Notes From the Margins…

Hardworking People: Anatomy of a Political Cliché

  • October 14, 2013
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What kind of people do our politicians most respect and admire?     It goes without saying that rich people are top of the list.   Like the Chinese ‘business leaders and rich tourists’ who George Osborne has just welcomed into the UK – less than a week after the government announced a new bill restricting the entry of less well-heeled visitors.

But even the rich don’t get the same lavish praise that is routinely showered on Britain’s ‘hardworking people’ – or at least not openly.   Regardless of their political persuasion, our politicians just love people who work hard.     Tony Blair and Gordon Brown were always talking about ‘hardworking people’, ‘ordinary hardworking people’ and ‘hardworking families’ or the more plaintive ‘hard-pressed hardworking people’ that Brown tended to use more often.

The Coalition loves hardworking people too, even more than Labour did, or so they keep insisting.   Back in 2011, Nick Clegg promised that the government would be fighting for ‘alarm clock Britain’ – a category that he defined as   ‘basic rate taxpayers who get up in the dark, get their kids ready for school and then go out to work.’

Clegg delivered a moving eulogy in The Sun newspaper ‘ the people of Alarm Clock Britain’ who ‘ drive our economy every single day of the year. Rain, wind or shine, they are busy making this country tick.’

No one loves hardworking people more than the Tory Party however.   Last month Downing Street media person Craig Oliver specifically instructed government advisers and other media people to insert the term into their speeches as often as possible during the party conference.

And boy, did they respond.     Cameron boasted of having cut taxes for ’25 million hardworking people.’ Osborne also defined the Conservative Party as ‘the party of hard working people’ .     And then last week the spectacularly inane Grant Schapps – a politician who continues to plumb previously undreamt-of depths of vacuity – described the latest Coalition reshuffle as a ‘reshuffle for hardworking people’ – something that he described as ‘a big contrast to the reshuffle that we’re seeing emerge on the Labour side.’

Huh? You might say.   But you shouldn’t.   Because the ostensible and graspable   meaning of such utterances is always secondary to their implicit subtext.     On the one hand, the admiration that politicians continually express towards our toilers is intended to praise work as an inherently virtuous activity in itself, regardless of the conditions in which people work, the kind of work they do, or the remuneration they get for it.

Stalin did the same thing, when he transformed the Soviet miner Alexei Stakhanov into an emblematic symbol of Soviet productivity.     In a new years address to the German people in 1939, Joseph Goebbels defined the war in the following terms:

They hate our people because it is decent, brave, industrious, hardworking and intelligent. They hate our views, our social policies, and our accomplishments. They hate us as a Reich and as a community. They have forced us into a struggle for life and death. We will defend ourselves accordingly. All is clear between us and our enemies.’

Our politicians probably don’t want to think of themselves as part of that tradition.   But for the millionaire Stakhanovites like Clegg and Osborne,   work really does make people free, or at least it stops them questioning why they’re not.   Making a virtue out of hard work is also useful for employers, enabling them to squeeze every last drop of surplus value from their workers by transforming their labour into a patriotic enterprise.

After all, as the Coalition never stops telling us, we are in a ‘global race’ and really ought to start working or preparing for work from preschool onwards.

Within this ironclad twenty first century version of the Protestant work ethic, there is no room for larger questions, such as the purpose and meaning of work and the distinction between dignified meaningful labour and mindless, soul-destroying mechanical grind.

Or who benefits and who profits from our work.   Or why it is that British wages have experienced one of the steepest declines in the EU since the Coalition came to power.   Or why fulltime male workers in Britain work longer hours than their counterparts anywhere else in Europe.

If hard work is so good for us why are 1 in 3 incidents of ‘major stress’ work-related?   Why do 1 in 4 fathers in Britain’s ‘hardworking families’ work more than 50 hours a week and rarely see their children?   Last year a former nurse working in palliative care recorded that one of the most common regrets expressed by male patients on their deathbeds was ‘ I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.’ How many people will die with the same thought?

In theory at least, anyone who works hard is good.     A gangster, for example.   Or a brothel owner.     Or the women who work for the brothel owner.   Or George Osborne’s former companion Miss Whiplash, who has even found time in her busy life to write a book about what he and some of his mates were up to in the days when they weren’t working so hard.

Can ‘ legal’ and ‘illegal’ migrants be considered ‘hardworking people’ too, since they often work a lot harder than many Brits, given the absence of any unions or organizations to protect them or limit their working hours?

Not really.     Because behind the endlessly-repeated political cliché about ‘hardworking people’ is a deeper subtext and political purpose, whose essential aim is to create the illusion of a virtuous majority threatened by less virtuous outsiders.     Whenever politicians celebrate these virtues, they invariably invoke, either directly or by suggestion,   another category of people that does not share them.

These are the ones who are still sleeping with their curtains drawn while Alarm Clock Britons are out there grafting,   or lying around on what the monstrous banality that is Eric Pickles calls the ‘sofa of despair’, without the gumption to get out there and look for work.

That’s right readers, we are talking once again about the undeserving poor, which in the Coalition’s eyes means anyone who is poor, because poverty is always due to an unwillingness to work hard.   After all, what other explanation can there be?   And if ‘hardworking people’ accept that explanation, then why would they not resent and even hate the feckless parasites who they support through their taxes?

Does all this sound simplistic?   Maybe so, but then, as Goebbels once pointed out, political lies don’t have to be complex.   They can even be quite stupid.   But if you keep telling them again and again, you might find that an awful lot of people just accept them without question.

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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