Glen Newey · Theresa May’s Manifesto
As a student I sometimes whiled away the longueurs in the library with A Humument by Tom Phillips. It’s a redacted version of the sentimental Victorian novel A Human Document, with much of the text blotted out, and doodles by Phillips. Much later, following his inspiration, I set to work on Tony Blair: A Journey, the ex-PM’s remainder-friendly mea minima culpa. ‘To Bar a Jury’ remains a work in progress, not least because of the boredom of actually reading before deciding what to paintbrush out; one technique is to remove all words but ‘I’, which still leaves a fairly densely printed page.
Theresa May’s election manifesto invites the Phillips treatment or similar. It’s mildly amusing to take an editable version of the file and auto-replace, say, ‘strong’ (113 occurrences including ‘strength’) with ‘crap’, ‘stable’ (20) with ‘stale’ or ‘work’ (a staggering 208) with ‘shirk’, in a bid to subvert the pitiless mom-and-shoofly-pie platitudes. The political uses of boredom are manifold, but intentionally reducing one’s audience to stupefied ennui generally serves a conservative end: it meets dissent, whether radical or mildly demurring, not with reasoned rebuttal, but the burring ostinato of banality.
The pallor of its language apart, the manifesto’s content, such as it is, seems likewise aimed at dulling rather than meeting critique. It identifies ‘five giant challenges’ that the country faces, the implication being that their gigantism is such that only May’s crap and stale leadership can face them down. They are the need for a strong economy, the Brexit farrago, social divisions, the fact that as we get older we don’t get any younger, and all that hi-tech internet stuff (on which the manifesto doesn’t have much to offer apart from seeing it as a threat that May will protect us from).
Never mind that Brexit may zap our chances of seeing off the other challenges, notably if the economy shrivels. The official line is that the post-Brexit economy is set to boom, but there are intimations that there’s not much juice left in the lemon.
The old are blue-chip voters for the Conservatives, since they’re both more Tory and more likely to vote than anyone else, but they’ve got it coming now that Central Office expects to greet an influx of ex-Ukip voters. The winter fuel allowance will be means-tested. The pension triple lock (in effect a minimum 2.5 per cent increase in the state pension each year) will get the heave-ho in 2020. Then there’s paying for elderly care, the costs of which will be clawed back from the patient’s estate (not including the first £100,000 of assets) once they croak. A surviving spouse can hang on in the marital home but when he or she dies the kids will have to go. The policy amounts to a hypothecated death-duty.
Another big balloon is ‘the world’s Great Meritocracy’, which refers to Britain. This is the bit most obviously influenced by May’s chief of staff Nick Timothy. It rehearses in clamant terms her speech last July outside Number Ten about unequal life chances, denouncing ‘burning injustices’. The trick here is to lather away about meritocracy while steering the audience’s sightline past the mastodon in the parlour: private schools. Naturally nothing is being done to abolish them, tax their endowments, or stop the tax holiday they get as charities. They can join a non-compulsory scheme to sponsor academies. One of the more jaw-dropping passages notes that though ‘ordinary, working-class families’ can’t afford to live in the catchment area of decent schools, ‘we will never introduce a mandatory, lottery-based school admissions policy.’ Why bother to mandate a real lottery when a rigged one already exists?
In sum, the manifesto is a pointless document because it is a platform on which May is fighting a pointless election, called to enforce party political advantage. We ‘can turn our face to the past’, she writes, or ‘look forward with optimism.’ What, we British? She might as well be telling us to ‘keep calm and carry on.’