Sunday National, 31st October 2021.
“Boosterism” is the concept the media have settled on to describe Boris Johnson’s governing philosophy. “Projecting mindless optimism” would be another way of describing it. Biffing the gloomsters and naysayers, the Prime Minister’s vision for Making Britain Great Again mainly consists of agitated rhetoric, colourful word choices and promises to reverse policies imposed on Britain by successive Tory governments.
It is a neat political trick it you can manage it. Labour have never learned the knack of getting political credit for both creating and pretending to fix social problems. Thus far, Johnson’s administration seems to be thriving on the doublethink.
You can keep yourself in office for years and years using the language of austerity and caricaturing the opposition as indisciplined no-marks who will bankrupt the country. And once the shine has gone off spending cuts? Once too many indispensable voters begin to feel the pinch of disinvestment? You send your newbie micro-chancellor to the despatch box to announce the Conservative Party has discovered a “new philosophy” which justifies doing precisely the opposite of what the Conservative Party was telling us the country needed for the last decade.
Having taken the credit for levelling down the country with budget after Tory budget of spending cuts, you promise to level the nation up, while implying the perceived social decay, tax rises and wage stagnation is somehow the Labour Party’s fault. We are, the chancellor told us, in an “age of optimism.” Optimism may not pay your rising gas bills. Optimism won’t feed your kids. But the UK government is determined to present itself as a herald of good news, the only party with a positive agenda who believe in Britain’s potential. New Labour danced (alright, swayed uncomfortably) to “Things Can Only Get Better” by D:Ream. Johnson’s New Tories are also looking to annexe optimism. And the evidence so far suggests they’re succeeding, at least in England.
You’ve got to admit: this has a certain chutzpah. But the configuration of the UK media means the Tories get to play the political game on easy mode. If this kind of double-dealing was attempted by any other political party, UK media would be doing its collective dinger and chasing ministers all over SW1. But the point of the Tory press is that its main loyalty is to the party rather than the project. If keeping Labour out calls for big spending, then big spending must now be applauded as a canny move and smart tactics. We have always been at war with Eastasia.
The picture beneath the hood of the UK’s public finances is more complex than it seems too, being dubbed by one economic analyst as an “age of uncertainty” this week. As the Resolution Foundation point out, while Rishi Sunak “has clearly broken with the austerity of the 2010s,” its legacy lives on in the budgets of many government departments. All of this is felt in Scotland through the Treasury’s Barnet consequentials.
While the Chancellor splurged on the Home Office, the Foreign Office, and principally on Health spending – many departments are left with dramatically smaller budgets than they had to spend in 2009/10. Work and pensions spending, for example, is down 40% in real terms when compared to ten years ago. Transport spending has been slashed by 32% and business and energy too. Justice limps dysfunctionally with 15% less to spend on keeping the court system turning. Investing in more Home Office detention centres and immigration officers may strike you as a strange vision of “levelling up”.
Even as seeks to talk a good game on its green credentials, UK government spending on the environment, food and rural affairs are actually down 19% in real-terms. (When Boris Johnson told the Tory conference he wanted to turn the seas around Britain into the “superfertilised loam in which business will plant new jobs across the UK,” we didn’t realise he meant this literally. Come on in! The water’s brown.)
Most of you are probably immune to the charms of Johnson’s boosterism. You may well see the rhetoric as empty, the promises hollow, the gusto feigned, the promise of a Brexit Britain resorted to greatness just another manifestation of the UK’s post-imperial nostalgia. On the impact of Brexit, of coronavirus, in a legacy of bust businesses, rising costs, and a savage death toll – well, we ought to have learned by by now that talk is cheap, and you can’t talk your way around a pandemic.
But it is clear that the Tories’ can-do, affirmative, best-of-British fizz is just what a substantial chunk of the electorate in England want to hear, however cold it might leave you and me. Criticisms of the negative impacts of Brexit, the bungling of the pandemic, the cronyism of public life and public spending under the Conservatives – doesn’t seem to be seriously denting their political position. And not all of this can be attributed to Keir Starmer’s wooden delivery.
But is struck me this week that one part of the Tory apparatus is struggling to fire sunbeams. On a good day, Douglas Ross looks like somebody has stolen his scone. This week, he was in cloud of indignation that rail-strikes which would have thrown the conference into discord were suspended after a new accord on pay was struck.
The Scottish Tory leader was dealt a double blow by news that the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities was finally able to come up with a pay offer for low-paid cleansing staff, averting the prospect of strikes during the climate conference. The air of disappointment from the Scottish Tory leader was palpable. We’ve grown so familiar with Ross’s brand of rancorous political thuggery, it is easy to overlook what a remarkable attitude this is.
Walk down the Clyde, and you will see the green and blue banners drooping above you bearing the legend “UK government event,” in case you thought the coming climate conference was anyone else’s responsibility.
A more strategic unionism might have seen the COP26 meeting as an opportunity to stage a sunnier version of a union at work, a union working, but the Scottish Tories are now so saturated in negative energy, they just can’t help themselves, or see their way to putting strategy before tactics.
The headlines have had a familiar rhythm for weeks now. “Sturgeon shamed,” “Sturgeon blamed,” “Sturgeon slammed.” On and on it has gone, leaving behind the very palpable impression that some folk would be delighted if COP26 collapsed into a disaster which could be pinned on the Scottish Government in some way.
The press has transformed the SNP leader of Glasgow City Council into a kind of Pied Piper of Hamelin. You’d think Susan Aitken has been piping all the rats of Western Europe into Glasgow in advance of the climate conference next week.
According to the Daily Express, Nicola Sturgeon is “shamed” by the fact the heavens opened over Glasgow this week, as if the Scotland Act empowered her to waft inconvenient storm clouds back out into the Atlantic. This may strike you, to put it mildly, as unhinged even by their standards. We await tidings of how, precisely, the First Minister is to blame for the Queen’s decision not to attend the summit on doctor’s orders.
The FM’s rain dances have only been one strand of a sustained effort to fashion Glasgow in the collective imagination as a damp and benighted germhole full of indecipherable locals and undesirable forms of animal life. The whole city has been subject to the treatment Govanhill intermittently receives from sections of the media, its situation and citizens caricatured, its social and economic problems picked up for cheap political lines. The problem here can be summed up in two words: bad faith. If these folk actually cared about poverty’s many legacies, low wages, drugs death and the decay in our urban domain, you might be inclined to take this rash of stories seriously. But nothing suggests serious interest here. It is all about the glib lines about “rats and plagues.”
And right in the middle of this media storm, we find the Scottish Conservatives, their jack-o’-lantern faces tripping them. So much for your “age of optimism.”