The use and abuse of language: notes on the Conservative Party Conference / by Alex Williamson

1979 Conservative Party election poster

1979 Conservative Party election poster



"We are the builders."

Aneurin Bevan, 1945

"We are the builders."

George Osborne, 2015


Unlike Owen Jones, I’ve never had the pleasure of attending a Conservative Party conference. I’m in no rush to redress this fact.

Over the past week, those of us who aren’t completely alienated by Westminster politics have been treated to regular dispatches from the most obsequious of political gatherings: live blogs, social media, comment pieces, live radio, rolling news, and so on. Much like watching live sport, you get a much better view by not being there: unless you are a grievous, scumbag Tory or a soap-dodging, neo-socialist protester.

I’m sure I’m not alone in finding it particularly apt that George Osborne should appropriate the words of Aneurin Bevan, patron saint of the NHS, during his keynote address on Monday. In 1945, Bevan’s declaration that “we have been the dreamers, we have been the sufferers, now we are the builders” pointed to a post-war Labourite esprit de corps absent in our present day austerity parole, with Osborne as scriptor-in-chief. The Atlee government of 1945, of which Bevan was arguably its most idealistic minister, built the very public services which Osborne and cohort are now gleefully, permanently dismantling.

There is a double edged irony to this appropriation: as a former history scholar and failed journalist, Osborne will no doubt be aware that Bevan detested the Tory Party. Bevan’s ‘we are the builders’ speech went on to call for “the complete political extinction of the Tory Party, and twenty-five years of Labour Government”. Osborne’s rhetoric is loaded with intertextual implication: for the Conservative Party in 1945, read the Labour Party in 2015. To many Labour progressives, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership will simply speed this extinction. With Labour seemingly lurching to the left, David Cameron’s Conservatives are rushing to occupy the centre ground, in rhetorical terms at least.

The language and tone of presentation by Cameron and his lieutenant have apparently shifted, from the patrician ‘all in it together’ mantra presaging the most aggressive cuts to public services in a generation, to the newly-recast pseudo-Capitalist Workers’ Party issuing its clarion call to the men and women of Britain: workers of the country unite - and vote Conservative! It is a purposeful manoeuvre: to irrevocably sever the Labour Party from those it was founded to represent and support. Yet both men should be wary of attempting to chisel their legacy in stone. All good history scholars know that political fortunes wax and wane: ‘events’ eventually derail even the most dogmatically ambitious administrations. Dave Cameron’s final term and the Teflon Chancellor’s push for the Tory leadership may yet be scuppered by another global financial crash, the bursting of another British housing bubble, or even the Machiavellian shenanigans of other pretenders to the Prime Ministerial throne.

Casual observers will note the separation of rhetoric and reality. This week’s favoured rhetorical trope – a country for strivers, not skivers – reinforces the fragmentary, atomised society of Thatcher’s Britain under the newly-assimilated retro-rubric of Disrealiean ‘One Nation Conservatism’. When the Prime Minister talks of tackling social deprivation and the spectre of poverty, it is by harking back to an image of society which is pure nostalgia-fantasy. Much like the receding England depicted by Philip Larkin in ‘The Whitsun Weddings’, here is our little island-nation, buffeted by the winds of global upheaval and the rot of domestic strife, standing firm like an ancient English oak; our politics characterised by the rule of law, self-discipline, and security; spurred on by economic stability, prudence and hard work. A social contract of sorts.

There is a problem: all the anecdotal and empirical evidence imparts that we Britons are not working hard enough. On Monday night Jeremy Hunt was heard describing how changes to Universal Credit will make people work as hard as the Chinese and Americans. UK productivity has dropped to record levels; the deficit continues to grow. British employees, disaffected by working in overly-bureaucratic, target-driven, unfulfilling jobs, seek distraction; while, conversely, a culture of presenteeism presides over our offices and institutions. Half of all teachers are considering leaving the profession. Like their manufacturing brethren, new technologies will render a generation of white collar workers useless. Computers will be used to diagnose patients in the future, reducing the need for GPs and consultants. Unemployment is falling, but job insecurity is on the rise. These are the counter-narratives to the nation founded on hard work Cameron and cohort describe. It is one thing to demand people work harder; it is another entirely to limit the means by which they are able to. 

Two parties were on display this week: the nice, and the nasty. The recourse to fear and envy of Teresa May’s anti-immigration conference speech perfectly showcased the latter. As did Iain Duncan-Smith’s new plans to force the disabled into work by removing their benefits. Fear the other, for they covet your life and will take it from you; envy the other, for they want what you have but are not prepared to work for it. Never mind that May’s assertions deliberately overlook the social richness and economic benefits of a multicultural society. Ignore the fact that the UN is investigating the Duncan-Smith’s department for alleged human rights abuses. The implications are obvious: there are a few too many brown faces in our country taking all our jobs and homes, and it’s time to stem the flow; there are too many lazy, poor people frittering away hard working taxpayers’ money. Immigration and idleness: the cause of all societal and cultural ills. It plays well with middle-England’s grey-haired, pension-drawing, nostalgia-driven voters: the sizeable rump of the Conservative vote.




