Empty Brexit and dead schools: 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 Conservative Party 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 in the UK. Thatcher used a romantic, backwards looking vision of wartime Britain as a 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. I say shit, because 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? Answer: 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.

So 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 slightly higher levels of achievement if they get in, but very few of them ever get in, because those with more resources will always find ways to boost their chances of selection, 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 the future, 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 thinly-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 be fought.

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.

Power, surveillance and digital media

Yesterday I was teaching some of my students about Foucault, power and surveillance. These themes have never been more relevant to everyday life. The expansion of digital communications has created innumerable opportunities for the exercise of power through monitoring human activity, creating new kinds of vulnerabilities. This is especially the case for children and young people, whose lives are increasingly being played out online, warts and all.

Take Paris Brown, a 17 year old appointed in 2013 as the UK’s first youth crime commissioner. Her remit was to represent young people’s views to the police in Kent, and she invited them to use social media to do so. But social media came back to bite her. The tabloid press dredged up offensive posts from her Twitter account, including ill-advised racist, homophobic and violent comments, probably written whilst drunk. Her reputation was trashed, and a few days later she resigned.

Taken literally, the Tweets are lewd and unpleasant. Thinking about the context, however, it looks like this was just an adolescent seeking attention, perhaps showing off to her friends, expressing anger and confusion in a clumsy and foolish way, and pushing social boundaries to see what would happen. So – normal teenager stuff. For my generation growing up, you could say and do stupid stuff to get a reaction, cause a bit of outrage, and it was rarely recorded. That has all changed.

I also talked to my students about the UK government’s monitoring of communications through GCHQ. Afterwards, the question came up: is this sort of surveillance really such a bad thing? One student pointed out that GCHQ came out of Alan Turing’s work at Bletchley Park, including cracking the Enigma code during World War II, which helped defeat the Nazis. GCHQ’s current work involves foiling terrorist plots, saving lives. What’s wrong with that?

Clearly it is too simplistic to suggest that surveillance systems are driven by malice, like a bunch of Bond villains trawling people’s emails in a secret underground lair. Surveillance is more rational than that: the state is threatened by actions such as terrorism, and the production of knowledge is a crucial way of exercising of power to regulate these threatening actions.

But in any kind of rationality, there is always an irrationality. The power exercised by GCHQ doesn’t just block terrorism. It helps to produce terrorism as a definable thing – a set of ideas and subjectivities that can be monitored, documented and regulated.

Mass surveillance also has unintended consequences, like the unpleasant side effects of a medical treatment. Storing all electronic communication in the name of counter terrorism compromises the privacy of entire populations. That changes the nature of social life, in ways that may be hard to perceive but which are nonetheless pervasive. Autonomy is inevitably curtailed. An email, for instance, might look like communication between two people, but it isn’t. Other people can examine it, log it, store it. It could be used in a court of law at a later date in some way that is impossible to foresee.

We don’t have to look hard to find examples of such powers being used abusively. I imagine many of those who helped gather information for the East German Stasi believed that they were doing good, protecting their state from dangerous ideologies. The power they exercised no doubt enabled certain things, protected certain values – but it also crushed people and ideas that didn’t fit with the dominant view. It is all too easy for power to slip into violence.

Foucault poses the question of how to let power flow whilst avoiding it solidifying into authoritarian forms of domination. There are no easy answers. But we have to at least keep asking the question. It may well be that many of those working in surveillance wrestle with this on a daily basis. However, if you believe Edward Snowden’s description of America’s National Security Agency, the employees there were definitely not questioning what they were doing enough, or even at all – and that is when power becomes dangerous.

Alan Turing’s groundbreaking role in surveillance may have helped to win WWII, but look what happened to him: suicide, following persecution for his sexuality. The state monitored his private activities, criminalised him and subjected him to enforced medical castration. Government interference in the most intimate of matters caused him irreparable harm. It is an unfortunate irony that the machines he dreamt up are now being used to insert surveillance ever deeper into people’s lives.

Corbyn mania

Jeremy Corbyn is a threat to our national security, our economic security, and the security of your family. Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership poses a threat to our national security, a threat to our economic security, and to the security of your family. The Labour party, led by Jeremy Corbyn, now threatens not only our national security, but also the future of our economy, the future of your family, and the future of every single subatomic particle involved in your entire existence, including the ones we haven’t discovered yet. And Jeremy Corbyn will continue to be described in this way for as long as the cameras keep rolling.

Jeremy Corbyn is so obviously unelectable that we are spending all of our energy explaining to the electorate just how unelectable he really is, to make sure they understand.

Jeremy Corbyn’s reluctance to wear a suit and tie is a worrying sign of his antipathy towards Great British traditions, and his u-turn on wearing a suit and tie shows that he is too easily influenced. Jeremy Corbyn’s decision to wear, or not wear, a poppy, which may be red or white, is an insult to the Queen and the veterans who fought for our freedoms. Jeremy Corbyn did not sing a song about the Queen, and this non-singing was a narrow-minded, bigoted affront to our much-loved monarch. His decision to sing the song in future is a disgraceful betrayal of his own principles. Jeremy Corbyn’s refusal to agree, in a BBC interview, to kneel before the Queen, is a national disgrace and a gross abdication of his responsibilities as a party leader.

Jeremy Corbyn describes the IRA as “great craic” and says that Hezbollah militants “just need a hug”. Jeremy Corbyn thinks that Batteries Not Included was superior to ET, and that the Police Academy films got better as time went on. Jeremy Corbyn insists that the acting in Hollyoaks is quite good, and was genuinely disappointed when Judy Murray was voted off Strictly. Jeremy Corbyn thinks it would be “really, really cool” to form a soft rock covers band called “The Jeremies” with Jeremy Clarkson, Jeremy Paxman, and a Jeremy Beadle look-a-like standing in for the dead Jeremy Beadle.

