What can Britain ‘deliver’?

Glen Newey · The Tory Conference

Political party gatherings in the UK are no longer conferences, but telly-fodder rallies. The members show up, apparently of their own volition, and sit there like mannequins, a studio audience tasked to chortle, applaud, boo, pout concern and ovate on cue. As it’s going out in real time, it has to be got right in the first take. Even Triumph of the Will had to fake up some sequences in post-production.

In a banner over the entrance to Birmingham's Symphony Hall, and plastered across the lectern, was the legend ‘Britain Can Deliver’. When and why did this intransitive, wholly generic use of deliver catch on, as if the UK were a nation of milkmen or obstetricians? Whether delivery is welcome rather depends on what’s being delivered. One can imagine a Tory conference anno 1770 under the strapline ‘Britain: Delivering Slavery throughout the Empire’. In his speech David Cameron had the gall to puff the fact that Britain had ‘led the world’ in abolishing slavery, having practised it with gusto for 150-odd years beforehand, and tossing in the towel only after losing the American colonies.

Unlike the Labour floor show, where the leader comes on some time before the ‘Red Flag’ and ‘Jerusalem’ bring the party to a close, at the Conservative conference the party leader’s speech now ends the grisly spectacle. So it fell to David Cameron to bring conference to climax – always a tricky job when conference has hardly got over climaxing the day before. In the old days, the blue-heads from Frimley used to go all yoghurty over Michael ‘Tarzan’ Heseltine. It didn’t stop them reverting to type next day when Margaret Thatcher got up to hymn the Führerprinzip. But Cam is not Thatch, and the blue-heads know it.

They, or their grandchildren, have another darling: a maverick blond with a chequered sexual history, who for all that has laid claim to the status of national treasure. Sir Jimmy Savile, for various reasons, was not available to address the conference, though his love of money and the royal family would have fitted in well. But even as Savile’s tombstone was being ground up for landfill, the crowd seemed happy with comrade Boris. The prime minister had to join the mannequins for the mayor of London’s turn, cameras trained on his every response to Johnson’s sallies. It wasn’t one of Boris’s best efforts, but he’s passed the point where the mere vagaries of utterance sully his reputation. Like the hectic in Dave’s blood he rages. But for Cameron, unlike King Claudius, sending the antic prince to exile in England isn’t really an option.

How he must wish it were. Boris woofed. The mannequins went yoghurty. All this limited Cameron’s options the next day. Putting on a tow-coloured wig and trying to match Johnson gag for gag he’d have been sure to lose. Easier, then, to beat the patriotic drum: Britain, ‘still the greatest country on earth’, gave humankind DNA, the computer, beat the Nazis – single-handedly it seems – and bestowed on the world its ‘finest head of state’. ‘We know Britain can deliver because we’ve seen it time and again.’ Yes. Britain’s delivering: zero GDP growth; a bungled West Coast rail franchise; benefit cuts; and aspicating privilege in a jelly of opportunity. The speech harped on about how Britain was on the ‘rise’ (a term used more than 20 times). The PM ceased; and as one, obedient to a higher call, they rose.


  • 11 October 2012 at 3:32pm
    Peter Prasad says:
    Here's a sample of the 1770s attitude of which you write:

    King's Own Officer (from Campaign Zen)

    Colonials in rebellion? How to play this card?
    Pry them apart with spies. Play on their emotions
    Until they are hanged n’ we have their farms
    Divide for conquest, as Romans showed us.
    We’ll crush this weird rabble of quacked up
    Quakers, black-dressed Pilgrims, Sabbath
    Yeomen that bellow unctuous sedition against
    Our king.

    Boston and New York, well-stocked with cheeses,
    Grog and wenches, even a rare octoroon, will
    Provide safe comfort enough to suffice our
    Winter’s camp when season’s campaign is done.
    If only these rebels would stand to fight.
    Who Matches my shilling bet? King to win.

    They fight like fire ants, sting and run to sting again.
    We have the King’s Fist, with cannonades and gun
    Powder, we’ll win. These Colonials are a divided Lot.
    Some loyal royal. Some bent to rebellion.

    Can’t read. Can’t cook. Can’t dance. Smoke corn-Cob.
    Play pipe and fiddle, while we full orchestrate
    For King and country. Our empire owns half the
    World, stitched by our Union-Jack, a flag they’d like
    To stripe in red. Enough said?

    Tory versus Colonial, they hate each other and
    Often come to feud with spit and fist, not knowing
    The boxing rules of Queensbury. Or how to use
    A rapier to save honor in a gentlemen’s duel.
    They prefer cutlasses, how crude.

    These No Nothings can not count so high as ten.
    Nor do they know of pistols played fair at ten steps,
    Our seconds stand honor guard. Honor is all.

    When they’re out of powder, they return to their
    Barns and breed. This is the preferred order of
    Empire. They make our food and livery to purchase
    England’s London-made manufactory. Stand to
    Inspection, men. We march for King.
    Kill for Country. Make world trade, the Empire way.

    The seas are English. We own India. Next we
    Shall own from France and Spain the Antilles Islands chain.
    We shall have the rum n’ sugar There. More pearls to crown our
    King. He is my Cousin when you backtrack the Conqueror’s
    Norman blood line, some parts removed. He may call upon me to be
    Governor some day. My uniform for that is put away.

    The seas we own. So seize the day. More troops
    Arrive soon. For King and country we remain our
    Empire’s first and true gentlemen. Huzzah.

    • 12 October 2012 at 11:44am
      outofdate says: @ Peter Prasad
      Lovely long repertoire, as Maggie Smith said of the Ivor Novello character in the film.

  • 11 October 2012 at 4:37pm
    streetsj says:
    The Nazi thing is puerile. And offensive. The Jimmy Savile joke pathetic. Makes me think there was nothing Newey could lay a glove on.
    LRB readers expect better than beano banter.

    • 12 October 2012 at 11:48am
      ashewan says: @ streetsj
      Why is the Nazi thing puerile? I didn't find it puerile or offensive. Neither did I find the Jimmy Saville joke pathetic. Nor do I think it is beano banter.
      Are you a tory? Actaully I think its called demagogy, just because I say it it has to be true; all the tories are like that;-).
      So this LRB reader did not think the article was beano banter and don't ever go on again about 'LRB readers'.

    • 12 October 2012 at 8:39pm
      Ubique says: @ streetsj
      Does someone need a hug?

      PS In the language of corporate bullshit, "outcomes" are "delivered". Another step along the road of neo-liberal syndicalism, in which the nation state mutates into UK PLC and its citizens into employees. Good luck with your next performance review.

    • 14 October 2012 at 3:59pm
      Mat Snow says: @ streetsj
      Streetsj: Is it not a fact that Jimmy Savile, knighted on Mrs Thatcher's recommendation in 1990, was also her guest for something like 12 consecutive Christmases? You may not find the joke funny, but you cannot deny that it has a point.

      Nor does the affinity between some very sordid people and the higher reaches of the Conservative Party end there; for instance, I believe some good friends of the current PM, who promoted their interests when he could, face trial on very serious charges.

      If you believe there is an argument for treating the Conservative Party with less mockery and more respect, I'd be interested to read it.

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