The ghostly politics of Theresa May

Grey face, empty words, opacity and absence. Theresa May is a bad Thatcher tribute act. She does the voice better than the original, but everything else is just miming to the backing track.

During the EU referendum campaign she was nicknamed “submarine May”, but submarines dive because they have something important to hide. Our newly unelected Prime Minister seems to be hiding precisely because, so far, she has nothing to give us: no answers to the big Brexit questions, no coherent programme for government, just slogans on repeat and expensive brown trousers.

At a time when the UK faces massive political upheaval, she stands in front of an RAF chopper saying she wants a “red, white and blue Brexit”. An appeal not to principles of economics, democracy or sovereignty, but to the hollow nationalism of flag colours. Vacuity has become virtue.

Now we have the ‘shared society’. Only the Conservatives could think it original to propose that society is something collective. Next up: edible food, wearable clothes, learning schools and a health service based on medical care.

With so little content on display, what can we say about Prime Minister May? One thing seems clear: she is riding the latest wave of what Simon Reynolds has called retromania, the addiction of culture to its own past. Brexit has become a rallying cry for those who view our country through a rose-tinted rearview mirror. The Leave campaign’s operative word wasn’t ‘take’ or ‘control’ but ‘back’. We want our country back. Way back. In a world stuck on fast forward, people are reaching for the comforts of the rewind.

So Theresa May has decided to re, re, wind, so the crowd won’t say ‘reject her’. Her style mixes the 1950s and the 1980s, like a wedding DJ trying to please everyone. With Corbyn in opposition beatmatching the 60s and 70s, all we need is Tony Blair’s 1990s Britpop revival and parliament will be like one of those clubs with music from different decades on different floors.

When warm nostalgia gets into politics, it curdles into something lumpier and less appetizing. We have seen this before: Thatcher used a rose-tinted, backwards looking vision of wartime Britain as a kind of cultural cover for economic policies that eroded the shared society we once had. Her idea of Britishness was inspired by Churchill, who in turn harked back to the British Empire, and its sense of moral and cultural superiority. (Adam Curtis’s 1995 film The Attic deals with these themes, and is therefore essential Brexit viewing).

So Theresa May is a covers band of a covers band of a covers band. Look at how she has dug up the rotting corpse of grammar schools as a flagshit policy. The evidence on selective schooling is clear: it increases inequality, and decreases overall levels of attainment, which is the exact opposite of May’s stated aim of making “a country that works for everyone”. Even some of her own MPs oppose the policy.

Why would a politician want to invoke the ghost of such a dead dysfunctional system? The real function is not to improve schools but to  appeal to the aspirations of voters, particularly amongst the working and lower middle classes, in a way that requires little money or action. The PM has sent a message: “We want your children to have the opportunity to do well, like they did in the past” – even though grammar schools probably won’t be built near you, and even if they are your child probably won’t get a place. It doesn’t really matter whether the schools ever get built or not; the policy has already done its work, stirring up hopeful little voices inside parents’ heads that whisper, “my child is special, my child is clever, maybe my child could get in.” Theresa May is leveraging parental ambition to build political support, dangling before us a tantalising illusion of meritocracy that obscures the blunt reality of inequality.

Because again the evidence is clear: poor children are less likely to get into grammar schools, even if they are high achievers. There are exceptions of course, but exceptions are irrelevant when you are organising education for an entire population. Poorer children do tend to have higher levels of achievement if they get in, but not many of them get that opportunity. If schooling is selective, those with more resources will always find ways to boost their chances of being selected, such as private prep schools or tutors to coach for the 11-plus. Grammar schools disproportionately benefit the affluent, for whom they provide a free alternative to private school. So the policy appeals to that demographic too.

We must not allow our instincts to be played in this way. Instead, let’s be pro-active and read May’s politics as a crystal ball for Brexit. She keeps saying she won’t show her negotiating hand, that we must trust her to get the UK a unique and favourable deal. Yet her leadership to date shows little to suggest she is capable of pulling something really clever out of the bag. As well as the grammar school proposals, her government has watered down the obesity strategy, passed a snoopers’ charter that violates privacy, kicked the Heathrow 3rd runway vote into next year, and dithered over Hinkley Point. Based on this track record, expecting Theresa May to come up with a brilliant solution for Brexit would be like expecting Michael Buble to drop a deadly grime banger on his next album.

