George Osborne: the Rake’s Progress

Anyone who has seen a James Bond film will be familiar with the words that Ernst Stavro Blofeld used before dispatching minions who had displeased him: ‘ You know the penalty for failure.’  The penalty was always death, whether it came in the form of Rosa Klebb’s poisoned toe-knife or a pool of piranha fish.  For most of us the penalty for failure at work isn’t so dramatic, but penalties there certainly are.  If you’re a social worker say, and you make a mistake or error of judgement, you can expect to have your career and your reputation destroyed and you will be lucky to work again.

If you’re a ‘failing’ school, and you don’t meet the latest arbitrary targets that the government of the day has imposed upon you, you can expect to be put into the purgatory of ‘special measures’ and have your every single action ruthlessly scrutinised by Ofsted.  The same applies in many other professions, particularly in the public sector, where micromanaged target-setting has become the stick that governments and their appointees use to whip the system into line – and privatise when it doesn’t fall into line.

It’s a very different matter at the top end, when it comes to politicians who perform what we still quaintly – and increasingly absurdly – refer to as ‘public service’.  Even if you are generous enough to  say that Tony Blair made an honest error of judgement over the Iraq war – and I’m not generous enough to say this – it was one of the most catastrophic errors of judgement that any British prime minister has ever made.   At the very least, it cast doubt over Blair’s judgement, yet he went on from that disaster to make more money than any British prime minister has ever made, much of it in the same region where he had demonstrated his incompetence and lack of knowledge and ability.

I used to wonder what people were paying Blair these incredible sums of money for.  It was obvious he was being rewarded for something, thought it wasn’t always clear what the reward was for.  But what  could he be saying that was worth £100,000 or more for a single speech, given that what he actually says in public isn’t very novel or insightful, and is often really quite banal?   I assumed it must be something to do with access, that paying Blair these sums was a way to get to network and get know to someone else.

Now I’m beginning to see things differently, after trying to take in the incredible new that George Osborne is now editing the Evening Standard.  I should make clear that I don’t have any respect for the Standard at all.  It’s a trashy rightwing newspaper that I only read for free on the tube, because my mobile server is so useless that you can’t connect to it underground.

But the fact that Osborne got this job is not good news. This is a man who was rich before he even took office, who inflicted pointless and brutal social cruelty on thousands of men and women in the name of a deficit-reduction dogma that his own party have rejected, who left the country with an even greater debt than when he took office, not to mention the calamity of Brexit.

Yet like Blair, he has gone on from strength to strength.  Since last summer Osborne has received £800,000 from speeches.  In the same week he has just got a new job of one day a week with an annual income of £650,000.  And now he has been given the job of editing the Standard by a Russian oligarch who he was already pally with, even though he has barely written a word and has never worked as a journalist.  And on top of all this, he’s still an MP.

Weird, isn’t it?   Except that it clearly isn’t weird at all.  They prosper because they belong to an en elite that is not governed by the rules that govern the rest of us.  That elite exists only for itself, in order to enrich its members and reward those who serve it. What looks like failure to the rest of us doesn’t look like failure to them.  What looks immoral to us looks moral to them.  They don’t even care about competence, success or failure.  Once you’re in, you’re in, and unlike Spectre there is no penalty for failrue. You can just keep rising as high as your friends and contacts can lift you.

Some may shrug and shake their heads at the remarkable progress of a man who has once again risen far higher than his abilities merit,  as if it’s just another of those 21st century beyond-satire things that doesn’t concern them.  But it does concern us. Because it’s  partly because people behave like this that we get Trump and Brexit, and why we might get Le Pen.  Democracies cannot prosper when their elected representatives behave like pigs in a trough and seem to have no real purpose or goal except the trough.

If politicians act so brazenly in their own material interests and use public office to gain admission to the global kleptocracy while the rest of society is squeezed and cut to the bone, then why trust any of them?   Why not trust someone who isn’t a politician or seems to be a regular guy – like Trump or Boris Johnson or Nigel Farage?  Or why not vote for them even if you don’t trust them just to have a change?

Because if democracy becomes a mockery, don’t be surprised if people choose to mock it in unexpected and sometimes self-destructive ways, and George Osborne’s unlikely progress is another sign that British democracy is in very bad shape.

Of course Georgie and his mates don’t care about this. They only care about how they are doing, and right now, they’re doing very well indeed.

George Osborne’s Future

I was surprised to hear George Osborne inviting his party and the nation to ‘choose the future’ yesterday.   It isn’t just because Trainspotting isn’t the most obvious text for a chancellor to refer to when making a major policy speech.  I’ve always thought of the chancellor as a ghastly apparition from a more distant England that was once ruled by men like Judge Jeffries, Castlereagh and Lord Sidmouth.

