Terry Eagleton, ‘A Lit Crit of the Party Manifestos’, in The Guardian (26 May 2017)

[Source: The Guardian (Friday, 26 May 2017) - available online; accessed 31 May 2017. Sub-heading: ‘For the Posh and Powerful, Not For Riff-Raff Like You’ … the critic deconstructs the party promises.]

The title of the Conservative party manifesto is “Forward, Together”, presumably because “Backward, Apart” isn’t much of a vote catcher. The prime minister’s mind-numbing mantra, “strong and stable government” (anyone for the weak and turbulent kind?) crops up twice in consecutive lines on the first page, suggesting that the authors have a rather dim-witted audience in mind. Less blandly, Labour calls its manifesto “For the Many, Not the Few”, cunningly calculating that this might have a wider appeal than “For the Posh and Powerful, Not For Riff-Raff Like You”.

Writing these things can’t be easy. You need to talk about the British Coal superannuation scheme surplus while still managing to sound a high moral tone. Party manifestos are part sermon, part technical guide. They must be morally uplifting but down to earth, confident but not complacent, inspirational yet briskly practical. The luckless hacks who write them must also resign themselves to the fact that, apart from journalists and political nerds, they probably attract a smaller readership than War and Peace.

The Tory manifesto errs on the sermonising side, full of pious sentiment and high-minded rhetoric. Most of the sentiments are drearily predictable (“Britain has always been a great trading nation”) while one or two are not, such as: “We do not believe in untrammelled free markets. We reject the cult of selfish individualism. We abhor social division, injustice, unfairness and inequality.”

The phrase “except in practice” seems to have been accidentally omitted. Roughly translated, this means that Theresa May is so eager to shaft George Osborne that she is prepared to sound like Ken Loach. Labour probably couldn’t get away with such fighting talk, but then nobody is going to mistake May for a Trotskyist.

Conservatives believe that public service is “a noble vocation”, which should gladden the heart of every traffic warden, and that Britain should play an active, leading role in the world, rather (one presumes) than a passive, inert, cravenly subordinate one. A Tory government will “protect our brave armed forces from persistent legal claims”, which could just be a blank cheque for torture and murder.

The greatest injustice in Britain today, it is revealed, is that people’s lives are still largely determined by where they come from and what school they attend. The solution is to “make Britain the world’s Great Meritocracy”, which seems not to include abolishing private education. Perhaps this suggests that there are limits to the prime minister’s resentment of the posh boys. Not even she could bring herself to turn Eton into an old people’s home.

The Conservatives are eager to avoid all “rigid dogma”, which is surely a worthy aim. All those arid dogmatists who are rigid in their conviction that workhouses shouldn’t be reintroduced should feel themselves rapped properly over the knuckles. Only the left is prey to such unbending absolutism. One takes it that the Tories are committed to freedom, enterprise, private property and so on, but in a tentative, wavering, provisional kind of way.

“Forward, Together” is austere in appearance, as befits the current government’s economic policies, whereas Labour’s document is interspersed with a lot of largely meaningless visual images in case you get fed up with reading it and prefer to look at photos of a woman’s hands resting on a computer keyboard or the back of an examination candidate’s head.

It is, however, written without condescension or moral grandstanding, and starts where it should: with an assault on the UK’s dismally low corporation tax. Its prose is crisp, compact and admirably detailed (there is even a section on the fire and rescue services), though not without the odd concession to cliche.

We learn that the country is full of dynamic, generous and creative people, and are rocked by the outrageous claim that a Labour government will refrain from discriminating between those of different races or creeds. We are also told that society benefits as a whole when we invest in people’s skills. It isn’t clear why Labour has borrowed such a meagrely utilitarian view of education from its political opponents, though it does promise that under its rule education will be free. Does that include Harrow and Winchester?

The Lib Dems have entitled their manifesto “Change Britain’s Future”, the logic of which is slightly shaky. Strictly speaking, you can’t change the future because it doesn’t exist, though you can create a better future by changing the present.

This document, too, is adorned with a number of largely meaningless images, but there is an abundance of snappily informative bullet points amid the predictable sprinkling of platitudes. The fact that “Liberal Democrats are open and outward-looking” is dramatically unveiled to an open-mouthed audience, along with the recklessly audacious assertion that our natural environment is precious.

There is a striking amount of consensus among these apparently conflicting statements. All are agreed that when it comes to education it is children who should be put first, rather than plumbing or biology textbooks. In timorously conventional style, no party is prepared to advocate leaving patients in hospital corridors for 12 hours at a stretch, or to abolish Prince Andrew. Generally speaking, we should be kind to animals (except foxes) but tough on terrorists.

Everyone should be able to develop their full potential, though whether this includes cannibals and serial killers is left unclear. Barriers are to be torn down, standards driven up, programmes rolled out and rights protected. Nobody is prepared to stick their neck out and replace the tax system with kidnapping your children and forcing you to buy them back.

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