Burning Injustices

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.’


  • 19 May 2017 at 1:20pm
    IPFreely says:
    But it works, it works - in the sense that the voters (the tory ones ) will cheer and down another stiff one. She might not be Maggie but she's a dam' fine chap, got a brain too. You might check on the number of times "strong leadership" pops up and that is what it's all about. No definition, no examples, she is a reincarnation of Churchill without the blurry speech and the hangovers. (And since when must a manifesto have such a troublesome thing as a "point", huh?

  • 19 May 2017 at 3:05pm
    streetsj says:
    The Tories seem to be behaving like football teams of old putting everyone behind the ball just to defend their lead. In this case obviously the lead appears to be massive but it's still a very poor strategy. Or a very cynical one at least.
    I don't know May at all and I just wonder how much of this campaign I, I, I, is her and how much is Cosby. It's all very unattractive.

    The care thing, or dementia tax or whatever is not a tax at all. It's the terms of a means tested benefit. It makes sense to me and seems fairly naturally conservative: the State is there as the last resort not to hand out benefits to people who can afford to pay for them themselves. In this way it is completely different from inheritance tax that simply has the State gobbling up a share of whatever you left behind.

    • 19 May 2017 at 6:36pm
      Graucho says: @ streetsj
      Is dementia a disease or isn't it ? If your kidneys or liver or joints were failing the NHS would pick up the tab and I always thought the brain was just as much an organ of the human body as all those other bits.

    • 19 May 2017 at 8:04pm
      martyn94 says: @ Graucho
      But the NHS are not treating your brain: other parts of our provision are just coping with the fact that it no longer works so well. As is pretty normal. I used to work for HMRC, as it is now, and had to reply to endless letters whose authors congratulated themselves for "saving for a rainy day" (and therefore saw no reason to pay towards anyone else's misfortunes). They were much less keen to dis-save when the rain was coming through their roof.

  • 20 May 2017 at 8:52am
    tenyards says:
    Buying a house on a 25 year mortgage in the 1980's it occurred to me that as more and more people bought houses, by round about now, parents would be able to pass their fully paid for houses on to their offspring and the banks would have lost their biggest ever cash cow.
    Now we have the banker's response, the soon to be expanded and privatised Death Tax.
    Add in a society that appears to be designed to atomise, alienate and generally create the ideal conditions for the spread of physical and mental ill-health and before you know it, we are all back to paying mortgages again.

    • 23 May 2017 at 10:02am
      martyn94 says: @ tenyards
      "Back to paying mortgages again"? The problem, apparently, is more about getting one, or at least raising the deposit. The hitch lies in the timing (even disregarding the inconvenient many tens of millions who don't have wealthy parents). My parents died far too young, and anyway were pretty much skint by the time they died. More often they die far too late to be helpful.

      There's a lot of talk now about the "bank of mum and dad". But the UK has had a tax regime which is insanely favourable to lifetime transfers of wealth for many decades now, and yet remarkably little of it happens, compared to what wealth-owners could safely afford, and given the tax they could save. There are, no doubt, intelligible psychological reasons for this, but in any event, I suspect that it is premature to predict the death of the mortgage business.

      But it is always the right time to regard the need to actually pay for yourself, from ample means, as an attempt to "atomise society".

    • 23 May 2017 at 11:29am
      tenyards says: @ martyn94
      Only in a very stupid society does a basic necessity like housing become regarded as the greatest source of wealth creation.
      Throughout human history, living in families, groups and communities has always offered the best protection against the insecurities of life. The increasingly atomised western world has much decreased these protections and leaves the most vulnerable open to cynical exploitation scams, like the death tax. Paying your own way is a philosophy very popular with the wealthy and privileged who have seldom had to do it.

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