Theresa May, Poll-Dancer Extraordinaire

Last week saw the launch of the Conservative manifesto, and I thought that Theresa May had achieved yet another stage in her immaculate transformation into the Ghost of Margaret Thatcher Made Flesh. Thatcher was labelled ‘MilkSnatcher’ for her removal of free school milk for over 7s during her time as Secretary for Education under Heath in 1971, but May’s manifesto, cutting free school meals for children in England and Wales, had surely been enough to dub her ‘LunchSnatcher’. The celebrations of Thatcher’s death included plans to bombard her hearse with milk as it made its (near) royal procession through London – could Theresa expect to have sandwiches thrown at hers?

Theresa Mary May (née Brasier) has not sought to avoid the comparison with the Iron Lady (no matter how unpopular that would make her in Scotland in particular), the idea of the vicar’s daughter from Oxfordshire somehow resonating even more with the idyllic fantasy of England’s cricket-playing village greens than that of Margaret Hilda Thatcher (née Roberts), the shopkeeper’s daughter from Grantham in Lincolnshire. If May were to follow in Thatcher’s footsteps she would pay little heed to such opprobium from the mere public – but the Conservative manifesto launch contained other gems that certainly did make her core voters sit up and take notice.

The delayed announcement of the raising of the state pension age until after the election had caused suspicions to arise, as had the delay of 6 years to women born in the 1950s receiving their state pensions, so effectively publicised by WASPI (Women Against State Pension Inequality), losing up to £45,000 each in the process. In Westminster, the SNP leader Angus Robertson MP had read the way the wind was blowing and had correctly intuited an imminent threat to the triple lock protection on the state pension, pinning May during Prime Minister’s Questions as she refused to answer whether the lock would stay or not. Sure enough, in the Conservative manifesto the scrapping of the triple lock on pensions – the guarantee that ensures that state pensions rise in line with average earnings, inflation or 2.5 per cent (whichever is the highest) – was announced, as was the removal of the winter fuel allowance for the elderly, and the introduction of what was swiftly dubbed the ‘Dementia Tax’, wherein the appropriation of people’s homes to posthumously pay for their care costs became embedded in law. Given that a report last month showed a rise in pensioner poverty across the UK, it is perhaps less than surprising that Theresa’s core support group – the elderly – did not take kindly to being taken for granted, and over the last weekend her lead halved in two polls to only 9 points above Labour. Theresa did not take this change in polling fortune lying down, however, and set about spinning on the Monday morning – just 4 days after the manifesto policy was launched – at a press conference in Wrexham that there was always going to be a ‘cap’ on the homes affected (although this had been emphatically denied by ministers the previous week – but you can see why it would be an idea given the figures in the table above), to try and recover some political support from her ‘Greys’.

For Theresa Mary May is a Poll-Dancer. She called the snap General Election in April when two polls came in over a single weekend showing a 20-21 point lead for the Conservatives over Labour. Faced with the Crown Prosecution Service in imminent danger of removing her majority, and the certainty that the economy will progressively deteriorate (pardon the oxymoron) the further we get from Article 50 having been raised to leave the European Union, it only made sense to her to opportunistically scrap the Fixed Terms Act in order to call an early election under the pretense of it strengthening her supposed hand against Brussels in the forthcoming BrExit discussions. If she did not make a fast jump now, before times get really bad, the she would risk having to go to the country for an election in 3 years time, when expectations are that BrExit fantasies will have started to implode into a grim reality. In this way – one might suspect that she reasoned – she might be able to hold on to power until after the immediate start of the bite of the BrExit-generated austerity, and perhaps ride some kind of slow delayed slight upswing, with her political opponents having been annihilated by her new post-June majority.

And now she dances to the tune of the polls again – trying to pretend that her ‘Dementia Tax’ was not nearly so bad as had been said (much like the ‘Rape Clause’ of last month). Except that Theresa went into meltdown on live television twice in one day on Monday. First of all, in calling the press conference in Wrexham to announce that there was a cap (although what the cap value of the property was, noone knew, and she was not going to say), she took questions from journalists – something she is known to be poor at…and one from a Michael Crick of Channel 4 News. Michael is the journalist who pretty much singlehandedly dug up the story of the Conservative election expenses fraud when no other media outlet was acknowledging that it existed for over 9 months, which resulted in the Crown Prosecution Service receiving files from fifteen police services. Crick started softly, comparing May to Thatcher (which she obviously relished) with her ‘the lady is not for turning’ and ‘You turn if you want to’, pointing out that May’s U-turn not only set her apart from Thatcher, but far from being ‘strong and stable’ (as her election soundbite has wearingly been) this was “weak and wobbly”. May did not respond well – and ended up shrieking in an out of control fashion “Nothing has changed! Nothing has changed!” (ironically enough to a question from the Daily Telegraph). It is a shocking piece of video to watch, for someone who occupies the office of Prime Minister to crack like this – a friend of mine watched the tape back: ‘She looks like she is going to cry’, she said. That night, she went on to be interviewed live by Andrew Neill, and despite him being no enemy of the Conservatives, she looked adrift and lost, again reduced to repeating a limited number of vapid soundbites. She must have gone to bed that night wondering how she could turn things around, when she was losing her lead even with such solid support from the British press.

