When David Cameron tires of this prime minister lark (don’t feel you have to take your time, Dave), he should write a self-help book for aspiring rightwing politicians. It could be titled I Got Away With It – And Here’s How You Can Too. I can think of some of the promo lines: “Are you a passionate believer in free-market economics who has been lumbered with the biggest crisis of capitalism since the 1930s?” “Are you keen to turn a crisis that looks like the death knell of all you believe in into your greatest opportunity yet?“
Since Lehman Brothers went under, I’ve watched in awe as the right transformed a crisis of the market into a crisis of public spending. Even as a battery of cuts suck jobs and growth out of the economy, Cameron’s Tories still define the political debate. Despite winning just 36% of the vote, they look increasingly like Britain’s third radically transformative government since the war – the other two being the Attlee and Thatcher administrations.
How are they getting away with it? Having a supine media and an opposition still lacking a coherent alternative helps. But I have to hand it to them: this government has one of the most effective propaganda machines of modern times. If Cameron was to pen a book explaining his secrets, he could blow Machiavelli’s The Prince out of the water. While he mulls it over, I’ll suggest some key tips.
First, revise the past. Cameron’s Tories have driven it into our skulls that we have a deficit because Labour indulged in the most shameless spending spree since Imelda Marcos’s shoe collection. Collapsing tax revenues and soaring unemployment never get a mention. But, above all, Cameron has managed to make us forget that he backed Labour’s spending plans until the end of 2008. In July 2007, for example, he referred back to Thatcher and argued: “It is not now necessary in the same way to mend Britain’s broken economy, but it is absolutely necessary to mend Britain’s broken society.” At the time he expressed few serious concerns about New Labour’s economic management, leading to accusations he was acting as a mere thinktank for Gordon Brown’s government.
Second, demonise anyone in receipt of public money. If unemployed or disabled people are just a faceless mass of scroungers, for example, who cares if their benefits are cut? The press certainly helps: this week’s Sunday Times featured the headline “End the something for nothing culture“, above a picture of the Gallagher family from the comedy-drama Shameless. According to the tagline, the entirely fictional Gallaghers “typify the ‘money for nothing’ culture“. Other grotesque caricatures from TV – such as Vicky Pollard and Wayne and Waynette Slob – are also being wheeled out by journalists as supposedly accurate portrayals. Sitcoms and sketch shows are being used as political devices to hack slices off the welfare state. But it is being fuelled by government rhetoric on benefits. “If we want them to tap dance, then they will tap dance,” a Whitehall official is quoted in the Sunday Times piece as saying of benefit recipients. It’s a callous attempt to strip unemployed people of their humanity, but it works.
There’s a similar approach with public sector workers. Instead of being people who teach kids, treat people with cancer and empty bins, they become “vested interests” and parasites on the taxpayer. It becomes so much easier, then, to make the case that they should cough up to pay off the deficit.
Third, clothe radical ideas in the language of moderation. Thatcher had an abrasive style, to say the least: all that “the enemy within“, “no such thing as society” and “No! No! No!” From the outset, a coalition can easily present itself as inherently consensual and full of compromise. But Cameron is going where Thatcher never even dared – on cuts and the NHS, for example – and yet seems far more reasonable than his party’s adored Iron Lady. As opposition leader, Cameron galavanted around the Arctic with huskies, got mocked for wanting to “hug a hoodie” and replaced the Tory logo with a tree. He uses the language of the “centre ground” – a term politicians of all stripes use to define their policies as normal, sane and moderate, and anybody who believes differently is so politically unhinged they’re not even worth engaging with.
The biggest cuts since the 1920s become a regrettable, unavoidable means of slashing the deficit, rather than a desirable attempt to drive back the state. But we know both Nick Clegg and Cameron are ideologically committed to such an agenda. When Clegg was elected Liberal Democrat leader in December 2007, he made a Reaganite pitch for an “alternative to the discredited politics of big government“. In October 2009, Cameron argued that “government got too big“, and before the election, he argued that the cuts should remain in place even when the crisis was over. But, on the whole, the government has convinced a sizeable chunk of the population that it’s just cleaning up Labour’s mess, not engaging in an all-out ideological crusade.
Fourth, use common-sense language. David Cameron loves the term common sense, arguing repeatedly for a “common-sense revolution” and “common-sense Conservatism“. The deficit is compared to a household budget: a fallacy that would have failed him his economics exam at Oxford. But it strips the politics out of a deeply politically charged offensive, and relates it to the everyday experiences of voters.
Of course, these are just suggestions, and I don’t want to steal Cameron’s thunder. But there’s no doubt that this government is delivering a masterclass in cynical – but deeply effective – political propaganda. Whether he writes it up, rightwingers the world over will be studying Cameronese for years. If they want to fight it, it’s time opponents started doing the same.
This article first appeared at the Guardian Comment is free.