A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away (Plymouth), one of my lecturers had a mantra that he would repeat several times during every class.
“If people believe something to be true”, he would say, “They will act as if it is true”.
The point is not lost on politicians. Spin, soundbites and sloganeering form a critical part of their ability to make something true by endlessly repeating it into existence. Say something often enough and there’s a good chance that people might start to believe it.
The exercise might be a bit different in the hyper-connected twittering age of the interwebs, but the point is an enduring one. The creation of narrative, a condensing of all the many ill-fitting and inconvenient bits of the ‘real world’ into an overarching, simple and coherent story, is one of the more essential acts of politics: the need to provide a frame of reference through which the human world can be understood, policies explained and expenses accounted for. All societies need their myths.
As we head towards the 2015 general election the narrative of the coalition government has already coalesced around one phrase in particular: the ‘long term economic plan’.
Not too unreasonably, a government whose founding rationale was to ‘come together in the national interest and sort out Labour’s mess’ might have been expected to sally forth with declarations about some sort of a plan right from the very beginning. Or if not right away, at least quite soon afterwards. Once they had found the tea and biscuits, perhaps.
How odd it is then to discover (taking the weekly bullfight of PMQs as our lodestar) that the phrase ‘long term economic plan’ only appeared on the British political stage at the beginning of December 2013. That’s three-and-a-half years after the coalition took office.
And before that?
Nothing. No ‘long term plan’. No ‘medium term plan’. Not even a ‘short and slightly dumpy term plan’.
Now of course the phrase is so frantically shoehorned into every available space as to have become the verbal equivalent of one of those gurning mugshots of which dictators are so fond. No tricks are to be missed. No stone left unturned. David Cameron even managed to shamelessly stuff the thing into an answer about Britain’s foreign policy towards Russia, telling the House of Commons in March that: ‘we have a strong interest in a world where the rule of law is upheld and territorial integrity respected. Stability is a vital part of our long-term economic plan’.
(Cynics might naturally wonder why this doesn’t apply at home, where a smorgasbord of manic and often chaotic change remains the order of the day, but logic and consistency are not necessary bedfellows for a functioning narrative).
On the face of it, the timing of this latest arrival to the pantheon of soundbites seems odd, and not just because it highlights the fact that until late last year the government appears, in the prevailing spirit of austerity, to have considered long term economic plans to be an extravagance that hardworking taxpayers could ill-afford.
So what happened?
One part of the answer is the arrival of the ‘cost of living crisis’ – Ed Miliband’s own contribution to the political vernacular and (amidst an outcry against the annual rise in household energy bills) the keystone of Labour’s political narrative; a story of a government of the rich for the rich, out of touch, sticking up for the wrong people and all of that.
And if governments lose elections and it’s all about the economy stupid, then what better way for the coalition to counter the charge than by pitching their tent on the grounds of economic credibility? After all, according to MORI, by December 44% of people fancied the economy to improve (compared to 31% in June), dissatisfaction with the government had fallen from minus 36 to minus 26, and more people still trusted the Conservatives to run the economy compared to Labour.
Everything, in other words, was under control.
Of course none of this means the Conservatives are destined to win the general election (polls suggest they are not). But at least we know what the grand theme is going to be.
The ‘long term economic plan’ is here to stay.
It’s going to be a very long election.
Steven Kettell is an Associate Professor in Politics and International Studies. He received a BSc. (Hons) in Politics from Plymouth (spending a semester at the University of Economics, Prague), and an MA in Comparative Politics from York. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Warwick in 2003 on the subject of exchange rate policy-making, with particular reference to Britain’s membership of the gold standard during the interwar period. He worked as a lecturer in British Politics at the University of Birmingham from 2003-2005, and is also a founder and Co-Executive Editor of British Politics.