Cavaliers and roundheads

Argus title : Politicians who live in a different world

A national newspaper recently ran an article about inspiration. It gave accounts from several people – mostly writers and artists – about what fires their imagination.

When I was a child I read about the lives of heroic people and great reformers. They were my inspiration then – historical characters like Joan of Arc and Oliver Cromwell, Florence Nightingale and Elizabeth Fry, William Wilberforce and Harriet Beecher Stowe.
When I reached adolescence they changed. Cassius Clay, Martin Luther King and Gandhi became my idols then.

As I grew older though, I put aside my heroes. Now the people who inspire me are ordinary people, doing the best they can to live well. Most have courage and they get inside my head. I learn from them.
There are 2 women who have been in my thoughts this week. Neither is famous. One I hardly know and the other died years ago.
‘Jane’ works as a checkout assistant in a Brighton supermarket. In late middle age, she works hard, but only earns the minimum wage. She has domestic duties and needs to leave work promptly at the end of her shift.

The other evening at the supermarket I joined the queue at the only open checkout, which happened to be hers. I noticed that she looked tired and agitated and was keen to close up. She told me that she had been ‘off duty’ for quite some while, but couldn’t leave her post. There were no managers to assist.
I gathered this was not the first time she’d been held up. This particular supermarket chain makes huge profits, but, she explained, checkout assistants are never paid overtime, however long they have to work.

The other woman I’ve been thinking about is Olive Thornton, who died in her 80s many years ago. She was completely blind and lived alone in a basement flat in Brighton. She had few possessions. My mother used to visit her, first as an Age Concern volunteer, then subsequently as a friend.

Mrs Thornton never complained about her disability or her poverty or the fact that she couldn’t read because she’d never been taught Braille. She’d become blind in adulthood and the onset had been gradual.

When she was a young woman she’d been employed as an unskilled assistant and cleaner in a private nursing home. One day she was asked to fetch something from a high cupboard. As she did so, an unsecured bottle of bleach fell on her head and a quantity of liquid went into her eyes. It was many years before legislation enforced health and safety controls.

Her eyes were rinsed, but despite the pain, she was forced to complete her shift before she could go to hospital. By the time she got there, irreparable damage had been done.

She was a working-class woman. There was no trade union and, as a devout Catholic of the old school, she was disinclined to complain. She received no compensation, little support and virtually no retraining, but was without bitterness. She was one of the kindest and most serene people I have ever met, but I used to wish sometimes that she’d get angry.

Before she died she gave me her old accordion. I couldn’t play it so I gave it to some nuns to lead their singing. I knew Mrs Thornton would’ve liked that.

I’ve thought about both these women as I’ve read David Cameron’s exhortations to the British people to be less concerned about wealth and more focussed on “happiness”. Cameron told a conference “Wealth is about so much more than pounds or euros or dollars can ever measure. It’s time we admitted there’s more to life than money”.

He called for a better ‘work-life balance’, but stressed that a Tory government would not enforce it by imposing legislation or regulation upon employers. He thinks ‘good employers’ can be left to regulate themselves.

I’m not generous like Mrs Thornton, who was blinded because her government also believed that employers could be left to regulate themselves. I don’t have to keep quiet like Jane, who has not the means to improve her ‘work-live balance’. And I have no problem getting angry. So these remarks had me spitting tacks.

Cameron is a man who has never known financial deprivation in his life. He was educated at Eton and Oxford. His mother is related to the Queen, his father was a wealthy stockbroker and his wife is a member of Britain’s ancient landed gentry. His is a class which has always been able to fund a civilised ‘work-life’ balance, but nonetheless he feels able to lecture the rest of us to be less driven by the “protestant work ethic” and desire for money.

He can know little of the fears of a checkout assistant working for the minimum wage or for no pay at all. How could he? His class dines at the same clubs as the people who own the supermarket chains.

Not for the first time I have been struck by Cameron’s similarity to Tony Blair. Their backgrounds are different, but they have in common apparently shameless hypocrisy and real charm – combined with an uncanny ability to home in on the issues of importance to ordinary people, such as achieving a proper equilibrium between work and family. They can ‘read’ the spirit of the times, but they seem to believe nothing at all.

It is after all, less than 2 years since David Cameron expressed very different opinions in his capacity as the Tories’ Head of Policy Co-ordination in the run-up to the 2005 General Election.

Cameron’s recent statements on happiness may indicate that he is taking the advice of Anthony Seldon, biographer of John Major and Tony Blair and former Head of Brighton College. Last month Seldon attracted national media attention when he proposed to institute lessons in happiness for students at Wellington College, the school of which he is now Master.

However, I think it more likely that before he issued his statement, Cameron had got wind of the Church of England’s new report on poverty and social deprivation, entitled “Faithful Cities”. That report asserts – far more powerfully than Cameron – that factors beyond material wealth are essential for human happiness and that fulfilled and secure relations in personal life are needed for fulfilment. It complains that after 9 years of a New Labour government, the gap between rich and poor is now as great as it was under Margaret Thatcher.

Cameron made his statement on happiness on the very day that the Church Report was published. The day before, he attended the Beckham’s lavish pre-World Cup party. He probably did not know that in launching “Faithful Cities” the Archbishop of York would use the Beckham’s party as an illustration of conspicuous consumption, saying it was “just not right” for “one person to spend £50,000 for an evening out, while another earns £131 per week.”

The Church’s previous report, “Faith in the City”, was published in 1985 and infuriated Thatcher by blaming her policies for high levels of social deprivation.

Cameron will be no more willing than Thatcher was to accept the teaching of the Church of England on social justice. However, he will be pleased to see Labour taking a hammering.

Cameron’s a clever man. In assuming the position he has – and in issuing his statement on wealth and happiness on the same day as the Church’s Report was published – he has not just upstaged the Church of England driving it’s report off the front pages, he has also at a stroke distanced himself from Margaret Thatcher, drawn the sting of any Church of England criticism of previous Tory policies and associated himself with the with the virtuous and the godly (something Blair did through his involvement with the Christian Socialist Movement).

He has also effectively devalued the economic success and competence for which Gordon Brown is famous while at the same time debunking the ‘protestant work ethic’ which Brown and Thatcher embody.

Cameron knows he can’t hide his privileged background, but seeks to turn it to his advantage, presenting himself as a dashing, warm-hearted Cavalier to Gordon Brown’s dour Roundhead.

It’s our job to cut through the ‘spin’. We need to ask how he – and Brown – intend to respond to the Church’s challenges, not least to reduce the gap between rich and poor; to challenge the thoughtless accumulation of wealth; to let asylum seekers work; and to introduce a living rather than a minimum wage.

How they respond will expose courage or cowardice in Brown – and reveal whether Cameron is anything more than a bag of sweet-smelling wind.

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