ Mat Snow
      If they had all been prepared to work together, they might well have done, yes, and certainly it would have been highly culturally enriching. (The logistics is another question.) How many people in Africa and the Middle East do you think would like to take up the higher standard of living in Western Europe today; and tomorrow, and the day after; how educated are they (how much could they contribute economically, and how soon); and how well would their expectations and ways of life integrate with those around them (sharia law, scores of languages, arranged marriages, atavistic resentments...)? Do you believe that as individuals and societies we have an equal duty to everyone in the world?

    • 24 April 2015 at 11:09am
      Mat Snow says: @ Jim McCue
      I think you assume that those crossing over by boat from Libya are economic migrants rather than refugees fleeing death delivered either fast or slow.

    • 24 April 2015 at 12:48pm
      Jim McCue says: @ Mat Snow
      I don't think the potential migrants are limited to Libya or that their reasons for wanting to escape can be categorized simply. The distinction between refugees and economic migrants is extremely hazy, and probably cannot be drawn at all when the only evidence is their own testimony. Nor does it even matter much: as I've said, in one sense, they may all have a perfectly good claim to our protection. The question is how far we can possibly extend it.

    • 24 April 2015 at 5:25pm
      Mat Snow says: @ Jim McCue
      Isn't the urgent issue refugees from Libya or via that country trying to escape by boat? Aren't they the people who, it is proposed, should be deterred from trying to escape likely death on land by facing certain death at sea?

  • 24 April 2015 at 11:45pm
    Jim McCue says:
    Yes, there is an urgent issue of what to do about them. But even in a crisis, deeper and longer-term thinking is also advisable. People are being killed in their few hundreds here and there all the time and we scarcely notice (we have work to do, shopping to collect, Poldark to watch). What is concerning people about what is going on in Libya and Italy is the potential scale and the threat to our way of life. We all know about the housing crisis, the underclass economy, etc. There is already a shanty town full of migrants in Rome. Other European cities already have huge problems with migrant populations (though officially they pretend otherwise, for fear of making them worse). Now perhaps these things should scarcely weigh with us against the saving of lives, and there is a decency and integrity to that belief. But how many migrants do you want living in your garden?

    • 27 April 2015 at 1:42pm
      Mat Snow says: @ Jim McCue
      How many migrants do I want living in my garden? Dunno, Jim. I seem to recall such quality publications as The Sun, Mail and Express asking much the same about Romanians. Funnily enough, as of yet there are no Romanians living in my garden. Most Romanians seem pretty happy where they are, in Romania. Maybe because there is no war or social and economic breakdown in Romania. Perhaps we in Europe and the West should spend a little more effort not starting chains of unintended but foreseeable consequences. Perhaps we should try to fix what we break. And then those currently risking hell and high water to flee their homes will want to stay, just like the Romanians.

  • 27 April 2015 at 2:20pm
    Jim McCue says:
    I'm all for us not getting involved in faraway conflicts, partly because -- win or lose -- it is so appallingly difficult to restore (or install) a civil society. But you'll admit that faraway genocides or brutal dictatorships or expansionist caliphates do pose moral difficulties.

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