And then the bomb went off at Manchester Arena after the Ariana Grande concert, killing 22 and injuring a further 59 in the (predominantly) young female audience.

Even without going down the tinfoil hat conspiracy line that this ‘intervention’ seemed almost too perfect for her agenda (this is not to ignore that it plays very well to other external agendas), it is undeniable that this has given her breathing space which she will be grateful for: political campaigning has ceased, she gets to deploy  5,000 army personnel on the streets (she cut 19,000 police officers as Home Secretary, so there are not enough armed police to cut it anymore) under Operation Temperer and bask in reflected military strength (not unlike Thatcher sending off the Falklands task force when her popularity was waning with the public), to feed off the inevitable ‘anti-immigrant’ feeling that will strengthen her hardline BrExit stance, and give the public time to forget – even if just a little – her horrendous crumpling under modest pressure on live television. At a time when politically she had – entirely through her own doing – landed herself on the ropes, she will be able to regroup once more in time to restart the campaign next week, aided by cartoons and comment in the Daily Mail and the Telegraph that seek to remind people that her opponent Jeremy Corbyn ‘associated’ with the IRA while trying to make progress for peace, and thus insinuate that in some unspoken way he bears a ‘responsibility’ for what happened in Manchester.

As Jon Stone has noted in The Independent, Theresa May has developed something of a penchant for u-turns in her ten months as Prime Minister, willing to swiftly reverse unpopular announcements from BrExit (Remain before, Leave after), increasing National Insurance for self-employed workers, calling a General Election before 2020, amongst several. What poll trend she jumps to the rhythm of next will be interesting to see – but instead of strong and stable she has instead looked startlingly inconstant and all too desperate to court public opinion. In conjunction with the recent changes in the Labour Party’s fortunes, it starts to look as though the survival of this Poll-Dancer as PM would actually be something of a surprise. But one thing is for sure – the only thing that will be ‘stable’ in the run-up to June 8th will be Theresa May’s desperate dance and willingness to reverse for the favour of the polls, lest her electoral gamble fall to dust in her hands.

“She is hitting older people with a classic Nasty Party triple-whammy: Scrapping the triple lock on pensions, removing the winter fuel allowance and forcing those who need social care to pay for it with their homes.” (Jeremy Corbyn responds to the Conservative manifesto launch)

Tales from BrExitLand: More than One Shade of Grey with BrExit and Generation WW

There have been so many strands arising from the EU Referendum vote, that my related blog-post promised to not only be several thousand words long, but as likely to be finished as George RR Martin’s Song of Fire and Ice before Game of Thrones completes its broadcast version on HBO.

One of the reasons is time is a lot more difficult to find these days (hence the comparative silence these last months), and the last few months have been particularly problematic in this regard. My mother died just over 2 months ago, and that has entailed the usual catastrophic impacts that many of you will be familiar with, when ‘Major Life Changes’ need to be suddenly shoehorned into an already over-stuffed schedule. The last time I saw my mother in anything remotely passing for good health was in fact on the day of the EU Referendum vote, when I (unusually) was down at the polling booths for the opening of the polls, as I had a flight to catch for Munich later that morning. Unlike the Scottish Independence Referendum, I had not engaged mum in any conversation on the matter (in part because I had very little inclination to do so in the preceding year), but I had assumed that she would be an instinctive ‘Leave’ voter. Her EU (and other foreign policy) attitudes seemed largely to have been formed through latent wartime jingoism (“Why are they bossing us about when we knocked seven bells out of them during the war??”), having been 11-17 years old over the period of 1939-1945. This was confirmed secondarily by my sister, while we were starting to sort through the house contents earlier this month, and she recounted attempting to talk to her on the issue (‘would you still rather we were at war with Germany, then?’ ‘Well…’).

Demographically, her choice was – of course – depressingly unsurprising – she was well into the 65 and over category, 60% of whom voted to leave. Similarly she was part of the 73% of over 55s that voted ‘No’ two years ago (see https://50daysofyes.wordpress.com/2014/09/21/morguetown-a-velvet-revolution-smothered-or-failing-to-get-into-the-second-round-of-a-tournament-on-goal-difference-again). (As a sidebar, it is interesting to note that the ‘pivot age’ in the Scottish Independence Referendum was 55 – the majority of those below voting Yes, the majority of those above voting No – whereas the ‘pivot age’ for BrExit was 45.)

