“Solid Conservatism.” It’s just punishment for a crime we didn’t commit
Today the Tory Party published its manifesto. Theresa May described it as “solid Conservatism” and the BBC dutifully reported that she was now targeting “mainstream Britain,” whatever all that guff means.
Presumably the Prime Minister has now grown tired of parking tanks on various lawns and begging Labour voters to lend her their votes. Judging by the protests that greeted the launch, in Halifax, of ‘Forward Together,’ they’re not too keen anyway.
Solid Conservatism? What’s that all about?
I remember when I was a kid ear-wigging a conversation between my mum and a neighbour. They were discussing another woman and I recall my mother, her voice full of derision, saying “she votes conservative now you know.” Her friend looked shocked and then snorted, “You’re joking! What the hell has she got to conserve?” They both erupted with laughter.
I’ve no idea what year this was or who the object of their hilarity might have been. It must have been the 1970s I guess. And, I assume, knowing my mum, this woman must have been a bit of a pompous snob. Such behaviour was an anathema to my mother.
I grew up listening to regular lectures about how I was no better than anyone else and that they were no better than me. It’s served me well to be fair; as has the advice to never take anyone’s word at face value, no matter who they were.
I’d never heard her use the word conservative though, either with a small or capital c, until that day. From that moment on though, I began to associate it with people who had money and who wanted to keep it to themselves. A bit of a caricature, I suppose.
I’m sure there will be those who argue that political conservatism is about much more than that. There’s a whole ideology behind it and a historical tradition to boot. For me to reduce such proud political sentiments to notions of greed and class war is both inaccurate and grossly unfair, they’ll say.
Of course I now know that the causes of conservatism are many and complex. Some people vote Tory because they genuinely identify with ideas of self-reliance and believe passionately that all you have to do to get on in life, is to work hard. Others actually believe that Conservatives are good at managing the economy, despite them borrowing more and repaying less than Labour historically.
The trouble with all of those arguments is, to coin a Tory phrase, they just don’t add up. For the whole of my life and the lives of my parents too, hard work has never paid anywhere near as much as accident of birth or, in the case of Phillip Green, crime. There have always been those who find themselves with lots to conserve and those who, no matter how hard they toil, will simply never get their true share.
I’m not denying that occasionally a working class man or woman will, through sheer determination, hard graft and a massive dose of good fortune, rise to the top. But how often does that really happen and, actually, how often could it happen?
The system is set up to ensure that those at the apex of wealth and power can only really stay there so long as the rest of us stay in our place. It is rigged, as Labour have pointed out in this election campaign, to ensure that this reality is conserved.
Today I’m wondering where the woman who earned my mother’s scorn is now. What does she make of May’s conservatism?
Maybe she feels she’s better off than her peers because she deserves it. She works hard, after all. Perhaps she still wants to vote for a Party that’s on her side, one that trumpets her self-reliance and work ethic. But is it her position, or the system she is conserving. After all her own status is by no means guaranteed. That’s only on loan, so long as the economic conditions permit her to hang on to it.
When calamity strikes its usually the poor, the unemployed and underemployed who are first to bear the brunt. After all, according to conservatism, they are architects of their own position. Theresa May said it herself. “I believe the best way out of poverty is work,” she said, justifying cuts to welfare, while ignoring the fact that 55% of those on benefits are actually in work.
These ideas are certainly not new. They were prevalent in Victorian times. Consider this quote:
“Heaven helps those who help themselves – whatever is done for men or classes, to a certain extent takes away the stimulus and necessity to do for themselves.”
Samuel Smiles, Self Help (1859)
Maybe my mother’s friend would reflect favourably on Labour taking us back to the 1970s, if she knew that Theresa May’s vision dates back to the nineteenth century.
Or maybe she still has some sympathy for this Tory ideology. After all, hard work never hurt anyone. Surely all the poor really need is a kick up the backside, she may think. If only they could stop relying on handouts and get on their bikes and look for work, Any work will do. Work is good for them. Isn’t it?
What she may not realise though is that’s really just the slipperiest of slopes. She started by convincing herself that all these food bank people are really just on their way to buy flat-screen televisions or crates of Stella Artois. Then production companies turned their lives into entertainment and newspapers convinced her they’re really all just scroungers. Suddenly she’s looking down her nose at people once more.
It works, for a while. Maybe she hasn’t noticed the gradual eating away of the welfare state, the NHS or the demise of our industry. Perhaps her personal position has remained strong and stable through all of that. Until now.
Then we get the May manifesto. “Solid Conservatism” for “mainstream Britain.” Suddenly it’s not just the so-called ‘feckless unemployed’ in the firing line. It’s the disabled, the old and the vulnerable too. People just like her, perhaps.
Now there’s no money left for education, unless we abolish free school meals for primary school children; literally taking food out of the mouths of kids, to pay for books and pencils. That can’t be right. Can it?
There’s nothing left now for social care, unless she can put up her house as security, or pay a bit extra for the privilege of surviving into old age. Or maybe her daughter can take a year off without pay to look after her when she can’t care for her self anymore.
It’s a grim vision that includes freezing in the winter, because she can no longer pay the gas or the electricity bills. Winter fuel payments are now gone. Her children can’t help her out, they’re trying to fund the grandchildren through University, or struggling with their rent or mortgages.
She’s terrified of getting sick, because the health service is in ruins and the thought of waiting hours on a trolley in a corridor fills her soul with dread. If she goes in, will she ever come out?
Maybe she wonders why this is all happening. After all she’s worked damned hard all her life and what has it all been for? She didn’t crash the economy. That was a crime perpetrated by somebody else. Someone who still has lots to conserve, thanks to bonuses, tax breaks and bail outs. Welfare for the rich, but none for the rest of us. None for her.
Maybe she turns on the TV and watches Benefits Street through a new lens now. After all it’s about people paying for crimes they didn’t commit. Just like she is now.
Fortunately for the object of my mum’s ire, it really doesn’t have to be this way. There is an alternative and a better world is possible. All she has to do is vote for it on the 8th June.