Physically, his face is the very image of a certain kind of aristocratic cruelty and hauteur.  It’s just too easy to imagine him in the Georgian era in a powdered whig and two little spots of rouge, sending some child pickpocket to Australia for stealing a gentleman’s handkerchief say, or pausing to evict a starving family from his estates while galloping through the woodlands for a debauch at the Hellfire Club.

Cameron still pays lip service to the notion of ‘compassionate Conservatism’ even if his policies are about as compassionate as a rattlesnake’s bite.    Osborne doesn’t even bother.  More than any other Tory minister, he  seems to visibly relish his mindnumbingly vicious pronouncements.  His smile always seems on the brink of a sneer.  His eyes gleam with malice, and his lips seem to twist and curl themselves into disturbing shapes as he spits out his proposals, like a villain announcing his evil plans to the audience at a Christmas pantomime.

Except that the Tory delegates don’t boo and hiss.  They love him.  They sit back and let his cruelty wash over them, rolling over like pussycats as he strokes their bellies with another turn of the screw.  A two-year benefit freeze for 18-24 year olds?  Yesss.   Cuts in tax credits,child benefit and jobseekers allowance?  Oohh baby.   Punish the working poor and make the poor even poorer?  Stop it Georgie, stop I tell you, because it’s all so wrong but it feels so good.

No wonder he got a standing ovation. Osborne announced all this looking happier and more cheerful than he has done since he was photographed dancing to Spandau Ballet with Miss Whiplash back in the 80s.  And he might as well have delivered his speech wearing spike heels and a leotard, because ‘toughness’ appears to have had the same stimulatative and invigorating effect on him that his dominatrix once achieved through other means, even if  it doesn’t actually become him.

But then this kind of politics doesn’t really become anyone, because what Osborne is proposing is shameful and disgusting.  Remember, only a few weeks ago the newspapers were pontificating about the ‘ugly side’ of Scots nationalism, and ‘together’ became a feelgood word to match ‘kumbaya’ or maybe coca-cola?

Back then Cameron also talked about the shape of things to come.   In his keynote speech defending the Union he condemned the SNP for failing to offer an ‘optimistic vision’ of the future and he exhorted Scots to ‘Vote No – and you are voting for a bigger and broader and better future for Scotland and you are investing in the future for your children and grandchildren.’

Yesterday his Chancellor outlined what that ‘broader and better future’ actually means: the endless lie of ‘austerity’; the victimisation and persecution of the poor; the naked exploitation of the young, who are to be driven into a succession of low-paid temporary jobs or years of debt – and all this dressed up with a fake moral committment to ‘fairness.’

And there’s a lot more to come. ‘ Extremism Asbos’; plastic cards instead of cash for jobseekers; wars abroad and the normalisation and institutionalisation of inequality at home – that’s the future that Lord Snooty and His Pals are now offering to the nation, which so many Scots  rejected.

All this is bleak, grim, and very, very ugly indeed, and it’s not at all what Cameron was offering the Scots when he begged them to stay.   If he had, they almost certainly would not have ‘chosen the future.’

And I have to say that after careful consideration, I’ve decided not to choose it either.  If I look forward to anything that Toryland has to offer, it’s the prospect of the Tory party ripping itself to shreds as it tries to make itself even nastier than Ukip, until it becomes so utterly revolting that even the English cannot stomach it any longer, and finally remember that, like the Scots, they have the capacity to build a different kind of future that will wipe the smirk of George Osborne’s pampered face.

 

 

 

 

Hardworking People: Anatomy of a Political Cliché

What kind of people do our politicians most respect and admire?   It goes without saying that rich people are top of the list.  Like the Chinese ‘business leaders and rich tourists’ who George Osborne has just welcomed into the UK – less than a week after the government announced a new bill restricting the entry of less well-heeled visitors.

But even the rich don’t get the same lavish praise that is routinely showered on Britain’s ‘hardworking people’ – or at least not openly.   Regardless of their political persuasion, our politicians just love people who work hard.    Tony Blair and Gordon Brown were always talking about ‘hardworking people’, ‘ordinary hardworking people’ and ‘hardworking families’ or the more plaintive ‘hard-pressed hardworking people’ that Brown tended to use more often.

The Coalition loves hardworking people too, even more than Labour did, or so they keep insisting.  Back in 2011, Nick Clegg promised that the government would be fighting for ‘alarm clock Britain’ – a category that he defined as  ‘basic rate taxpayers who get up in the dark, get their kids ready for school and then go out to work.’

Clegg delivered a moving eulogy in The Sun newspaper ‘ the people of Alarm Clock Britain’ who ‘ drive our economy every single day of the year. Rain, wind or shine, they are busy making this country tick.’