Our new PM has not shown herself to be someone who produces ingenious, bold, innovative solutions to difficult problems. At best, she produces policies that appeal to English conservative voters’ love of authority, hierarchy, and Britain’s mythic past, whilst minimising any impact on the vested interests that support her party.

I therefore guess her Brexit priorities will be:

  • To appear tough on immigration, whilst allowing it to continue in disguised forms where it serves particular interests and sectors, such as food production and banking.
  • To maintain trading links with the EU, but without remaining part of the single market. This might involve special arrangements for sectors and companies seen as valuable e.g. large companies (like the deal with Nissan), the City of London.
  • To use Brexit as an opportunity to weaken laws on human rights and labour rights. As a friend of mine put it, May is instinctively illiberal – like many of her party and its supporters. She will be looking for ways to advance that agenda wherever possible.

Ghostly politics, but with very real effects. This is the terrain on which she must now be fought.

Donald Trump: sexual failure and tragic masculinity

“I’d never withdraw. I’ve never withdrawn in my life.” Not the wisest choice of words for a man who has just been caught bragging about sexually assaulting women.

Yet amidst the disgust at Trump’s lewd boasting, something has been overlooked. The taped conversation that has caused so much controversy actually begins with an admission of sexual failure. “I moved on her and I failed…I couldn’t get there.”

His ‘move’ was take ‘her’ shopping for ‘nice furniture’. You can picture it. Trump reclines suggestively on a million dollar gold plated olympic-sized bed, flashing his wad, but his advances are spurned. Nancy says no. A deflated Donald limps home to console himself with his 1980s porn stash and a box of gold plated tissues.

The knock-back is hardly surprising. Anyone with functioning eyes can see that Trump is every bit as ugly as his rhetoric. It makes his rudeness about women’s appearance all the more laughable. His head looks like some squashed meat topped with candy floss. The mouth either slumps open miserably or screws up into a cat’s ass. Some men with those physical characteristics might make themselves more attractive through courteousness, sensitivity or intellect, but Donald’s Top Trumps card scores low on everything but wealth and fame.

So it turns out Trump is not the alpha male but the tragic male. The puffed up egotist who likes to think he can have any woman (even though he clearly can’t), who likes to think he’s attractive (despite being well past his prime), who wants to believe women are desperate for him (whereas in fact it’s him who is desperate for them, resorting to grabbing, groping, and bribing them with shopping trips). David Brooks sees in Trump a deeply sad, lonely character: “His attempts at intimacy are gruesome parodies, lunging at women as if they were pieces of meat.”

This is a man who says he can trump everyone, but whose every emission stinks like a noxious fart. No alpha male comes out with lines like, “I better use some Tic Tacs just in case I start kissing her.” This is a man who knows the toxicity of his own halitosis.

His tragic male defence is to argue that all men are essentially the same. ‘Locker room talk’, ‘Bill Clinton did worse.’ This diffusion of responsibility, this retreat to strength in numbers, must be resisted. Trump’s rancid chat is not ‘what men say’. It’s what abusive misogynists say. Professional sportsmen have made it clear that his remarks are absolutely not normal ‘locker room talk’. And trying to use his opponent’s husband’s behaviour to discredit her merely reaffirms Trump’s position as the king of sexism. Whatever your opinion of Bill Clinton, one thing is clear: he’s not running for president. Trump is.

It has been suggested that, regrettably, some men do talk like this. Personally, whilst I’ve witnessed plenty of sexism, I can’t recall anything quite so explicitly derogatory and abusive. So when Nigel Farage says that this is just ‘what men do’, remember that the men he associates with include xenophobes who use physical violence to settle political disputes.

The real test for those of us appalled by Trump will be whether we can see beyond him as an individual and grasp the wider situation of which he is a symptom. This is not just about Trump, and not just about America. What is it in western culture that has given so much attention, adulation and material wealth to such a hateful, tragic man? How has mainstream politics failed so catastrophically that disenfranchised voters are turning to men like Trump and Farage to express their fears and dreams?