"The condition of man... is a condition of war of everyone against everyone."

Thomas Hobbes

"It is too difficult to think nobly when one thinks only of earning a living."

Jean-Jacques Rousseau


Hypocrisy is a property-owning plutocracy preaching to its populace about the importance of hard work.

Contemporary British politics enacts a Hobbesian view of humanity, a critical interpretation of the master-slave dialectics critiqued by Hegel and the corporate corruption of Rousseau’s social contract. Life, Thomas Hobbes famously recorded, is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”. Humanity, according to Hobbes, comes together for the sake of self-preservation and submits to a common good, to Government; this commonwealth is fundamentally compromised by its imposition of certain conditions that constrain the liberty of the individual. Hobbes’ description of life outside society resonates with an unempathetic political party which holds the weak, infirm and unemployed in contempt and believes we should be grateful for this system of benevolent oppression. So put up, shut up and set your shoulder to the wheel. And then die, at minimal cost to the state.  

Jean-Jacques Rousseau believed that freedom is measured by the balance of the human right to be free from enslavement with the duties the individual must commit to the common good. Free will is determined by moral, ethical and compassionate action, sublated to the general will. Under Conservative Party politics, the individual retreats from the positivistic ontology of amour-de-soi (characterised by reason and a will to self-preservation) into the narcissism of amour-propre (characterised by self-love, pride and jealousy). The use and abuse of work as a trope hinges upon the separation of amour-de-soi and amour-propre: work to survive, or work to acquire. This dichotomy finds its philosophical double in the master-slave dialectics of Hegel. Our perfectibility as individuals depends upon the perception and favours of others; successful-striving or unsuccessful-striving are guaranteed or denied by the subjective apprehension of others. As hard as you may think you are working, or as disabled as you believe yourself to be, the ideological position of the Conservative Government counters you must do more: "we are moving into the light...we only half way there". Satisfying the call to work harder is a Sisyphean task, impossible to achieve.

Conservative party politics pursues without equivocation the exploitation of Hegelian master-slave dichotomies: between haves and have-nots, workers and strivers, spongers and spenders, native and migrant. Self and other are locked together in sublation, a battle to the death. Community and issues-based activism, compromised by its me-next rationale, is marginalised as other, as uneconomic. Economic reward, personal gain and avariciousness are how we measure our contribution to society. They have torn up the social contract in their commitment to the protection of private property, of profit for the few at the expense of the many, for the demands of the strong to the detriment of the weak.

Who does this serve, this state-sanctioned abasement of the desperate? When did we agree this was the common weal? Who said that this is the way? Who authorised it? Who came up with the plan? How does it help us to live? Whose interest does it serve? How does it rebuild a country?

The same old rhetoric, the familiar interplay of narrative and counter-narrative, the cognitive dissonance of objective observation. The narrative: we should work as hard as the Chinese and Americans, says Jeremy Hunt. The counter-narrative: nets outside Chinese buildings to catch suicidal employees and a scandal at Amazon for its oppressive employment practices. The narrative: we will deport 400,000 asylum seekers, says Teresa May. The counter narrative: 7.6 million people displaced by the war in Syria alone. The narrative: the disabled must work their way out of poverty, says Iain Duncan Smith. The counter-narrative: four thousand people dead since being declared fit to work. The narrative: Universal Credit changes and a national Living Wage will pull people out of poverty, says George Osborne. The counter-narrative: 2.6 million children living in absolute poverty in the fourth richest country in the world. The narrative: affordable homes for first time buyers, says David Cameron. The counter-narrative: a salary of over £77,000 required to buy one (in London), and the loss of homes for social rent.

Mediated rhetoric glows and fades: every speech is a bid for the soon-to-be-vacated throne; one Minister’s off-the-cuff remark is an incitement to twitter-rage; the epithets ‘scum’ and ‘crusties’ are publicly levelled across the ideological divide; political discourse continues to wallow in the gutter. The saintly Bevan was just as bad, labelling the Tory Party “vermin”. Politics is littered with antithetical contradictions and compromises. In time, these rhetorical flourishes grow increasingly vapid, devoid of anything other than artifice: once spoken, they dissolve into the plethora of political enunciations which precede or succeed them; they become one more forgotten speech in the almanack of history, a simulation of political systems and structures. And yet they are perceived to be meaningful: by other politicians, by the media, by the shrinking electorate. They contain and carry forward the rhetorical tropes of countless politicians, pared down and reduced to the most readily digestible concepts, manipulating or glossing over empirical facts, contradictions or complexities; they invoke heterogeneity and reaffirm hegemony; they negate meaningful, rational discourse by pandering to narcissistic impulses; they levy demands upon countless millions of invisible citizens without their agreement.

Rousseau wrote: “The people of England regards itself as free; but it is grossly mistaken; it is free only during the election of members of parliament. As soon as they are elected, slavery overtakes it, and it is nothing.” A Conservative victory on 36.9% of the vote, a voter turnout of just 66.1%. A party returned to Government by less than a quarter of eligible voters. This is not a mandate; it is a democratic deficit, a simulation and dissimulation of democracy. We are all the poorer for it.