TFN editor Graham Martin says we must not allow Johnson and the UK Tory government to appropriate Build Back Better
Talent borrows, genius steals is an aphorism mostly ascribed to Oscar Wilde.
However, it was the old biblical gag about casting pearls before swine that came to my mind first when I read UK prime minister Boris Johnson’s appropriation of civil society’s “build back better” slogan at this year’s virtual Tory party conference.
I don’t think it’s a hugely controversial position to hold, certainly not in this neck of the Scottish public life woods, that Johnson’s government is blessed neither with talent or genius.
It does have a rather porcine quality (no offence to hogs) to it though – firstly In its propensity to wallow in shit, and – slightly more to its credit and suggesting at least a half-formed animal cunning – its ability to truffle-snuffle around for a good idea it can present as its own.
What are we to make of this? Are we to suppose that this most chaotic and ignorant of regimes last week suddenly came to what passes for its senses and started listening to charities and environmental and anti-poverty campaign groups about the need for what amounts to a revolution in how we organise society if we are to prosper post-Covid?
Or is this just more evidence of Johnson’s Billy Bunter Bonapartism – another of his bizarre (and often not unsuccessful) attempts to act and talk progressively while creating a nation fit for asset strippers and privateers?
I think it is, in part, an attempt to reach out to the Tory party’s new-found former Red Wall voters. During the crisis, this administration has been shameless in its evocation of the spirit of ’45, which was engendered as the country moved out of another mass trauma and the mood turned towards radical change – towards, yes, building back better.
This saw the creation of our National Health Service and was the crucible of our welfare state – both of which, with the bitterest of ironies, have been constant targets for the ideologues around the Conservative party.
Johnson no doubt thinks that evoking the spirit of ‘45 and the creation of the NHS (while, er, handing over huge parts of test and trace to private companies) will play well with his new-found, former Labour support base. But there are tensions and contradictions here which could easily be his undoing – especially once the political deformities of Brexit – if not its impacts - are out of the way.
Civil society needs to counter this by also evoking the spirit of ’45 – and by reclaiming build back better, and by giving it actual social weight, attaching it to a movement for change with actual ideas and policies. This is a radically different build back better than the chimera brought to half-life by a Tory conference soundbite.
One idea for reconstruction has been the creation of a National Care Service – its proponents openly referencing post WW2 rebuilding. We explore this in the latest edition of TFN – which you can read here.
Of course, there are issues round this, from a third sector perspective. But let’s have the debate now and let’s start bringing our vision for the very near future to life.
Crucially, let’s make sure our build back better is miles better than their build back better.
Graham Martin is editor of TFN.