If Hillary wins, what will happen to all the anger and disaffection that Trump’s campaign has surfaced? Will it be repressed again as unacceptable, buried like nuclear waste, left to fester? Or could a politics be found that acknowledges it, makes space for it to be voiced and heard, without amplifying or celebrating it?

Some Brits are treating Trump as a distant horrorshow, the product of a craziness that only happens in the US. But the Brexit brigade have courted the same angry working class voters as Trump, and promoted a similarly anti-immigrant, backwards-looking vision (make American great again; take back control) with no plan for delivery. Comparisons with Boris Johnson have already been made. Trump is just more raw, more explicit, more transparently obvious. Where Trump channels nostalgia for the heyday of US capitalism, Boris channels nostalgia for the British Empire.

Trump also reminds me of Jimmy Savile, another tragic alpha male wannabe. Trump seems to have targeted adult women rather than children, but there is something disturbingly similar in the stories of sexual predation. Like Trump, Savile was egotistical, self-promoting, and relentlessly pursued celebrity. Princess Diana reportedly described both men as ‘creepy’.

For Brits who think Trump couldn’t happen in the UK, think on this: we put Savile on TV, lauded and applauded him, ignored all the rumours and warning signs, gave him access to vulnerable people via public institutions, and awarded him a knighthood. If there is anything to be hopeful about here, it is that, unlike Savile, Trump is still alive to face the consequences of his actions.

On the EU referendum

The night before the EU referendum, I dreamed about Boris Johnson. In the course of heated conversation with him, I insulted Thatcher, and the imaginary lump of PM-wannabe inside my sleeping mind leapt to her defence: “Don’t speak that way about mummy!”

“So this is what it’s all about with you is it, some weird Oedipal thing with her?” I shouted, incandescent with rage. Deep in my REM stupor, I repeatedly punched his sagging face, but it was impossible to do any damage, like battering one of Bandura’s bobo dolls. BoJo bobo. The lips wobbled a bit but the face remained impassive. My slumbering psyche clearly believed the man was made of tough stuff.

I’m strongly biassed in favour of Europe. I might even be a stereotypical Remain voter: left-leaning, broadsheet-reading, university educated. I’m part of what privileged metropolitan elites like Nigel Farage like to deride as the privileged metropolitan elite. Through all the debates, my Europhile switch stayed firmly in the ‘on’ position.

But I grew up in a small, depressed, post-industrial working-class town in the northwest of England under Thatcher. Poverty, unemployment and dereliction were all around. That area voted decisively to leave. So I can understand why those who feel ignored or disadvantaged by the current situation would want to vote out, given the lack of alternative ways to get change.

Amidst all the acrimony and fall out, I want to make five points.

1: If democracy is what you want, forget about the EU and sort out Westminster.

The Leave campaign only became champions of democracy once it suited their interests. If democracy is the priority, what we really need is to replace the UK’s first past the post system with some form of proportional representation. A lot of European countries have this, as does the European Parliament, so they are way ahead of us on democracy.

Electoral reform shouldn’t just be a dull thing for politics geeks. It could make a massive difference to people’s sense of empowerment. I experienced PR in Scottish elections when I lived there, and it not only makes the government more representative of voters’ preferences but – crucially – alters the way it feels to vote.

That feeling is vital. It creates a sense of being included, of having a stake, rather than feelings of powerlessness. The first past the post system breeds indifference amongst the vast numbers who live in safe seats. If politicians don’t even bother to leaflet your house, why would you be bothered to go out and vote?

I suspect the high turnout for the referendum was because, for many voters, it was the first time they felt their vote would really make a difference. And now it has.

I have no idea how we can get PR, given that so few in Westminster support it, but figuring out some kind of strategy should now be a priority. Surveys suggest that voters are unhappy with first past the post, so that is a start at least.

Prior to the last UK general election, Ed Miliband visited my workplace. Squeezing in between people taking selfies, I asked the then-Labour-leader: “Any interest in proportional representation?” The reply was blunt: “Not much.” I explained that I lived in a Conservative and Lib Dem marginal seat but wanted to vote Labour. “Go to Chester,” he urged me. In other words, the best his party could offer me as a way to participate was to travel 40 miles from my home to campaign in a swing seat, to try to persuade other people to vote Labour. Seriously? For me, that was the point when Labour lost the election.

