I don’t really have time for this, but I have realised something so hugely important that I am going to scribble it down before the immediacy leaves me.
Because I have just come fully to appreciate the truly, wholly divisive nature of this Tory government.
Now, I will understand if at this point you look askance at me and tell me that this idea is ‘old hat’.
We’ve long known, you might sneer, that the Tories ‘divide and rule’. And that would be fair enough.
But what I realised only a few minutes ago was the insinuating, pervasive nature of the Tories’ ‘divide and rule’ policy. For it is not just A Tory tactic – it is THE Tory tactic, and I only just realised now how it lies behind everything they do.
The ‘Easy Targets’
Let’s start with the easy ones.
It cannot have slipped your notice, for instance, that before the Tories unleash a round of cuts or of legislation which hacks away at our rights, they precede it with a surge of hate-propaganda. Before they cut benefits, or impose a cap, or vow to weed out applicants, we have days of ‘scrounger’ talk; the idea is to build up a wave of anti-poor or anti-disabled feeling on which they ‘surf-in’ the legislation.
Equally, attacks on the public sector pensions and pay, and the lay-off of public sector workers and civil servants, is floated in on the crest of an appeal to private industry to see the public sector as a leech on society. Good people believe this – people whom you regard as friends and family. I have just given up on a twitter-argument I was having with a chap called @VernonsBoots. I tried to get him to see that public sector workers merely sell – at cost – essential services that will otherwise have to be provided by the private sector making a profit. I tried to get him to see that public sector workers, like private sector workers, sign a contract and do a job, and that in that they are no different to private sector workers. But it was all in vain:
“Why should they get better than those in the private sector … They shouldn't be as they are paid out of tax money … paid for by private sector. So I'm also buying your flat screen tv too …”and so on.
What is true for sections of society, is also true for regions of the country. The narrative behind the push for regional pay is that certain areas of the country are having it cushy – that the people there are living well on the biased effect of national wage agreements, paid for by the hard-working south. ‘It’s not fair’ goes up the cry again, and on that basis we cut regional grants, re-allocate the business rate, pull government offices out of the regions, redistribute NHS funding according to age not deprivation, and – I have heard today – cut public sector wages in the north-east by 10%. And thus the Tories have set up a south versus north antagonism under cover of which they introduce their policies.
And then, of course, there are the hate-groups they use to stoke up fear in general – ‘the unions’, ‘immigrants’, ‘Muslims’, ‘travellers’. One focus of hostile attention at the moment are ‘gays’ who are, apparently, seeking to destroy the fabric of our society and morality because they want the right – as equal citizens – to be married.
This fomenting of division applies as much when they are announcing positive policies as when they are applying harsh ones. It is not just that they use divide-and-rule to force in tough policies – they use the same principles when they are proposing generous ones.
Part of this can be explained by the Tory faith in ‘competition’, but the effect is still to set citizen against citizen, place against place. When the Tories abolished the regional development agencies they replaced them with the Regional Growth Fund … for which firms have to bid, in competition with each other. A real worry in the north-east is the way it is losing business to Scotland, which has – under devolution – greater flexibility.
Similarly, one of my worries as my town fights a huge windfarm literally across the road is the way the system of subsidies is splitting the community, setting the rich farmers who will be benefitting against the old and the poor who will be paying, the ‘green’ citizens against the campaigners etc.
Everything is phrased in terms of antagonism. When we introduce Academies, we state that preferential treatment will be given to the ‘best’ schools; implication – that there are ‘worst’ schools somewhere which we need to castigate and attack … by turning them into Academies too! A push for ‘Free’ schools is similarly formed in terms of a campaign against the implied inadequacies of the existing local schools.
Recently David Cameron announced a scheme to help parents. To be cynical, the Tories have just abolished Surestart, which was doing genuine work to address disadvantage in the earliest years, so we know for a start that this is going merely to be a shallow piece of flim-flam. But have you clicked the underlying message … which is that the blame for underachievement and worklessness lies – not in the state of the economy, nor in social deprivation – but in poor parenting. Bad parents! Parents who have lots of children and claim benefits and thereby set themselves up for an arson attack, as one Daily Mail journalist recently claimed blatantly on daytime TV. And thus we applaud a scheme which gives them a Boots voucher and hounds them into parenting classes, the failures.
Hatred is Mutual
Now, I know that there’s nothing yet very eye-opening about an argument which points out how the Tories scapegoat different sections of the community, but bear with me for a while.
Because there are two things which it is important to realise.
The first is that this is not a case of a government siding with a ‘Tory’ section of the electorate against a target ‘other’ section. I am sure that the government has an eye to their voting supporters, but one cannot simplistically portray the Tories as representing ‘their rich friends’ against the poor, or the south against the north, etc.
