I was struck this week by the comments of one of the protestors against the HS2 rail project. In case you’re not following this story, a number of challenges were made to the proposed high speed link we’ll all be paying for until Judgement Day. The government won most of them, lost one, and both sides immediately started spinning for all they were worth.
Now, even though HS2 and the debate on either side fascinates me, this post isn’t about those arguments. It’s about one statement made by one person, and it went something like this:
“There are thousands of people living close enough to the proposed route to have their lives completely blighted, and many of these hard-working families will get no compensation at all.“
Now, this wasn’t just some spur-of-the-moment throwaway line by a student wearing a bandanna. This was a statement from a spokesperson for an extremely well-funded group that includes members of every profession out there, not to mention the odd Member of Parliament. Far from being thrown together in an instant, this statement would have been carefully constructed, dissected and analysed for strength and breadth of impact, and only then would it have been reassembled and released.
“Hard-working”. Hard-working. Why did she say that?
What on earth is it that makes these particular families (families is another one – they started off as mere people, but metamorphosed into families quickly enough) more or less hard-working than anyone else? Why are they to be afforded this particular accolade? And, more importantly, why should we care?
To answer this question we need to look at more than just HS2. We need to look at the debate around minimum alcohol pricing (“why shouldn’t people be able to buy a drink at the end of a long, hard working week?”), at the rage felt by some at what they see as subsidies for public-sector workers (“why should my hard-earned pounds be spent on gilt-edged pensions for you?”), at immigration and EU membership (“taking jobs from decent hard-working British folk”), at press regulation (“telling lies and snooping on decent, hard-working people”), at caps on benefit increases (“why should hard-working people get less than lazy layabouts?”), at tax avoiders, teachers’ holidays, TV executives, Tory mansions – there’s scarcely a story on the BBC’s home page that isn’t amenable to the same spin. And if you were to listen to Prime Ministers’ Questions – or politicians on the campaign trail in Eastleigh – you’d be amazed to find that every single constituent of every single Member of Parliament either is hard-working, or was until made unemployed through the folly of the Party Opposite. And, as the HS2 mention demonstrates, the salt-of-the-earth tax-paying hard-working Englishman turns up not just where he belongs, but at every politician’s every breath.
It’s the recession that’s done it, of course. Not for a generation has there been an issue on which everyone agreed: there’s a recession, it’s bad, the deficit needs to come down, and what’s left should be spread around those that deserve it rather than those that don’t. Not only do all the main parties agree on the issue; they almost agree on the policies. All they can do to differentiate their argument is try to position themselves on the side of the deserving – the hard-working. Obviously, when they’re arguing cuts and taxes and the like, it’s a no-brainer. But why stop there? Politics is subliminal, in many ways. Say something often enough and eventually it’ll get through (although a hint to Labour Party spin-doctors: it’s got to be catchy, unlike, say, “ideologically-driven”).
So actually, it doesn’t matter what you’re arguing about and whether it has anything at all to do with how hard-working or deserving anyone involved is. HS2, for example – or buses in Bristol, or would-be bombers from Birmingham. Utter the magic word – hard-working – and suddenly everyone will be on your side. Even more so if you add families or local or all their lives.
I say enough is enough. Sure, being hard-working is praiseworthy. But there are plenty of other things that are praiseworthy, too. Being charitable. Volunteering. Being imaginative, or prudent, empathetic or neighbourly. Being engaged and active and interested. So next time you hear a politician uttering the magic words, ask yourself whether they fit there naturally or whether they’ve just been shoehorned in to get you onside. If it’s the latter, you’ll know you’re listening to spin, not substance. Ignore it.
And if enough of us ignore it often enough, then eventually it’ll go away. You don’t believe me? Ask the spin-doctors what happened to “ideologically-driven”.
If you liked this, please comment and share, and don’t forget to take a look at some extracts from my soon-to-be-published novel Without Due Care here.