First past the post is the single biggest obstacle to meaningful democracy in the UK. Whilst we have it, concerns about the governance of the EU are just a distraction.

2: The solution to stretched public services isn’t to reduce immigration, it is to stop austerity and raise taxes.

Research suggests that the fiscal impact of migration is fairly minimal. Estimates vary depending on the migrants in question and the assumptions made in the calculations (e.g. recent EU migrants make a substantial net contribution), but in terms of UK government spending as a whole, migration does not appear to make a massive difference.

So the real problem with public services is not immigrants draining the system. It is that UK governments simply don’t collect enough taxes to adequately fund all the services and benefits that people want as they live longer, have higher expectations and living standards, and – yes – as the population grows due to factors such as immigration.

Politicians are reluctant to talk about tax rises for fear of upsetting voters. Tory policy sidesteps the issue by pretending that punitive cuts are the only viable option – appealing to people’s callousness and self-interest rather than their generosity. We need politicians to be braver, and confront the public with a difficult but important question: with an ageing population, do we want to keep paying less tax and have overstretched, underfunded services and rising inequality, or are we willing to pay a more tax and have better services?

We must also keep up the pressure on all governments to combat tax avoidance and evasion. In 2015, £34 billion of tax was owed but never paid, which is far more than the UK’s annual contributions to the EU. HMRC should be given a massive boost in funds so that they can do a better job of collecting what is owed. Such investment would surely pay returns in the long term.

If we can collect more tax and expand public services to meet demand, that would also create more rewarding jobs for young people in teaching, nursing and medicine.

Those on the Leave side say they are not xenophobic, they are just raising legitimate concerns about pressures on public services. I can only imagine that these concerns must feel very real when you are also competing with migrants for work. But if you insist on arguing that migration is the main problem with public services, when all the evidence suggests that the causes are far more complex – ageing population, government cuts, unfair taxation – then that is xenophobic, whether you intend it or not.

Yes, we currently send money to the EU, and after Brexit that money could be used for UK public services. But the net figure is clearly much lower than the misleading £350 million per week which all the Leave figures hastily backed away from after the referendum result. The figure I’ve heard recently is £160 million per week. That’s still lots of money, but are people like Theresa May really going to ring-fence that to fund public services? It seems more likely that they’d use it to give more tax breaks to wealthy people and benefits for Conservative voters such as pensioners. It might simply disappear as our economy takes a hit, or it may all be needed to plug gaps for those who have lost EU funding – farmers, universities, public infrastructure projects etc.

3: Immigration statistics are bogus.

For example, overseas students are counted as immigrants. This is bonkers. They are coming here for a limited period of time, often paying massive fees to UK universities, buying food and accommodation from local businesses, learning our language, loving our education and culture. Most of them are young, healthy people without dependents, and they don’t buy houses. So the pressure they put on resources is limited, and their contribution is massive. They live mainly close to universities, in cities, which on the whole are happy to have them as part of the cosmopolitan mix. Why on earth would we want to make it harder for these people to come here?

If we are going to have a sensible pubic debate about appropriate levels of immigration, we need a much better understanding of what that blanket label actually refers to – who is coming here and why.

4: Fighting fear with fear doesn’t work. 

Cameron and Osborne’s gamble was that establishment figures could scare voters into choosing the safer option. That strategy seemed to have worked in the Scottish independence referendum and the last general election.

Clearly, Project Fear failed in the EU referendum. But is there any evidence that it ever really worked? During the Scottish referendum campaign, as the No campaign finger-wagged their way through endless dire warnings about possible consequences, support for independence grew steadily, leaving the result much closer than expected, and SNP popularity at unprecedented levels. In the 2015 general election, a lot of people simply preferred Cameron to Miliband as PM. And in the London Mayoral election, none of the shit thrown at Sadiq Khan stuck in the end.

The biggest fear at the heart of the referendum campaign was fear of immigrants, and that trumped fear of change and fear of recession. When people are already frightened of something, they need reassurance, not to have politicians try to frighten them of something else. It’s like dealing with someone who is scared of mice by throwing spiders at them to try and distract them.

