When Napoleon described the English as “a nation of shopkeepers” some among their number took the barb to heart.
For the aristocracy and the radicals, commerce was long a common enemy, at once vulgar and elitist.
It is why the upper classes and the liberal intelligentsia despised Margaret Thatcher, the social-climbing daughter of a grocer who talked about the great affairs of state in terms of “the prices in the housewife’s shopping basket”. When she sacked one patrician Cabinet minister, she remarked: “I got the distinct impression that he felt the natural order of things was being violated and that he was, in effect, being dismissed by his housemaid.”
But it is not and never has been the case that social snobbery is the exclusive preserve of the right and the Tory wets found many an ally in the educated left. Stephen Fry has seldom been as arch as in his dismissal of the Iron Lady as “a shameful, putrid scab, an embarrassing, ludicrous monstrosity that makes one frankly ashamed to be British”.
Thatcher was for the graspers, the yuppies, the petty capitalists, all those tacky people running plumbing firms from the back of vans parked in the driveways of uPVC-windowed ex-council houses in Basildon. Worst of all, she was proud of it.
It is in this narrow sense that the first Tory Queen’s Speech in almost two decades was a Thatcherite affair. Narrow because, although Euroscepticism and the firm smack of social authoritarianism were there amid the themes of aspiration, self-improvement, and enterprise, David Cameron is not a prime minister in the Thatcher mould. Where she was single-minded and melodramatically self-assured, he is a more sober, calculating politician. It is hard to imagine him campaigning for reelection as she did in 1983 on a platform of “banish[ing] from our land the dark, divisive clouds of Marxist socialism”.
But if he lacks the intensity of Maggie, Cameron’s agenda is no less radical for he too seeks to redraw the dividing lines of British politics and cleave ambitious working class voters from their traditional home, the Labour Party. The Tories, his sales pitch goes, are the real party for working people while Labour thinks a life on benefits is an acceptable alternative to a job.
It may be a gross caricature but this blue-collar conservatism evidently found an audience in English marginals during the general election.
Outlining the aims of the Gracious Speech, the Prime Minister said on Wednesday: “That is our ambition. To build a country where whoever you are and wherever you live you can have the chance of a good education, a decent job, a home of your own and the peace of mind that comes from being able to raise a family and enjoy a secure retirement. A country that backs those who work hard and do the right thing.”
When the Sovereign assumed the throne in the House of Lords, she gave a speech (written by her ministers) geared towards the “hard-working families” of so much political cant. For them, there would be the carrot: 30 hours of free childcare per week for three- and four-year-olds; a seven-day NHS; and no increases in income tax, VAT or national insurance for the life of the Parliament.
Political cliche has yet to settle on an agreed term for the opposite of hard-working families but it is generally assumed that these are people who have made “bad choices”. (Of course, this assumes they had any choice in the first place.) For these wretches, there will be the stick: Working-age benefits frozen, the welfare cap cut from £26,000 to £23,000, and criminalisation of legal highs so the downcast and dejected can’t even find solace in getting bath-salted out of their face.
And on the constitution, the Tory backbenchers heard the magic words they’ve been desperate to hear since their last majority government. Her Majesty’s ministers would “bring forward proposals for a British Bill of Rights” (a softening of previous pledges to scrap the Human Rights Act) and the Prime Minister would renegotiate Britain’s relationship with the EU before putting the deal to the people in a referendum.
For five years, people longed to kick the Lib Dems out of government. Today they got to see what that looks like.
Further devolution was promised for Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, and the cities and regions of the nation. But David Cameron took a shot at the SNP’s endless demands for more powers, sniping: “If you want more taxes, more spending and more borrowing you can now introduce those measures in Scotland. It is time for you to stop talking and start acting.”
The Prime Minister took second place in the Nat-bashing stakes to interim Labour leader Harriet Harman, who scorned their comical determination to secure for themselves all the rights and privileges of the Westminster parliament they have spent years execrating. Alluding to the SNP’s designs on the Commons seat of 83-year-old former miner Dennis Skinner, Harman quipped: “The lion might be roaring in Scotland but don’t mess with the Beast of Bolsover.”
(Harman’s response to the Gracious Speech was more engaging, witty, and human than anything Ed Miliband said in his five years as Leader of the Opposition. There is much talk about moving onto the next generation in selecting a new Labour leader but, on today’s performance, you have to wonder if the party missed an opportunity in not putting her in the top spot.)
Elsewhere, the foreign policy announcements were flat and predictable, an indicator that the post-Blair strategy of benign neglect will continue. (It looks somewhat less benign from Aleppo or Ar-Raqqah.) The government will push for a resolution of the humanitarian crisis in Syria and support the embattled Iraqi regime. Everyone will continue to tut loudly as Vladimir Putin annexes those bits of eastern Europe that take his fancy. More productively, Cameron intends to strengthen Britain’s relations with China and India, vital trading partners and strategic allies which went unwooed for far too long.
Foreign policy is notoriously hostage to Donald Rumsfeld’s “unknown unknowns” and who knows what might arise over the course of this Parliament to upend these priorities. But the government has much more leeway here than on domestic issues, facing as it does no serious opposition. Labour lost its heavyweight shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander in the election and the SNP’s spokesman on world affairs is Alex “unpardonable folly” Salmond.
There is something else worth noting about the Queen’s Speech.
Today in England (which, as the SNP justly complains, dominates Westminster) they are talking about an EU referendum and a British Bill of Rights, but they are also discussing job creation, welfare reform, tax policy, childcare, housing, labour relations, and terrorism. It’s almost as if government is about policy and not just constitutional process.
Napoleon was right. What a strange bunch the English are.
Originally published on STV News.