So it’s official: we are not actually expected to listen to the government. In fact, apparently, we set ourselves up to be mocked if we do.
Last week Francis Maude advised people to break the law. Dan Hodges, a Labour activist and blogger who constantly yaps at Ed Miliband’s heels for being out of touch with ordinary people, used the privilege of his space in the Daily Telegraph to declare: “If you filled up your car today because Francis Maude told you to, you’re an idiot.” He goes on: “Sorry to be so blunt about it, but you are. In fact, anyone who has taken any action over the past seven days on the advice of ministers in this Government needs their head examining.”
In fact, even when a woman suffered severe burns after she took Maude’s advice – albeit carrying it out in a somewhat less than practical way – the main emphasis was on her foolishness, with endless tweets even nominating her for a Darwin Award. (Although to get a Darwin Award, as the name indicates, you need to actually be dead. So perhaps some of the tweeters themselves aren’t as clever as they think.)
Francis Maude is not responsible for this horrible accident, but is this level of snide derision towards people for listening to their own government really something we’re comfortable with? Is this what we’re happy to become? Has the famous British love of sarcasm gone so far that our voices are just auto-tuned to ‘ironical sneer,’ one eyebrow permanently raised at everything, to the extent that when a government minister gives ridiculous advice our reaction is to make fun of the people who didn’t assume he was talking piffle? Surely it’s reasonable as a busy citizen of a civilised democracy to assume government ministers know, at the very least, what is legal behaviour, and what isn’t? The question of whether politicians should be mothering us and feeding us cough mixture when we sneeze in the first place with this kind of advice isn’t the point. Yes, such advice is only ever going to be geared towards their own special interests – as Francis Maude’s encouragement of panic buying undoubtedly was – but if they are going to go round giving everybody advice then we should have higher expectations of them than this. With a media that expects no less, no wonder our politicians are so comfortable lying to us.
And lie to us they do, about everything from fuel strikes to NHS reform; their true feelings on the Cornish pasty to mandatory work schemes. With the so-called ‘Snoopers’ Charter’ looming on the political horizon, the question of trust in our politicians needs to be raised – and higher standards need to be demanded. Fast.
We can’t afford to just sigh and raise an eyebrow every time a member of the political class show how little they care to gain and keep our trust. The charge that the coalition is out of touch with the public isn’t just about the chasm in personal wealth. It’s about politicians being removed from ordinary public dialogue. It’s not just the Tory party, either. Ed Miliband is one of the worst offenders for talking about the people he wants to govern – and supposedly represents – instead of talking to us. Or, God forbid, listening to us.
The out of touch charge should also not just be levied at the politicians themselves. The silly season recently came early for the media, with liveblogs, pie puns and hilarious tweets about the drolly-named ‘pastygate.’ Journalists really do seem to love nothing more than a good old laugh about how silly journalism is; about how funny it is that they’re all writing about something trivial, and then writing about how ridiculous it is that people are interested in the stuff they’ve written, as if they were all somehow forced to write about the whatever the topic was that they found so beneath them, by enormous public demand, because leading topics for the national papers are obviously all decided by a poll of everyone in the country, not by Paul Dacre and Rupert Murdoch, or their editors.
Yes, a hot food tax is not, in itself, a real political hot potato (sorry). So what? We get reams and reams of blogs and articles about the finer points of Britain’s electoral map broken down by region and personal demographics that could never possibly be of interest to anyone except, well, utter nerds. We get comment editorials coming out of our ears about every single poll bump or drop or flatline that ever gets printed or tweeted, only for them to fade to dust in days. We even get articles about key strategic questions like whether the Labour party should brand themselves as Red, Blue, (in the) Black, or Purple Labour. So yes, pasties might seem trivial in comparison, but the broader point – that a 20% rate of VAT is killing jobs, crushing the economy, and damaging both businesses big and small, and is now even spoiling people’s inoffensive pleasures like eating a bloody pie at the end of the evening – should not be.
For all the high-minded fuss about civil liberties and human rights, public versus private ownership, the relationship between religion and the state, pretty much every time there’s been a major revolution in history – not just here, but in America, France, and around the world – it has more or less, when it comes down to it, been instigated by a row over taxation. Unfair, unnecessary taxation that squeezes money upwards seems to make people madder than almost anything else, and it has done for centuries.
Polls have consistently shown that the most popular tax cuts the government could have made in their 2012 budget would have been to VAT and fuel. George Osborne either didn’t know this or didn’t care but either way he obviously couldn’t be bothered to listen to the majority of people in Britain on the one issue which is of most importance to us, and has instead, tailored the tax part of his budget to a very specific, small cluster of people. The only tax cuts he’s given out are to top rate earners, and corporations, and although in itself those tax cuts are not even bad ideas, they are unarguably for a minority, not the majority, of people.
No matter what type of food he eats, if George Osborne talked to the people who do eat at Greggs a little bit more, he’d have known that a lot more people are annoyed about fuel bills than we are about the 50p rate of tax. The Labour party, by the way, are also wrong to make a campaign centrepiece out of the 50p rate of tax. People care what happens in their own pocket much more than what happens in other people’s. The problem for Osborne isn’t the perception of top rate payers getting a net tax cut, it’s the perception of only top rate payers getting a net tax cut. And similarly, if Francis Maude spoke to people a bit more often, he might have known that if he told people to store fuel in their houses – when no strike had even been declared and Len McLuskey would have to give at least seven days notice if he wanted to declare one – some people might actually take him at his word, and might potentially injure themselves.
People are entitled to take advice given to them by a government minister without being mocked and called stupid by the political class just as people are entitled to care about a tax on Cornish pasties more than the colour of Labour’s new policy book if they want to. And the media can only go so far in labelling the government as out of touch if they then use their own booming voices simply to tell the electorate what they should be caring about. Cornish pasties themselves aren’t the issue; they never were. The ‘pastygate’ story in all its silly glory was not the voice of ordinary people so much as voice of the media and politicians guessing at what they think ordinary people care about. It’s nothing to do with pies per se. It’s to do with being taxed from here to next Tuesday by people who don’t have a sensible clue about how to spend our money, and don’t ask us. We are, after all, the people who actually live with the impact of whatever the government does and, from people on the very top rates of tax right through to people paying VAT on a pie or a packet of cigarettes, we bloody well pay for it all, too. That is why it matters when decisions are made by people who are so removed from us that they give us advice and are surprised when we actually take it. And until the media gives them something worse than a cool shrug of weary cynicism, we really have no reason to expect any better, either.