Sunday National, 25th October 2020.
I may not know a lot about football, but I’ll tell you this for nothing: the Tories could have hoped for a more unsympathetic opponent than young Marcus Rashford. In a week in which Boris Johnson’s administration has picked a fight with (a) itself, (b) most of the cities in northern England and (c) our friends in Europe – choosing to go toe-to-toe with a fresh-faced and socially-conscious footballer anxious about hungry kids in his own constituency might strike you as an embattled administration opening up a battle on one too many fronts.
In any other context, the England and Manchester United player would be the wholesome kind of kid your average Tory MP would be falling all over themselves to be photographed alongside, optimistic that a little of the striker’s celebrity gold dust might make your middle aged parliamentarian look a bit less like a gunmetal berk in his constituency mailshot.
22 years old, patently sincere, Rashford also has that distinctive virtue particularly valued in modern storytelling – he speaks with the weight of experience behind him, even as a young man. When he talks about food poverty, he’s remembering his own empty stomach. When he talks about families who struggle to juggle work and domestic life and school – he knows what his own family went through. He knows what it cost his mum to keep the show on the road, as best she could.
But here are the Tories, blasting away at the idea of school meals as being “effectively” the same as wiring £20 cash to a crack den or a brothel, wittering away about “virtue signalling” and dreaming up new ways to dignify their lack of compassion.
And what have the party’s media voices been shouting about this week? Oh yes, that’s right. A Labour MP allegedly murmuring “scum” during a parliamentary debate. The effrontery, Mr Speaker! The scandal! Baroness Nicky Morgan – that free-thinking Tory who resisted Johnson rule by first joining his cabinet, then dumping her constituency, then taking Boris’s friendly gazette into the House of Lords – could barely contain her delight on Question Time this week, seizing on the opportunity to divert the conversation away from the small matter of children lying in cold homes with empty stomachs, onto a diatribe about the nasty things which may or may not have been said in Westminster about one of her party colleagues.
“Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me,” the saying goes. Malnutrition during your growing years though, milady? That really stings. But away from the mean streets: back to the mean tweets. They are, after all, the real injustice which should get us all going. What’s a child’s hunger compared to someone with 23 followers calling you a twat on Twitter?
Democratic politics is a game of coalitions. You can’t win over all of the people all of the time. Sensible politicians never try. The key to getting in office – and staying there – is to identify your coalition, and from year to year, election to election – keeping enough of it together to keep the show on the road. Inevitably, you will lose support as you go. Wedge issues will knock off some of your voters, and gain you others.
Faced with an iceberg like coronavirus, the only question for elected representatives unlucky enough to find their hands on the tiller is how precisely you’d prefer to navigate into the ice. If you pick your way around the peril with perceived care, you may be rewarded politically for that, but your hull is taking a battering whichever way you steer. If you’re lucky, you’ll avoid sinking. If you are Boris Johnson, you’ll probably pull the plug out of your dinghy.
If you are a Tory, though, you’ll recognise that the votes of the men and women of no property aren’t enough to keep you out of office. Britain is prosperous enough – and indifferent to social solidarity enough – for the Conservatives to ratchet up 43.6% of the vote, and thanks to our disproportionate electoral system, to take a commanding 56% of Commons seats. Tories don’t need to care about kids in Britain with empty stomachs. They don’t need to care about the men and women – and they’re mostly women – trying to keep body and soul together for their families, even if that means going terribly short themselves. And most of them don’t.
Have a care. Always notice what your politicians get really animated about: it tells you a lot. Preposterously, this party and this government seems to believe that people should respond to their relentless vilification of them, their communities, and their families with friendly words. Being rude about the Conservative party seems like some kind of lèse-majesté in the imagination of now-unelected mouthpieces like Nicky Morgan. The logic? “By insulting me, you insult the voters who sent me here.” Labour’s predicament is that it needs the vote of people who voted Tory. Happily, I am not so encumbered.
The Conservative Party seem to expect us to regard their ministers as good eggs. Whatever they do, whatever they say, whatever odious spin they put on their policies to justify the latest crackdown on someone who doesn’t deserve it or can’t resist it, whatever consequences flow from their actions or words, we should apparently see them as generous, good-hearted, well-meaning chaps who are – at worst – a little out of their depth. As if it is any comfort to freeze under a thin acrylic blanket because of comradely negligence rather than active cruelty. If this kind of Gandhian bullshit appeals to you, you might as well take to tippling of an evening on snakebite and turpentine. You clearly have no braincells left to damage.
Use your eyes. Use your ears. If nothing about our situation or our society angers you – then I can only conclude you aren’t paying attention. If you can’t find a single sinew of your being that hates hunger, that hates injustice, that snaps tight watching this charlatan crew enrich, ennoble and aggrandise themselves and their friends on the bent backs of the jobless, the living hard, the people on Britain’s edges and corners, then you’re barely recognisable as a conscious human being, dumbly cocooned in your privileges. You should preen yourself only on the superhuman impermeability of your ignorance and your indifference.
I don’t like feeling angry. I don’t enjoy – as some people seem to enjoy – the queasy flare of adrenaline as the rage tightens across your chest, bunching tighter and tighter before bursting out across your bones like red rain. It is horrible, but abundantly necessary now.
It is a line I’ve used in this column before, stolen without apologies and without regret from the late great Maya Angelou. When people show you what they are: believe them. If politicians only come to life, if their political energies only seem truly stirred, if the only injustice they have a burning sense of outrage for is – essentially – someone calling them a rude name on social media or in the House of Commons, then you are probably contending with a dangerous narcissist with no sense of perspective about their real position in life, the power they exercise, and the cost of staffing our politics with people who – clearly – only hit their political strides when they have the opportunity to bemoan how desperately unfair and unkind it is when the people they beggar and the people they burden respond to Tory attacks on their standard of living with something less meek than “please sir, may I have another?”
Sometimes, demanding a “civil debate” is just Lady Bracknell clutching her pearls. Often, it is special pleading by politicians unprepared to recognise the extent of their personal responsibility for the choices they made and the people’s lives shaped by those choices. When Tory politicians parade their credentials as bad faith actors, when they endlessly swagger and puff their way through right-wing papers boasting about the extent of their inhumanity and the ugly work they’re prepared to authorise, when they see the limits of their compassion as a virtue and advertise the gated and barren territories of their imaginations as one of their unique political selling points – I beg you: do what Maya suggests.