As Lewis Carroll’s Red Queen explains to Alice, in Through the Looking Glass, you can have jam every other day: jam yesterday, and jam tomorrow; but never jam today.
Ahead of her big speech to the Charity Commission on Monday – in the event, a thinly disguised statement to the nation as a whole – Prime Minister Theresa May published a blog on Facebook. It started thus:
“When the British people voted in the referendum last June, they did not simply vote to withdraw from the European Union; they voted to change the way our country works – and the people for whom it works – for ever. It was a quiet revolution by those who feel the system has been stacked against them for too long – and an instruction to this government to seize the opportunity of building a stronger, fairer Britain that works for everyone, not just a privileged few.”
Really? I was under the impression we voters were simply saying whether we wanted to leave the EU or stay in it.
There’s a lot of talk about the “post-truth” world we inhabit nowadays. Is Theresa May’s ambitious claim part of that? It is certainly post facto rationalisation. For all I know she might be right that how those who voted to leave the EU felt that way: but it wasn’t what we voted on.
Political historians will pick over this for ever. Underlying the entire referendum campaign, there was discernible feeling of anger, a surge of protest, even. In a similar way, Donald Trump in the USA managed to tap into an undefined yet deeply-felt vein of resentment. I recall a TV interview with some ordinary American workers who said, “We’ve always voted Democrat. But Trump, he’s just saying what we think”.
It’s a neat ploy for politicians, saying what people think, particularly disgruntled ones. In the 1930s Hitler skilfully played on the massive resentment and sense of injustice that ordinary Germans were feeling.
No, I’m not accusing Trump of being like Hitler. Americans knew what they were voting for: they saw Donald Trump in all his garish, overstated reality. Commentators now tend to express the hope that Trump won’t be as extreme in office as he portrayed himself as a candidate: instead, with the responsibility of Head of State in the most powerful country in the world, he will calm down. Won’t he?
There is no mandate, nor any clearly defined message for the May government. The only message received at Westminster – that is, the only message transmitted – was that 52% of those who voted wanted to leave the EU.
Whatever the Prime Minister’s personal mission, and whatever motivation drives her to identify and rectify injustice, the June referendum gave her no message related to that statement of hers. Fine: I think a PM should try to tackle manifest wrongs. Certainly government should be doing more about mental health.
So what about “the everyday injustices that ordinary working class families feel are too often overlooked”? She might even be right when she talks about people who “feel locked out of the political and social discourse and feel no one is on your side”. If so, I hope she’ll do something about it.
Her solution to all these social ills is a “shared society”. WE’ve heard this kind of thing before.
It was Margaret Thatcher who famously pronounced that “there is no such thing as society”. Her opponents seized on this to show that she was dictatorial, selfish and hated the working class. She has always been quoted out of context. She was actually in line with David Cameron’s idea of the Big Society.
The view of both was that government shouldn’t be intervening on our doorstep, sorting out the things in our neighbourhood that frustrate us: it’s we who should do it, as active citizens. Rather than bleating, “Someone should do something about it”, Thatcher opined, we citizens should get off our backsides and sort it out.
Her message was lost amid the noise: and Cameron, having been persuasive about his belief in the Big Society at the start of his premiership, somehow just lost it. It wasn’t a sexy message for the spin doctors.
Curiously, Theresa May’s shared society is not more of the same. She reckons that government should get more involved to make society work properly. On such occasions I cannot resist misquoting Oscar Wilde: there’s only one thing worse than government ignoring communities, and that’s government getting stuck into them. How long, I wonder, before newspapers accuse Mrs May of expanding the nanny state?
There is something rather preachy and patronising about her manner, to my mind: and I’m cynical about her attachment to those who are “just about managing”, nowadays known as JAMs. The happen also to be swing voters, the very group whose floating, rather than tribal, votes tend to decide the outcome of a general election.
Were I a JAM, I might feel talked down to. There are platitudes, and warm sentiments: yet, when she talks about expanding mental health care, the PM has put only £15 million on the table. It can’t be ring-fenced by government and will probably be swallowed up in the NHS funding crisis.
Fine words: little detail. If I were a JAM, I wouldn’t hold my breath. They will be talked about a great deal, but little will happen for them: they are merely voters to be wooed.
The Red Queen was right. You can have JAM every other day: JAM yesterday, and JAM tomorrow; but never JAM today.