Things might have turned out different if someone on the Remain side had offered something concrete to assuage people’s fears. For example: a promise to put a small tax on financial transactions, with the funds raised used to expand schools and hospitals in areas with high immigration. If Brexit doesn’t deliver the vast reductions in immigration that many Leave voters were hoping for, such measures could help to reduce some of the anxiety and resentment.

5: For those who voted Remain, there are still some positives…I hope.

It’s tough to lose, especially when you expected to win. But we need to pick ourselves up and think about what can be done now.

It’s possible – being optimistic here for a moment – that EU exit might force Brits to start confronting what is wrong with Britain itself rather than blaming problems on other people. Surely that would be good. UKIP will no doubt still try to lay every ill at the door of the immigrants and Brussels bureaucrats, but it will be harder for such claims to carry weight now that they have got what they wanted.

Almost half the population wants to stay in, so compromise looks more likely than the all-out exit that many Leavers hope for. Leaving the single market, for example, increasingly looks like an almost impossible decision for any politician to take because of its negative impact on UK businesses. And the EU is adamant that single market means free movement of Labour.

It’s still possible that Brexit won’t happen; more likely that it will turn out to be something partial that retains many ties with Europe. Even if EU migration is somehow restricted, overall immigration is likely to stay much higher than Leave voters wanted. If that happens, what comes next is anyone’s guess. Leave voters would likely feel even more betrayed by mainstream politics – that could be dangerous, but also an opportunity for a more hopeful, honest politics to emerge.

Scotland is in an incredibly interesting position. If it can find a way to remain in the EU, it could offer a new home for those disappointed by Brexit, and willing to move a few hundred miles to a place that shares their values. Economically, Scotland could struggle alone – but if the Brexit ship carries on sinking then the union may no longer offer economic stability.

As the dust settles, it looks like May and her gang have inherited an electorate many of whom now have massively over-egged expectations about how Brexit will help them. The referendum campaign has left the Tories with a still-divided party, a divided Kingdom, a Union drifting apart, and an economy probably heading for recession. These Tories, who told us again and again that voting Labour would bring the country to ruins, have done exactly that. They have regrouped with cyborg-like efficiency following the referendum, but if Brexit unravels they could come spectacularly unstuck.

As for BoJo, he has bounced back yet again. A man capable of leading us into a crisis, but not capable of leading us out. He shat the bed and then ran off, only to land a top job in the reshuffle. It now looks like his real similarity with Churchill is not some mythic Great British leadership qualities, but his racist and colonialist attitudes. How will these play out now that he is foreign secretary? As someone posted on Twitter: ‘May to civil servant: When I wrote F.O. next to Boris Johnson, that’s not what I meant.’ We can only hope he screws up so badly that it finishes him off for good.

The failure of voice

I’ve been writing a paper about the sounds of the voice. Thinking about the topic reminded me of a brilliant gaffe from BBC Radio 4 presenter Jim Naughtie a few years ago. I’m not sure if this will make it into the final paper, but here’s a bit lifted from my current draft, with a YouTube clip of the memorable moment.

 

Voices are machinic from the very beginning. They arise from vibrational systems, as lungs, vocal cords, throats, tongues and ears get hooked up to architectural spaces, bodies of air, microphones and amplifiers, telephones and answerphones, audio and video recording, headsets, headphones and loudspeakers, scripts and autocues. From the first moment that Bell spoke to Watson on the telephone, from the earliest etchings of Edison’s words into phonograph foil, sound machines have pulled apart the humanist subject, reminding the voice of its humble origins amongst vibrating body parts. Not only does listening to the technologized voice tell us as much about contemporary existence as the classic interpersonal interview encounter, but that encounter itself must be rethought to recognize the voice recorder as a key actant.

 

In its restless movements through multiple machines, voice can never completely express the self as a conscious, contained, definable identity. It may present an illusion of rational self-possession and self-presence; it may be eloquent, articulate and clipped, with received pronunciation; the machines may black box its body out of sight and out of mind; and yet still the voice fails.

