Is it any wonder that voters are becoming rather green around the gills over politics? That their cynicism at our politicians and the things they say is reaching new heights? When Theresa May – she of the so-recent promise to lead in the best interests of the “just managing” – delivers a maiden speech in front of a white tie dinner which includes a passage on her concern about the rise of “elites”, it’s time to pension off the satirists.
With unsurpassed irony (or perhaps no sense of it at all), May chose a meeting of a sub-section of that global elite, contentedly full after a Guildhall banquet, at which to raise her fears about elitism. Surrounded by some of the wealthiest and most influential people in the world – many of them without a democratic mandate for that influence – she ripped into the social structures that upset the little man. She called out elitism.
Ordinary working people “see their jobs being outsourced and wages undercut. They see their communities changing around them and don’t remember agreeing to that change,” May said. “They see the emergence of a new global elite who sometimes seem to play by a different set of rules and whose lives are far removed from their everyday existence … Change is in the air, and when people demand change, it is the job of politicians to respond.”
One can hardly take her seriously. And nobody did. David Davis, one of the most senior members of the Prime Minister’s cabinet, reportedly took the opportunity to have a little nap.
These are the emptiest of words. May stands and tells the bankers she wants Britain to “do business in the right way” but she fails yet again to follow through with any policies to tell us what that really means. More than that, May refused to digress from her speech to address the gathered diners, who were washing down their dinner of potted shrimp and roast beef with a £300 bottle of red, to address the biggest global issue of the day – the very idea of Donald Trump as US President-elect.
Big on words but short on substance, and with a recurring refusal to look at the big issues head on: these hallmarks of the ditherer are beginning to characterise May’s premiership.
“Elite” is a useful term for May to bandy around. Almost nobody who is part of an elite believes that they are. I’d wager that a good handful of the VIPs gathered for the Mansion House speech nodded along, swilling back the last dregs of wine, agreeing that something should be done about those other people.
And away from this parody of politics, elite doesn’t demonstrably feel “elite”. Look at the nation’s income data. In the UK, a couple with no children to feed, living in a mortgaged one-bedroom flat and with both partners in well-paid work but neither paying tax in the high bracket falls into the top 10 per cent of Brits in terms of wealth. Is that the elite? Or is that not quite what you were thinking of?
Elite is the most loaded of empty terms. That’s why it’s so useful to May, and to Trump, and to all politicians.
Of course blaming “elites” for all the problems of the world is far too simplistic – but you can’t blame the people for craving a simplistic answer to the crises they experience, whether that’s unemployment, poverty, bad housing or stagnating wages. In the face of such discomfort, we don’t need politicians who echo what the people are already saying straight back at them (Trump, of course, is another one of those), but leaders that are willing to face up to the complexities of global politics and find more sophisticated, and practical, answers.
Yet we already knew this was not Theresa May’s style. Her now-infamous rhetoric on our headlong leap out of the European Union – “Brexit means Brexit” – was shown to be exactly as flimsy as it sounds when a leak exposed the lack of a detailed plan for the future. And that only serves to remind us of the vacuity of our previous leadership too; if David Cameron had faced up to our complicated and outdated relationship with the EU with something more substantial than a yes/no question then Britain would not be facing such uncertainty about its future now either.
The curse of the buzzword is that sometimes it’s wildly effective. Trump said he wanted to “make America great again” and the people agreed. But reaching for them can be a sign of weakness too, and Theresa May is on a roll. From Brexit to elitism to “a world transformed” – that one line stolen from the left-wing activist group Momentum – our new Prime Minister would better impress if she demonstrated a few, more sophisticated, ideas of her own.
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