Narrative Matters Pt 1: How the Government Are Using Narrative to Create Economic Apartheid

(Please note: this is not an exhaustive examination of the use of language in politics over the last 2 years – I am simply looking to highlight the point I am trying to make).

It started innocuously enough: bland little statements along the lines of ‘helping those who want to help themselves’.  Simple little phrases like ‘ordinairy hard working people’ or ‘people who want to get on’. Nothing you could so much as wag a finger at, not with any degree of credibility.  It was subtle, like a creeping ivy – the start of the separation of people from each other. Us and them. Nothing sets man against man faster: he’s not one of us, he’s one of them. They don’t do what we do.

Because of course ‘we’ always do it better.

Drip… Drip… Drip…

Somehow, and it seems like it has been just a couple of years, we have become a country divided. First it was the immigrants. Now it is the poorest, the disabled, those who now are almost criminals because they need help and support to get by. Forget class. Class is bollocks.

This is economic apartheid.


In May 2010, David Cameron was at nearing the end of the General Election trail and was attending a rally in East Renfrewshire (1). The speech he gave was, more-or-less, the same speech he had been giving for 4 weeks – what in American politics is called a ‘stump speech’, the key points of your political platform but just given a bit of spit and culturally relevant polish for which ever city, town, village, factory, shop or church you happen to be in when you give it. And Dave was definitely striving (‘cos he’s a striver, our Dave) for that ‘I-might-have-gone-to-Eton-but-I’m-really-a-man-of-the-people’ image.

“But we“re going to be where people are working baking the bread, landing the fish, running the emergency services..”

Good ‘man of the people’ stuff that – you can almost smell the bread and hear the sirens.

The ‘drip-drip’ of little lies (or perhaps just dramatic rhetoric) can be found in this speech. For example, our Dave said that:

“When it comes to our society we“ve got more people growing up in homes where nobody works than anywhere else in Europe.”

Actually, that ‘honour’ was Spains – unemployment was running at about 22%, whilst in the UK it was 7.9%.  The rhetoric of course waters that bitter seed, nurturing the idea of a country filled with people not working, but the idea of their dependancy on those good honest folk ‘baking the bread and landing the fish’ is implicit, hovering in the background like the elderly relative at the family do who smells slightly and drinks too much sherry.

After valiantly defending his honour against the horrid lies that he would get rid of Child Tax credit (he was just going to cap it  under the rate of inflation, so give him his due) he launched into that favourite old stand by beloved by Tories everywhere: morals. First (because it’s the election, and these simply must be done) he has a quick dig at the morals of then Prime Minister Gordon Brown – “I reckon when he finds it will be spinning round so fast he could put it on the roof and it could be a ceiling fan” (‘cos our Dave is both a man of the people and a genuine wit, don’t you know).  But Dave is an honourable man, like Brutus but with less muscle:

“And I want to say to British people clearly and frankly this; if you are elderly, if you are frail, if you are poor, if you are needy a Conservative Government will always look after you. On the journey we need to take this country on no one will be left behind… Don“t believe the lies you’re being told by the Labour Party just because they’ve got nothing positive to say.”

Clever, isn’t it? He has very subtely set up the image of those who work and those who don’t, but there is no need to worry because our Dave cares.  Of course, he hasn’t used his big election tag-line yet, which of course he does.

“We’re all in this together.”

But wait – there’s a line in this, in fact that runs through the whole campaign:

“We say to the private training companies come in and train those people who need to work who could work and yes when we say to those who could work who are offered a job and don“t work you cannot go on claiming benefits in Britain under the Conservatives.”

And there it is – after all the bluff and bluster, after planting the bitter seed and surrounding us with the sunshine of how much our Dave truly cares, here is the manure to feed the ground in which the seed will grow. Because the suggestion is much more explicit now: people claiming benefit do so because they don’t want to work. It’s a twisty clever way of saying that without actually saying it.

Fast forward now, speeding (hastily) past the nauseating love-in in the Downing Street garden with Nick Clegg, to October 2012 at the Tory party conference and Iain Duncan Smith’s speech.  Keep in mind that boos that George Osborne got at the Olympics, the emerging horror of ATOS and growing voice of the disabled who found themselves increasingly under attack. And keep this in mind too: there is a particular line in this speech (just over half way through) on which I very nearly gag whenever I read it, because despite the fact the rhetoric has been cranked up several gears by now. Bear this one line in mind whilst I dissect the rest of this speech:

“You can’t heal a nation by attacking parts of it.”

Bear in mind also that the coalition governement have been running things for  2 years, but the recession is getting worse –  this conference, this speech is about driving a wedge still further between ‘us and them’ or the ‘strivers and the shirkers’.  The blame for the recession is now being planted firmly at the feet of the poor, (and of course the Labour governement):

“The Labour Government, spending and borrowing, too ready to leave our children to foot the bill… This culture of irresponsible spending had its roots in Britain’s welfare system.. In government, Labour hiked spending by a massive 60%, rising even before the recession hit.”

Never mind what has happened in the run up to the recession – ignore everything that has gone before because now you have your target, your scapegoat, the sitting duck for your fears and frustrations. Never mind that the proportion of spending on welfare had remained stable for 20 years, or that if everyone was actually claiming correctly the welfare system would cost another 18 billion (3) – just swallow the lie that there isn’t enough to go round because it’s all been spent on the welfare state.

I ask you, what kind of message does that send out? I will tell you – that it’s not worth working – that it’s not worth trying – that you’re better off playing the system and taking the money. Shameful! Small wonder then that Labour left us a growing army of those who don’t work.

Never mind that the benefits do not meet minimum income standards, or that relative to the average incomes over the last 30 years they have actually halved in value; never mind that less than 0.9% is lost to fraud (and just go check how much less that is than tax fraud). The lie that people are opting for some sort of cushy easy life is being hammered home. But that narrative, that the poor at to blame for the economic woes of this country, that there is an ‘us and them’ divide between the ‘strivers’ that we ‘should’ be helping (because of course only some people are worth the help) gets a new twist. All of this, the blame, the division, the deliberate seperation of those who deserve and do not deserve, the ‘strivers and the shirkers’ – this is a moral crusade:

“For even though we are in a coalition we have a once in a lifetime opportunity to show the British people that the party of Wilberforce, of Shaftesbury and Churchill oh yes and Disraeli too – The historic party of social reform – our party, is alive and well and determined to restore and strengthen British society.”

In Tory land, in that strange and twisted world where you can say that ‘you can’t heal a nation by attacking parts of it’ makes sense because the people you are attacking have been carefully shown to be worthless, the division you have strived to create, the economic apartheid of those who should be helped and those who should be scrapped off your boot like dog dirt is part of a reform worthy of the greats. Right up there with the end of slavery.

Feel like gagging yet?