Election campaigns routinely prove the wisdom of Simon Hoggart’s “law of the ridiculous reverse”, which states that a political phrase is meaningless when no one in their right mind would assert the opposite.
Theresa May’s constant insistence that Britain needs strong and stable government is banal, since no party in history has campaigned with the intention of forming a weak and insecure one. In the same platitudinous spirit, all parties’ manifestos talk about the future as a place of hope and opportunity for all. The Conservatives encapsulate this idiom in the title of their 2017 prospectus: “Forward, together”. The alternative – “Backwards, apart” – was presumably rejected early in the drafting process. And yet, despite the obligatory claims by all parties to be visionary, the campaign feels bleakly anchored to the past.
There is a cagey optimism in the way Mrs May has structured her manifesto around the idea of meeting five “giant challenges”. The implication, conveyed as much in tone as in substance, is that the future is a scary place and that the job of government is to insulate citizens from the dangers. Even the final section on digital technology dwells on the downside rather than the potential it still could have for good. It lingers on the threat to public security and morals from online bullies, terrorists and pornographers.
This cultural flinch is in keeping with the genesis of Mrs May’s project. It professes to be ambitious for Britain’s role in the world, trading freely on the open seas of the global economy, but its foundations are reactionary and protectionist, rooted in the 1950s. David Cameron was evicted from Downing Street last year by a campaign that mobilised anxiety about the rate of change in Britain. Some Brexit ideologues insist that quitting the European Union is a step towards renewing, not stifling, the UK’s global engagement. But they are deluded or dishonest when they deny that retreat behind economic and cultural barriers was on the minds of many leave voters. Mrs May is unafraid to appeal to that sensibility.
This hands the opposition an opportunity to strike a more optimistic note – to seize the rhetoric of hope. But Jeremy Corbyn’s manifesto, although some of its policies generated more excitement, is also steeped in nostalgia. The Labour leader’s proposals are drastic to the extent that they represent a departure from current economic practice, but that does not make them radical in the sense of imaginative or original. The weapons that Mr Corbyn proposes to defeat injustice and inequality – nationalisations, raising taxes for higher spending on public services – are conventional, retreads of the 70s. The Labour leader believes that they are due a revival, and it is a proposition worth testing. Yet, as an account of how Britain will cope with the vast economic, demographic and technological upheaval promised by the 21st century, the opposition manifesto fails, like the Tories’, to rise to the challenge. On Brexit, both are opaque to the point of negligence.
Uncertainty about the UK’s relations with the rest of the EU inevitably casts a cloud over the immediate future. But a capable and creative politician should be able to recast a journey into the unknown as an opportunity to be seized with enthusiasm. That this idiom sits ill with Brexit suggests either that there is little available upside to leaving the EU, or that party leaders are sorely lacking in imagination, or – most likely – both.
But it isn’t just Brexit. Futurephobia besets many aspects of political debate. There are problems associated with an ageing society, for example, but it is also a function of longer life expectancy, which is good news. It is easy to survey developments in artificial intelligence and conclude that robots are about to make millions of jobs obsolete; that labour markets will collapse under a mass of surplus unskilled human workers. But it is possible that technological developments could open new avenues of work, new routes to prosperity and security.
Change does not necessarily have to mean loss, and the future does not have to be menacing, even when it is unclear. Of course it would be naive to deny that the turbulence of recent years has been unsettling. There have been periods in the past when it was easier to look to the future with unalloyed enthusiasm. But a retreat into nostalgia is not preordained by events. It is a cultural choice that societies make and that politicians can either encourage or reject. Britain’s misfortune is not that its best days are in the past but that its politics struggles to express convincing confidence in the days yet to come.