I might as well confess this right away. The United States has always held a particular fascination for me. It’s my mum’s fault. For a young woman of her generation meeting Yanks in the war was truly Earth shattering. Confident, well-fed, well-clothed and well-paid young men who might as well have beamed in from another planet. Thirty years or more later the impact of their arrival in the sleepy English countryside was obvious still in the vividness of her memories.
So I grew up hearing that America and Americans were to be profoundly admired. Her addiction to Alistair Cooke’s Letter from America also pushed me in that direction. Each Sunday lunchtime we would listen to the goings on across the pond with as much interest as in anything London had to offer. America always seemed optimistic. ‘Can do.’ A hangover of that childhood indoctrination is that I always make time to keep up with what is going on in the States. And I’ve been following the growth of the TEA Party movement with keen interest.
In Europe we often feel inclined to look down on Americans as unsophisticated folks who like to go everywhere armed to the teeth clutching the King James’ Bible and singing C&W. That sort of lazy anti-Americanism has always got up my hooter. But much about the country and its peoples perplexes me. Particularly the TEA Party.
Ahead of today’s mid-term elections I watched Andrew Neil’s programme on BBC2 yesterday evening. He visited TEA Party activists in several states. He went along to some of their events and rallies. He spoke to some of those who provide the organisational heft to the movement and its intellectual underpinning. As I watched I thought I detected one powerful thread that linked the voices of Colorado with those of Kentucky, Arizona and Ohio or any of the other states Neil visited. Fear. These were, in the main, white middle-class people not that different to me and who were profoundly fearful about the future.
As I watched a half-remembered quote hovered around in the back of my mind. Bumbling into the kitchen afterwards to make a nice cup of tea the source of the quote came back to me. It’s from a film called The American President scripted by Aaron Sorkin. If you are a West Wing fan who has not yet seen this film you should. In the script and the characters you will see the foreshadowing on the TV series. Anyway back to the quote. The President faces a non-stop campaign from an unscrupulous opponent (Bob Rumson) and towards the end of the film the President decides its time to take that opponent on. Here’s what he says (thanks to IMDB).
“I have serious problems to solve, and we need serious people to solve them. And whatever your particular problem is, I promise you, Bob Rumson is not the least bit interested in solving it. He is interested in two things and two things only: making you afraid of it and telling you who’s to blame for it. That, ladies and gentlemen, is how you win elections. You gather a group of middle-aged, middle-class, middle-income voters who remember with longing an easier time, and you talk to them about family and American values and character.”
Given what I had seen earlier in the evening the quote seemed wonderfully apt.
Anyway by now you’re probably wondering what I’ve brought this story up on a blog about losing my job and finding another way to earn a living.
Well, it seemed to me that I shared a lot of the anxiety on show even if the causes of my angst are almost entirely different. What we do seem to share is a feeling that, for reasons outside of our control, the world is suddenly a much more hostile place. That old certainties no longer hold good. That it is probable our children will have worse lives than ours.
The ordinary Americans to whom Andrew Neil spoke had been helped by an assortment of opinion formers to refine their fear and identify those to blame for it. Big government. And a Marxist, un-American tyrant with an Islamic sounding name.
We often congratulate ourselves on not being a fertile plot for the sorts of demagogues who thrive in the US courtesy of the 1st Amendment. But in reflecting on the TV programme I was reminded of a Telegraph column I had read earlier in the day by the always-interesting Peter Oborne. In it he reported that, in his words, the Chancellor had ‘grossly exaggerated’ the amount of benefit fraud in the system in his CSR speech. The Chancellor had conflated figures for fraud around £1.6 billion with those for overpayments due to error to get the total he used of £5 billion. Why would a government inflate the figures for benefit fraud?
Oborne recounts that leaders of some of the UK’s largest churches issued a news release on 26 October challenging the figures cited in the CSR speech.
The President of the Methodist Church Rev Alison Tomlin said,
“Exaggerating benefit fraud points the finger of blame at the poor. Let us be clear this recession was not caused by the poor, those on benefits, or even benefit cheats. The poorest in society only got poorer during the boom years and it’s simply not fair to make them pay for the bust.”
The Churches issued an open letter to the PM on 28 October making the same points about the use of figures to bolster the ‘stigmatising’ of the poor. In other words let’s lump the poor into the category of folks to blame for the deficit we all fear.
For mild-mannered folks the church leaders are clear about what they want the PM to do about it.
“As speeches in the Commons are matters of public record we would ask that you instruct the Chancellor to correct his statement of 20th October. We would also ask that the Ministerial forward to the publication ‘Tackling fraud and error in the benefit and tax credits systems’ published last week by the DWP and HMRC, is similarly corrected, as it makes the same error.”
I checked both the HMT and Number 10 websites tonight (1 November) and found no response as yet.
The notion that any minister let only the Chancellor has put inaccurate information before our Parliament worries me. It should worry anyone that got tired of the funny money stunts much beloved of the previous Prime Minister in his time at Number 11. (You see, I am even-handed.)
Tonight’s programme on the TEA Party crystallized a worry for me that some of the political debate here is getting tarted up in some of the tawdry clothes used by the fear-mongers I saw at work in the States. Politicians have turned a bad UK financial position into a huge monster that will eat our children’s futures. People are scared. And they are now offered benefit cheats and sorts of other undeserving cases as the authors of our collective misfortunes. Don’t forget the feather-bedded public sector with their undeserved gold-plated pensions. Burn the Quangos too. Public servants are to blame too.
All of which brings me back to the position that I and many thousands of other public servants now find themselves in. I suppose if I was tempted to go along to a UK TEA Party I might ask whether a smaller state meant fewer ministers. A move like that would show that we are all in this together and, given some of the cash-guzzling harebrained ministerial schemes I’ve seen over the years might also mean rather less cash wasted in that way too.
More tea anyone?