No one loves hardworking people more than the Tory Party however.  Last month Downing Street media person Craig Oliver specifically instructed government advisers and other media people to insert the term into their speeches as often as possible during the party conference.

And boy, did they respond.   Cameron boasted of having cut taxes for ’25 million hardworking people.’ Osborne also defined the Conservative Party as ‘the party of hard working people’ .   And then last week the spectacularly inane Grant Schapps – a politician who continues to plumb previously undreamt-of depths of vacuity – described the latest Coalition reshuffle as a ‘reshuffle for hardworking people’ – something that he described as ‘a big contrast to the reshuffle that we’re seeing emerge on the Labour side.’

Huh? You might say.  But you shouldn’t.  Because the ostensible and graspable  meaning of such utterances is always secondary to their implicit subtext.   On the one hand, the admiration that politicians continually express towards our toilers is intended to praise work as an inherently virtuous activity in itself, regardless of the conditions in which people work, the kind of work they do, or the remuneration they get for it.

Stalin did the same thing, when he transformed the Soviet miner Alexei Stakhanov into an emblematic symbol of Soviet productivity.   In a new years address to the German people in 1939, Joseph Goebbels defined the war in the following terms:

They hate our people because it is decent, brave, industrious, hardworking and intelligent. They hate our views, our social policies, and our accomplishments. They hate us as a Reich and as a community. They have forced us into a struggle for life and death. We will defend ourselves accordingly. All is clear between us and our enemies.’

Our politicians probably don’t want to think of themselves as part of that tradition.  But for the millionaire Stakhanovites like Clegg and Osborne,  work really does make people free, or at least it stops them questioning why they’re not.  Making a virtue out of hard work is also useful for employers, enabling them to squeeze every last drop of surplus value from their workers by transforming their labour into a patriotic enterprise.

After all, as the Coalition never stops telling us, we are in a ‘global race’ and really ought to start working or preparing for work from preschool onwards.

Within this ironclad twenty first century version of the Protestant work ethic, there is no room for larger questions, such as the purpose and meaning of work and the distinction between dignified meaningful labour and mindless, soul-destroying mechanical grind.

Or who benefits and who profits from our work.  Or why it is that British wages have experienced one of the steepest declines in the EU since the Coalition came to power.  Or why fulltime male workers in Britain work longer hours than their counterparts anywhere else in Europe.

If hard work is so good for us why are 1 in 3 incidents of ‘major stress’ work-related?  Why do 1 in 4 fathers in Britain’s ‘hardworking families’ work more than 50 hours a week and rarely see their children?  Last year a former nurse working in palliative care recorded that one of the most common regrets expressed by male patients on their deathbeds was ‘ I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.’ How many people will die with the same thought?

In theory at least, anyone who works hard is good.   A gangster, for example.  Or a brothel owner.   Or the women who work for the brothel owner.  Or George Osborne’s former companion Miss Whiplash, who has even found time in her busy life to write a book about what he and some of his mates were up to in the days when they weren’t working so hard.

Can ‘ legal’ and ‘illegal’ migrants be considered ‘hardworking people’ too, since they often work a lot harder than many Brits, given the absence of any unions or organizations to protect them or limit their working hours?

Not really.   Because behind the endlessly-repeated political cliché about ‘hardworking people’ is a deeper subtext and political purpose, whose essential aim is to create the illusion of a virtuous majority threatened by less virtuous outsiders.   Whenever politicians celebrate these virtues, they invariably invoke, either directly or by suggestion,  another category of people that does not share them.

These are the ones who are still sleeping with their curtains drawn while Alarm Clock Britons are out there grafting,  or lying around on what the monstrous banality that is Eric Pickles calls the ‘sofa of despair’, without the gumption to get out there and look for work.

That’s right readers, we are talking once again about the undeserving poor, which in the Coalition’s eyes means anyone who is poor, because poverty is always due to an unwillingness to work hard.  After all, what other explanation can there be?  And if ‘hardworking people’ accept that explanation, then why would they not resent and even hate the feckless parasites who they support through their taxes?

Does all this sound simplistic?  Maybe so, but then, as Goebbels once pointed out, political lies don’t have to be complex.  They can even be quite stupid.  But if you keep telling them again and again, you might find that an awful lot of people just accept them without question.

A Message from the Chancellor

Hello everyone.   My name is George Osborne and I’m the Chancellor of the Exchequer.   It’s really a pleasure for me to show you round the new Britain that we have been building these last three years, in the hope that you will ignore the doomsayers and the naysayers, the negative credit ratings, the IMF, an ever-growing number of economists,  and come and look at the transformation we’ve achieved in just a few short years.

