British Prime Minister David Cameron's big conference speech on Wednesday was as depressing as it was brilliant. A man who's spent his term in government enacting policies that have repeatedly harmed the poor, the young, and the vulnerable is now patting all of those people on the it and going, “Just kidding, mate,” to make out like he's suddenly a friend of the working man. And he did that very convincingly.
Of course, there was also plenty more empty rhetoric and bullshit we need to get our heads around if we're to understand what he was really saying. So let's go through it chunk by chunk.
THE PRE-MATCH POMP
Following a video made up of supposedly rousing Conservative Party soundbites, Cameron walked into the hall to the soundtrack of the Killers' "All These Things That I've Done." Then he crowed about winning the Scottish independence referendum and still being in charge of a load of people who voted for only one of his members of parliament (MPs). Then he did a weird impression of his First Secretary of State William Hague’s Yorkshire accent and called him “the greatest living Yorkshireman," before deciding it was time to stop clowning around and get to the point.
FOND MEMORIES OF THE COALITION
“We’ve delivered a lot these past four years, but we’ve had to do it all in a coalition government. Believe me: Coalition was not what I wanted to do; it’s what I had to do. And I know what I want next. To be back here in October 2015 delivering Conservative policies, based on Conservative values, leading a majority Conservative government.”
Cameron alerted the nation to the depressing possibility that, with the Liberal Democreats free-falling in opinion polls, the next election could open the floodgates of unadulterated David Cameron—Cameron plus, if you will. The kind of Cameron who can get on with things without Deputy PM Nick Clegg making sad faces at him over various civil rights abuses. If all goes to plan, he seemed to be saying, we could have austerity without intra-coalition rivals writing facetious op-eds in the Times about how his own government’s economic policy is a load of shit.
If he pulls it off, I suppose we'll be looking back to the coalition as a golden era of compromise. Sometimes it’s nice to be reminded that things could be worse, though it's less enjoyable to be warned of the likelihood that they soon will be.
DAVID CAMERON IS A COOL GUY WHO DOESN'T CARE ABOUT GRAPHS
He continued, “I love this country—and my goal is this: to make Britain a country that everyone is proud to call home. That doesn’t just mean having the fastest-growing economy, or climbing some international league table. I didn’t come into politics to make the lines on the graphs go in the right direction. I want to help you live a better life.”
The humblebrag about the economy would be more impressive had the government not presided over the longest period of stagnation on record. More to the point, Cameron doesn’t care about climbing league tables because Britain is near the bottom of so many good ones, like using renewable energy, and the top of so many bad ones, like children being depressed and dying young—that kind of thing.
HORRIBLE, DEPRESSING FULL EMPLOYMENT
“A Britain that everyone is proud to call home is a Britain where hard work is really rewarded,” he said, spelling out his vision. Unfortunately, hard work is rewarded less and less in Cameron’s Britain, where, since 2010, real earnings have fallen for the longest period since recordkeeping began 50 years ago.
“And by the way,” he said, “you never pull one person up by pulling another one down.” Unfortunately, this is exactly what Chancellor of the Exchequer (economic policy chief) George Osborne did yesterday in capping benefits, when he said, “The fairest way to reduce welfare bills is to make sure that benefits are not rising faster than the wages of the taxpayers who are paying for them.” In other words, Osborne was saying wages are stagnating, so we’re going to make people who can’t find a job even poorer to make up for that.
Cameron put flesh on the bones. “So here’s our commitment for the next five years: what the economists would call, 'The highest employment rate of any major economy.' What I call, 'Full employment in Britain.' Just think of what that would mean. Those who can work—able to work—standing on their own two feet, looking at their children, and thinking, I am providing for you.”
If the last few years are anything to go by, the reality will be people who struggle to provide for their kids slogging through too many hours in their crappy, low-paid jobs to ever see them.
Trade unionists protesting against public sector cuts in July. Photo by Hannah Ewens
WHO NEEDS BENEFITS WHEN EVERYONE HAS SEVERAL BAD JOBS?
Meanwhile, those who can’t find work will be forced into endless hoop-jumping in unemployment centers: “With us, if you’re out of work, you will get unemployment benefits but only if you go to the job center, update your CV, attend interviews, and accept the work you’re offered.”
If the unemployed are forced into work on pain of losing the dole, I guess there’s absolutely no incentive for employers to make jobs more bearable, or pay more. Don’t worry, though, the minimum wage will soon rise to £7 ($11.30), he said—which is completely inadequate and those earning it will still be in poverty. But his speechwriters decided not to mention that.