Jeremy Corbyn keeps forgetting whether envelopes go in the paper recycling bin or the packaging one. Jeremy Corbyn’s glasses show dangerous levels of pixellated jaggy artefacts when viewed in low resolution JPEGs. Jeremy Corbyn still thinks it is hilarious to answer his mobile phone by shouting “whazzaap!”

Corbyn jaggies
Terrible jaggies on Jeremy Corbyn’s glasses in lo-res JPEGs: an insult to Britain, The Queen, politics etc

Jeremy Corbyn is too old, too tall, too short, too grey, too left, too rebellious, too red, too pale, too republican, too weak, too strong, too straight, too male, too woolly, too wrinkly, too bearded, too direct, too ordinary, too inflexible, too dogmatic, too democratic and too autocratic. His voice is too brittle, his hair is too uneven, his smile is too angular, his clothes are always the wrong colour, size and style. His teeth are not white enough, his skin is not tight enough, his bow is not deep enough. His feet slope too steeply, his chin is too simple, his eyes are too elliptical and his policies are incoherent outdated rehashed fantasies from the past which no-one will ever vote for at all. If you type Jeremy Corbyn’s phone number into a calculator and turn it upside down it says “bumtrousers”.

Jeremy Corbyn is a socialist, a trade unionist, a communist, a Marxist, a Leninist, a Stalinist, a sexist, a racist and a cyclist. Jeremy Corbyn’s cabinet appointments show his terrible lack of judgment, and have brought politics into disrepute. There are too many men, not enough women, the wrong distribution of women, too many lefties, too many people who set fire to hotel curtains ten years ago, not enough experience, too many divisions, not enough ethnic minorities, not enough working class disabled lesbian transgenderpeople, not enough [**add more here. Midgets/dwarves? Cancer survivors? Possibly link to Madeline McCann somehow**]

Jeremy Corbyn is utterly inept at evading journalists’ questions. He is disturbingly incapable of the obfuscation, on-message repetition and trite focus-grouped sound bite shite required for his profession. He struggles to give the same answer over and over again, and his reluctance to trade in facile clichés is deeply troubling.

Jeremy Corbyn’s toxicity is so potent that even the tiniest exposure to his face on TV will pollute your children forever. Jeremy Corbyn will come into your house, Jeremy Corbyn will eat your crisps, Jeremy Corbyn will do a dump in your toilet without flushing, and use up all the toilet roll without buying any more.

We respect Jeremy Corbyn’s mandate and congratulate him on his victory. It is a remarkable achievement, and we will do everything in our power to undermine it. We are on your side. We are all in it together. We support hard working families. We want a Britain for the strivers, not the shirkers, in which work always etc etc. Something about curtains in the morning. A Britain where those with the broadest shoulders bear the something something. A Britain based on some other things that initially sound good but on closer inspection turn out to be vacuous. A Britain dominated by English values, although the other UK nations do make quite nice holiday destinations. A Britain whose sense of its own importance in the world is vastly overinflated. A Britain that is truly Great again.

We did not extort public funds through parliamentary expenses. We did not deregulate the banks, or bail them out with billions of made up government money when they crashed. We did not defend the right of bankers to continue receiving lavish bonuses. We did not try to tax pasties or caravans, nor did we hastily change those plans in the face of popular opposition.

We did not exaggerate the case for war, or contribute to death and destruction in distant lands through the questionable deployment of our armed forces. We did not refuse asylum to people fleeing foreign conflicts, some of which we did not help to start. We did not turn a blind eye to widespread child sexual abuse. We did not allow the police to cover up the avoidable deaths of 96 football fans. We do not keep pushing for ever more privatisation of the NHS. We have not sold off major public assets to people who were already rich. We have not invited state run companies from other countries to operate our railways at a profit.

We have not persisted with an outmoded, unrepresentative electoral system. We have not allowed tax avoidance to continue on a massive scale. We have not presided over increasing poverty, inequality, the use of food banks and widespread public disillusionment with mainstream politics. We did not appoint a cabinet mostly made up of millionaires to oversee massive cuts in services for poor people. We did not appoint profit-making companies to reduce the benefits bill by inaccurately assessing disabled people’s fitness to work, and these assessments have not led to any deaths. We did not introduce tuition fees for higher education, and by not doing this we have not left many young people with crippling debts.

We did not claim public funds for a duck house, or for pornography. We did not award peerages to tax exiles. We did not take drugs or use prostitutes. We do not have a leader with a face that looks a bit like an oversalted ham, and he did not put his genitals inside the mouth of a dead pig [**CHECK – have photos emerged yet, what do they show?**]. We do not have a boss with a shrivelled punched-up raisin head whose journalists did not bribe police or hack the phones of murdered children.

Jeremy Corbyn wants to go back to old ideas from the mid 1970s, which no-one will vote for because they are ridiculous idealistic garbage which no-one will vote for. We have fresh new exciting modern ideas, developed by Thatcher in the late 1970s, and by Blair in the 1990s, which have led to untold prosperity and joy for the country. Jeremy Corbyn’s ideas can bring only despair and a return to the three day week. Jeremy Corbyn is made up of too many molecules, his name has too many syllables, his initials are blasphemous, and he’s so old and out of touch he probably doesn’t even realise that Zayn Malik has left One Direction, if he’s even heard of them, which he probably hasn’t.

We congratulate Jeremy Corbyn on his overwhelming victory, and wish him all the best in his new role. [outro music: Things Can Only Get Better by D:Ream]