The situation is far too fluid and random for that. A person who is being manipulated to hate one moment will find themselves in a hated group the next. White working class families who are one moment railing against immigrants and teachers, will suddenly find themselves the butt of criticism because they are in receipt of working-tax credit, or because their son is disabled, or their daughter out-of-work. Tory Britain isn’t like Nazi Germany, where ‘Volk’ Germans were encouraged to hate the Untermenschen. In Tory Britain, everybody is encouraged to hate everybody else.
So, the direction of hate is not one-way. The disabled community may be accused in the press, but they are filled with a fury and bitterness in return. The south might despise the ‘lazy’, un-entrepreneurial north but, trust me, northerners hate the ‘greedy, grasping’ southerners at least as much. The rich might despise the ‘scrounger’ poor, but the poor hate the rich with equal venom.
Sacrificing even their own
What is the eye-opener is that this process is aided and abetted by the government.
A while ago, Cameron came under scrutiny because he seemed to be adopting Ed Miliband’s criticism of the bankers, ‘predator’ capitalism and overcharging electricity providers. Equally, George Osborne’s budget, with its comments about the ‘moral repugnance’ of tax avoidance, and its granting of a tax break for millionaires but a granny tax for pensioners, has led some commentators to suggest that he had lost his political nous.
Not a bit of it. These Tories are quick to direct hatred at the very people whom they have been encouraging to hate others. It suits the Tories down to the ground when we all hate Ed Lester, Stephen Hester and Fred Goodwin. They will hand over their friends to public revulsion without batting an eyelid. Is not Leveson, however fine its underlying motives, not just a day-by-day invitation to hate – the press, the police, the Murdochs, Rebecca Brooks … the list is endless. I even found myself hating the celebrities who sat there and bleated about their loss of privacy – they had been anxious enough to court the media when they were trying to become famous.
All this is music to the Tories’ ears, because they WANT a society in turmoil and mutual suspicion. They want a society where everybody is looking angrily at what everybody else is getting, hanging on angrily to their own small corner, whilst begrudging others even the little they have.
It is a conscious policy, and I have decided that it is at least possible to argue that it underpins EVERYTHING the Tories do.
What it means for the Tories
The second realisation is to understand why our government has set out actively to create mutual hatred.
Part of the reason is because they are just like that themselves. They come from the bitchy, one-upmanship world of private school, university and the stock-broker belt. I know that this constitutes a decency-deprived upbringing, and we ought to pity them, but the truth is that social Darwinism comes naturally to these people, and they are merely setting about making Britain in their own image … because they don’t know any better.
I think there is also a general sense of ‘divide-and-rule’. West Bradford was the icing on the cake for the Tories – where one group of Muslims rebelled against another group of Muslims … and Labour lost the seat as a result. If the Tories can provoke the Unions against Labour, or Socialists against Blairites, or goad an NHS Party to stand against Labour candidates, or create a situation where the Greens poach middle-class Labour, or the BNP poach working-class Labour, or the SWP poach left-wing Labour, then they have won.
Most of all, however, I think that cynical Tories realise that a society in turmoil and mutual suspicion ALWAYS moves politically right. When you are consumed with anger and hatred against different sections of society, you don’t vote Labour – for a government which is going to try to help those very sections of society you have learned to despise. You vote Right, for a law-and-order government which assures you it will clamp down hard on the groups you hate, and tells you that you are alright to hate them, and alright to focus on hanging onto the little you have (and which other groups, equally motivated by hatred of you, would take from you).
Labour might be streets ahead in the polls now but – when it comes to the crunch – which Party do you trust to ‘get’ your enemies?
What Labour has to cope with
The crazy thing about all this is that it is ALL a manufactured mirage. There may be different sub-groups within society, but ultimately society is inter-connected and mutually dependent.
At the end of the day, private industry will be destroyed if it allows the government to impoverish public sector workers, because private industry makes a good proportion of its money selling its product to public sector workers.
Similarly, if the north goes bankrupt, the first people to suffer will be the southerners, because their wealth is generated from favourable terms of trade with the north.
The rich can’t exclude the poor from housing, benefits and (now) the NHS … because they make their money from what in practical terms is a huge state subsidy, delivered indirectly through the poor as a vector.
Yet, equally, the poor can’t do without the rich either. If the rich leave, and take their spending and investment with them, it is we who will be impoverished. Similarly – though I am hesitant to say it – we need to face the fact that we cannot survive as a society and economy without the banks and the bankers.
If Labour is to break through, it needs to counter this divisive Tory narrative of hate, and create a vision of what can be achieved when society works together.
And that is going to be very hard in an environment of cuts and recession.