1990s >> 1997 >> no-1117-september-1997

The Greasy Pole: Paying For It

How much would you pay to listen to a speech by John Major? Ten thousand pounds? A hundred? One? Fifty pence? Or would you rather pay not to have to listen to the spoken wisdom of our recently deposed Prime Minister? We ask these questions in response to the news that Major plans to spend some time, now that he is reduced to being a plain backbencher, lecturing in America and that he will be paid £32,000 for every one of his speeches.

Startling as this might be (because even the most ardent of Major’s admirers could hardly describe him as £32,000-worth of charisma and gripping oratory) the fact is that he is not the highest-paid of the celebrities travelling the world on these jaunts, the irrelevance of which is matched by their lucrativeness. At the top of this particular pile—this will come as no surprise—is Margaret Thatcher, who gets £45,000 every time she holds forth on the world and its problems and how she almost solved the lot of them single- handedly.

At this point anyone who has the habit of asking naively penetrating questions will wonder why we suddenly have to pay to listen to Major and Thatcher when only a short time ago we endured their speeches for free. It was, after all, bad enough to hear Thatcher raving on about all those evil foreigners whose only ambition was to destroy the British Way Of Life without being charged for it. Listening to Major’s oratorical blundering was never an uplifting experience but to be charged for it would have made it worse.

In any case what can these people say that is worth listening to? They could trot out the same weary nonsense— the delusions, the evasions, the empty platitudes—which was their daily diet when they were in power. Thatcher could tell us. again, how she had made this country “great” as a property- owning democracy—where tens of thousands struggled with a lifetime’s burden of a mortgage or, when the burden became too much to bear, were ejected from the homes which they regarded as a symbol of their security. She would tell us about the rampant jingoism she stimulated during the Falklands war, while hundreds of workers on both sides died. She would tell us about her government’s assault on the trade unions and how they ruthlessly cut back the meagre state benefits on which the poorest people tried to get by.

John Major could tell us, in that voice which so many of us have been trying to wipe out of our memory, about the repeated blunders, the knee-jerk reaction to capitalism’s crises and the dedicated sleaze which characterised his governments. He could remind us how, while surrounded by all this disarray, he persisted in assuring us that he had the situation under control, that we were all living at a high standard and things could only get better. He might also explain why, if his premiership had been such a huge success, he so rapidly deprived us of the chance of keeping him as prime-minister-in-waiting after the May election. For anyone paying to hear these speeches there will be no guarantee of their money back if they are not completely satisfied.

And how could anyone be satisfied? After almost two decades of Conservative rule the condition of the people of this country is such that the Labour Party are able to launch something described as an onslaught on the more extreme edges of poverty. Peter Mandelson who is Minister for Something or Other, hit the headlines in August with the announcement that a special cabinet unit would be set up to deal with the “scourge of social exclusion” which those in deeper poverty experience. Of course nobody should have got too excited by Mandelson’s words (how many times have we heard similar promises before?) and in any case the attack would have to wait until “circumstances and the reordering of public expenditure make this possible” (how many times have we heard that before?). Nor should we bother, right now, with the typical fragility of this typical Labour promise. The point, for the present, is that poverty still exists and shows no sign of going away or even of becoming a less onerous burden to its victims.

A recent report by the National Heart Forum—an alliance of 35 health and voluntary organisations working to prevent heart disease—stated that this is becoming a disease of poverty. In the 1970s its incidence was spread across society; now it is concentrating where people are poorer. The Institute of Fiscal Studies—not a body we would expect to call the masses to the barricades—has described capitalist society where, with income expressed in terms of body height, a handful of people reach almost twice as high as Nelson’s Column while nearly 60 percent of the population measure at or below 5ft 9in. A study by a geographer at Bristol University emphasises what this means in terms of health. Briefly, people who live in places like Glasgow, Oldham, Blackburn and Newcastle-on-Tyne have a much higher chance of dying younger than those who live in areas where poverty and the struggle to survive are not so acute.

Being silly
If politicians—retired or still, active— speak about these issues they always do so as if they are regrettable accidents— blips on capitalism’s ever-upward march towards universal prosperity. They assure us that they have the remedy to hand—an official enquiry perhaps or a special task-force of experts or, as Mandelson now tells us, a cabinet unit. Then, perhaps, a little tinkering about with rates of benefit or other footling adjustments.

Are we really expected to pay to hear such discredited drivel? It would be more worth it. if has-beens like Thatcher and Major would own up to their inability to control or change this social system and advise us to pay no heed to their words. They could tell us to take control of society ourselves and change it in our own interest. Or is this just being silly?