Yet it is – of course – not as simple as a stark generational difference, a simple attitude that defines the World War Generation (or ‘Generation WW’, perhaps) on the basis of their date of birth, with an immutability akin to a geological age. My father, broadly of the same age-group, died just over ten years ago, but seemed to be very much at odds with my mother’s views on such issues of national identity. Perhaps this divergence was because although he lived through the same war, he had done so training in the Royal Air Force, so had seen the reality behind the marketing veneer of the ‘Britain’ that was being peddled to the populace back home. After the war, he had trained in finance – and that also might have influenced his views on issues not solely restricted to Scottish independence. For example, in the 1975 vote to ratify the UK membership of the EEC, father was shocked to discover that mother had voted against ratification. (Incidentally, for that vote, Scots voted 58:42 to ratify, which was dwarfed by England’s 69:31. As George Kerevan recently noted, times, it would seem, have very much changed since those days…) Similarly, as a lifelong proponent of independence (he once told me that he knew he wouldn’t see it in his lifetime, but hoped that I would see it in mine – fingers crossed, Dad, fingers crossed…), it is more than highly unlikely that Dad would have voted ‘No’ in September 2014, as she did. Given what Mum might have described as his ‘contrary’ nature to her, one might be tempted to predict that Dad would also have voted against BrExit: although he was no fan of how Europe had developed, I can see that he would have voted to stay in Europe if for no other reason than it clearly advanced the cause of Scottish independence.

Sadly, my mother would probably have enjoyed the now ‘socially-acceptable’ BritNat racism that is becoming as widespread as it is legitimised by being presented as part of today’s post-BrExit vote political mainstream: her declaration (after visiting South Africa in 1989) that apartheid was “a good thing, and they should have it in Britain, too” gives us little cause to think otherwise. I can imagine, if she had lived long enough to hear it, that she would have been smiling with satisfaction as the new Home Secretary’s speech was reported from the Conservative Party conference barely a fortnight ago – and it is unlikely that she would have even blinked when it was pointed out to her that registering foreign workers was re-enacting Chapter 2 of Mein Kampf. [Thanks, Amber Rudd.] To an extent that reflects that she is part of a somewhat lost generation, who grew up during wartime, when that form of racism was actively encouraged: it is after all far simpler for a government to sell an idea of being at war with an entire people, than with something as abstract as an ideology. But that is not to say – by any stretch of the imagination – that her attitude is universal within her demographic, and we should not therefore regard Generation WW as either impregnable or unsalvageable. Plenty of her age group did not buy into the xenophobic rhetoric of ‘Leave’ with such enthusiasm, are not off the social media grid (see https://50daysofyes.wordpress.com/2014/09/25/greys-psychology-inside-the-mindset-of-a-defeated-demographic/ ), and have allowed their attitudes to develop with the passing years, growing away from kneejerk, imperial-based BritNat racism.

So what lessons are there here for us for the future – if any? As much as it is clear that it is far from that entire demographic group that voted against independence two years ago, we can still see that the percentages show that it was the retired demographic whose emphatic ‘No’ vote overwhelmed the ‘Yes’ vote of all the younger demographics – ironically dictating a future for others that they themselves would have little to do with. I pointed this out to my mother when she started to object to the idea that 16-17 year olds would have the vote for September 2014: she grudgingly conceded my point, using her best ‘Kevin and Perry’ sulk impression.

In the 1979 devolution referendum, the Dead were infamously counted as ‘No’ voters (a Labour amendment, which Jim Callaghan later denounced as the reason for his government falling, had required that it was 40% of the entire registered electorate in Scotland – including those deceased who had not yet been removed from the register – that would need to vote Yes for a Scottish Assembly to come into being). In the event of the 2nd independence referendum, provided that the terms are the same as 2014, this will not be the case. In this connection, one rather harsh analyst observed in the aftermath of the 2014 referendum that with the passage of but a few years, the demographic that had opposed Yes so emphatically would become significantly reduced in number…as represented by people such as my mother: one less future ‘No’ voter to worry about, as it were. Those of the 2014 electorate who die before the next referendum are much more likely to be No voters than Yes supporters. But this does not mean that the resistance of that demographic to change will be in any way undermined: as you get older, you tend to be more susceptible to fear – and just as surely as the older ‘No’ voters will disappear with time, a new section of the population will start to enter that stage in their lives when – even although the Government’s pensions office made clear that a UK pension was secure in the event of an independent Scotland – they will still be vulnerable to the likes of Gordon Brown telling them that it will be at risk. Project Fear focused relentlessly in on Project Pension Fear in the last days…and won through, in no small part due to securing the (often postal) votes of the retired demographic.

Away from past wartime conditioning, we must do all that we can to ensure that next time the Scottish Independence Referendum comes around, Project Pension Fear is fought hard and bitterly, and not allowed to achieve anything like the kind of traction that it did in 2014.

 

“If Scotland does become independent this will have no effect on your State Pension…anyone who is in receipt or entitled to claim State Pension can still receive this when they live abroad, if this is a European country or a country where Britain has a reciprocal agreement they will continue to receive annual increases as if they stayed in Great Britain. If the country does not fall into the above criteria then the rate of State Pension remains payable at the rate it was when they left Britain and no annual increases will be applied until such times they come back to live in Britain permanently.” (Department for Work and Pensions, UK Government, January 2013)