Coupled with the removal of benefits for the under-21s, which will give them the choice of "earning or learning"—which really means poverty or student debt—Cameron is trying to turn Britain into a place where there's a badly paid job for everyone, whether they want it or not. But don’t worry: Zero-hour contracts that stop you taking other jobs will be scrapped, so people are “free to take on different jobs so they can get on."
If you want to go straight from your cleaning shift to an overnight security job, you can! Nobody will stop you taking multiple minimum-wage jobs to make ends meet. And that’s freedom.
THE POOR CAN KEEP EVERY PENNY OF THEIR POVERTY WAGES
Then Cameron gave Britain’s impoverished workers a break. Specifically, you’ll get to earn £12,000 (roughly $19,400) before you pay any tax, rather that £10,500 (just under $17,000). Cameron was pleased to announce that this will take a million poor people out of paying taxes altogether. Meanwhile, people earning twice the average salary also get a tax break. Right now, if you earn £41,900 [$67,600] you qualify for the 40 percent tax rate. That threshold will rise to £50,000 [$80,700]. “We want to cut more of your taxes. But we can only do that if we keep on cutting the deficit,” he said.
This gives the game away. He could, in fact, partly cut the deficit by raising taxes—say, on the rich and corporations—so that the government has more money coming in. Instead, he’s pretending he can only manage to cut tax if he cuts the deficit. So here, "deficit" is kind of a code word for public sector spending. He also promised to cut taxes for those poor, defenseless corporations.
This will presumably mean he’s paying for tax cuts through even bigger public service cuts—and he promised £25 billion ($40 billion) more austerity in this speech. Who’s going to feel those cuts the worst? Yup, the guys at the bottom who are supposed to be celebrating not paying tax any more. The conceit was summed up in the big rhetorical moment that he was hoping to see replayed as a highlight on the evening news:
“So with us, if you work 30 hours a week on minimum wage, you will pay no income tax at all. Nothing. Zero. Zilch.” If you work 30 hours a week on £7 an hour, that amounts to £210 [$340]. “Nothing. Zero. Zilch,” is also the amount of fun you’ll have with that much money in a world where the welfare state has been stripped away to almost nothing.
Then Cameron moved onto education and decided to call the opposition Labour Party hypocritical. "Tristram Hunt, their Shadow Education Secretary—like me—had one of the best educations money can buy," he said. “But guess what? He won’t allow it for your children.”
It would be great if Labour was planning to ban private schools, if only to diversify the backgrounds of politicians shouting at each other in party speeches. But it's not. Basically, he used this section to bash Labour for "taking its cue from the unions," which in this case means not totally ignoring teachers' opinions about how they do their jobs.
Anti-NHS-privatization protesters last year in Manchester last year. Photo by Chris Bethell
He continued hating on Labour, calling out their “complete and utter lies” that the National Health Service (NHS) is not safe under the Conservatives. “I just think, 'How dare you?'” he said, with a fairly credible level of outrage—unsurprising, considering he's genuinely relied on the NHS to help his disabled son.
I just hope he got equally miffed at his own health minister after VICE’s Solomon Hughes revealed that Conservative MP George Freeman held a behind-closed-doors meeting funded by private health insurers to chat about potentially making people pay to go to the doctor. Meanwhile, the Green Party pointed out that the pledge to raise NHS spending doesn’t really mean anything, since its budget has increased every single year since 1951.
LET'S BUILD LESS THAN HALF THE NUMBER OF HOUSES WE NEED
"Young people watched Location, Location, Location not as a reality show, but as fantasy," said Cameron. “We’re going to build 100,000 new homes,” he said, “and they’ll be 20 percent cheaper than normal. But here’s the crucial part. Buy-to-let landlords won’t be able to snap them up. Wealthy foreigners won’t be able to buy them. Just first-time buyers under the age of 40.”
If it happens, this is undoubtedly a policy that will bring about some touching scenes of people sitting proudly in their first homes in a BBC retrospective about the late 2010s. A hundred thousand does sound like a lot of houses, but it’s half as many as Labour have pledged to build every year by 2020. Both pledges fall massively short of the target that housing charity Shelter has cited, which is 250,000 per year. Cameron said, “Homes built for you, homes made for you—the Conservative Party, once again, the party of home ownership in our country.” But it looks like both Labour and the Conservatives will in fact still be the parties of not nearly enough homes.
THE DEPRESSING CONCLUSION
After some anti-immigrant nods to the UK Independence Party (UKIP), it was time to wrap up. “It doesn’t matter whether Parliament is hung, drawn, or quartered, there is only one real choice,” he said. “The Conservatives or Labour. Me in Downing Street, or Ed Miliband in Downing Street.” That was probably the most honest part of the speech, and easily the most depressing.
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Thanks to John Weeks, professor emeritus at the School of Oriental and African Studies of the University of London for his assistance with this article.