The first thing that any potential investor will notice about our country is that it’s a place where everyone works hard, and we’re doing our best to see that they work harder.  I don’t just mean our benefit reforms,  which are removing the shackles that have robbed generations of Britons of independence and initiative, and made them prefer to let the state pay for their children rather than bring them up themselves.

Or our attempts to liberate the disabled and the longterm sick by making them work even if they think they can’t.  Or our ‘workfare’  schemes that provide our youngsters with the invaluable opportunity to work for their benefits and gain essential experience of the work process.

To make sure that these jobseekers keep on their toes and don’t become seduced by welfare dependency, we’ve also created a unique phenomenon in British history, in which hundreds of claimants are living on food parcels while they wait for their first payment to arrive – a harsh but ultimately beneficial situation that we believe the taxpayer will approve of.

Have you heard of our ‘zero hour contracts’, in which workers are hired on a standby basis, with no guaranteed hours or pay?  Last year, the numbers of workers on these contracts rose by 25 percent, and they now include journalists, doctors and other professionals in addition to retail and low-skilled workers.

We think that this kind of flexibility is essential in these difficult times.  Our government abhores sloth and believes that work confers virtue,  and we want to make our citizens virtuous.

We are always looking for new and more creative ways to do this.  Last week our radical Education Secretary Michael Gove announced new plans to shorten school holidays and lengthen the school day, so that British schoolchildren can get ahead in the ‘global race’ with their counterparts in Singapore and Hong Kong.

In order to ensure that no one – absolutely no one –  is left out, we plan to make it possible for people in the future to work into their 70s and beyond.   This doesn’t mean that we plan to make old people ‘work ’till they drop.’   We merely plan to provide the  elderly with the same opportunities that we’ve given to the disabled and enable them to realise their full human potential.

We’re breaking taboos, and breaking down barriers, and we’ve found that companies like MacDonalds like to have a mixed staff of old and young people.    And given the fact that the Department of Work and Pensions believes that Britain’s employers will need to fill 13.5 million vacancies in 10 years,  we feel that a grey workforce is a creative solution to a problem that might otherwise lead to the recruitment of migrant workers – something that our government is determined to prevent – and it will also remove the necessity to pay them pensions.

In order to ensure that these reforms are implemented, we need efficient and well-remunerated managers.  Thus our flagship paper The Daily Telegraph reports that 7,800 NHS staff were paid over £100,000 last year, eleven of whom were based at  hospitals at the centre of patient care scandals or are in serious financial difficulties.  These include Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust, whose former interim finance director was paid £340,000 last year.

Nurses, meanwhile,  earn as little as £21,388-a-year, many of whom, like the nurses at Southampton General Hospital are ‘run ragged’ in hospitals where staff levels are so low that patients have been serving meals.   A poll by the Royal College of Nursing has found that three quarters of hospital wards in the UK are running at dangerously low levels of staffing at least once a month.

I’m sure you agree that this situation is intolerable – especially since real wages in the UK are falling to 2003 levels, according to the Office for National Statistics, and we intend to change it.  As an editorial in the Telegraph makes clear, this massive imbalance in pay is not inherently wrong in itself,  but a consequence of ‘the warped priorities of the NHS’ and the public sector in general.

Exactly right, and we plan to change these priorities, not by raising nurses’ pay, which would only encourage more people to follow their example, but by  further ‘reforms’ that will marketize the NHS and open it up to private competition.

We also plan to ensure that trainee nurses work for 12 months as ‘health care assistants’ before beginning their training – a proposal that the Royal College of Nursing has condemned as ‘stupid’, but which we believe will help staffing levels without having to recruit more nurses or pay them better.

Now, in order to make all this happen, our politicians need to be relaxed so that they can continue to engage in more blue sky thinking.   And it does help that the House of Commons sits for around 150 days a year,  including half terms, a six week summer break, two fortnight breaks at Easter and Christmas and three weeks off while MPs attend party conferences.

Labour MP  Margaret Hodge has suggested that these hours are actually shrinking, and claimed that the perception that MPs’ hours might be getting less during ‘the worst economic crisis of modern times’  might end up creating  a ‘democratic vacuum.’

We don’t agree, of course.   We believe that the ordinary decent people of this country know what we’re doing and approve of it.   And I hope that what I’ve told you will induce you to come to Britain and invest in a country that was great before, and with your help, will become great again.

After all, as our Prime Minister reminded the world only last week, ‘ We’re all Thatcherites now.’

We’re proud of that, and proud of the fact that this year there are a record 88 billionaires on the Sunday Times Rich List.   We hope that you will share their enthusiasm for what we’re doing, and come and invest in us.

They like it here, and we think you will too.