 

Take the Scottish radio presenter Jim Naughtie. For over two decades his voice was a regular feature of the Today programme, BBC Radio 4’s flagship morning news and current affairs show. Naughtie’s voice, like most official BBC voices, produces a sense of effortless rationality. It’s male Scottish accent achieves perfect clarity of enunciation, authoritative without ever being overbearing. Vocal apparatus combines with large diaphragm condenser microphones, pre-prepared scripts, acoustically treated studios and carefully optimised dynamic range compression to produce the most articulate and comprehensible of utterances. Phonemes roll out fully formed. Cadences rise and fall properly. And yet on one memorable occasion in 2010, when introducing Conservative minister Jeremy Hunt the Culture Secretary, Naughtie’s voice accidentally swapped the ‘H’ of Hunt and the ‘C’ of Culture to shocking and hilarious effect.

Whether this incident was simple Spoonerism or Freudian slip is beside the point. Of more interest is how Naughtie’s voice broke down in the immediate aftermath, like a tower block crumbling following the dynamite blast of demolition. Valiantly continuing to read out the headlines, the voice starts choking on its words, beset by dry coughs and awkward pauses. Utterances are spat out, forced through hoarseness, vocal cords seizing up. In this thickened, viscous tone, veering between laughter and tears, mundane lines about high speed broadband networks and Egyptian shark attacks take on a strangely gasping, almost morbid quality. The rational voice-from-the-ether suddenly acquires a body, which intrudes noisily, all-too-human in its frailty and fallibility. “Excuse me,” Naughtie eventually splutters, “coughing fit” – an excuse whose obvious inadequacy compounds matters. Such is the desperation of a man struggling with his own mouth. At points the strangulated voice is reminiscent of a scene from TV comedy I’m Alan Partridge, in which the eponymous antihero, invisible in a darkened bedroom, tries to speak about the pedestrianisation of Norwich city centre whilst receiving fellatio, vocal tone becoming warped by sexual arousal.

 

Such incidents, where the body trips up the voice, are not uncommon. Broadcasters, presenters, actors and singers routinely experience voices misfiring, script lines being forgotten, communication lines going dead, bouts of laryngitis, guests who say too much or not enough. There is a whole programme genre based on outtakes and bloopers, exploiting the humour that bubbles out when gaffes and fluffed lines puncture the performance of voice. If vocal breakdown can happen to trained, experienced, rehearsed voices surrounded by sophisticated technologies, it can happen to anyone.

 

Teach ballet to dogs

Yet another splendid plan from David Cameron: teach English to Muslim women living in the UK, to help them integrate and reduce the risk of becoming radicalised.

 

The PM has made it clear that there is no simple cause and effect going on here. Nevertheless, he says, not speaking English probably contributes to a lack of integration, which might make people at more risk of something or other, affecting something something, and in the end you get more terrorists.

 

Cameron apparently said this actual sentence:

“some of these people have come from quite patriarchal societies and perhaps the menfolk haven’t wanted them to speak English” (source: here)

 

First, calling them ‘menfolk’ instead of just ‘men’ makes them sound like some tribe whose primitive rituals he is documenting during an expedition in the 1800s. Picture him in a bright white pith helmet, striding purposefully around our inner cities, instructing people with brown skin on how to enunciate properly.

 

Second, if there is any truth in this statement, then Muslim women who have male family members trying to influence their language abilities now also have a highly privileged white man they have never met trying to influence their language abilities. Is that supposed to be an improvement? It is reminiscent of Spivak’s critique of ‘white men saving brown women from brown men.’

 

Inspired by all of this, here are some more bold policy ideas based on imaginary chains of possible influence that certainly seem plausible inside my own mind. I hope Team Cameron will give them full consideration:

  • Teach ballet to dogs to prevent them fouling our streets.
  • Teach camouflage to black people to decrease their likelihood of being shot by police.
  • Teach tax evasion to junior doctors to help them get by on lower wages.
  • Teach badminton to lesbian wheelchair users to make them get out more.
  • Teach law to criminals to stop them filling our jails.
  • Teach swimming to Syrian migrants to enable them to avoid drowning.
  • Teach Mandarin to bigots to broaden their horizons.
  • Teach suicide bombing to pigeons to reduce their numbers.

 

All of the above will definitely work.