Boris Johnson (or perhaps I should say his fiancée) has got himself into a spot of bother as a result of her passion for smartening up their flat in Downing Street. The Prime Minister insists he has ended up footing the bill personally for the excess cost not officially covered by the taxpayer, but the question he has refused to answer is whether r the bill was initially paid by someone else – the Conservative Party, perhaps, or a private donor. The Opposition and most of the media are kicking up a stink about it on the grounds that the public needs to know whether or not their prime minister has secretly let himself become beholden to someone even for a temporary loan. Labour talks of the return of ‘sleaze’; and the Electoral Commission has become involved. It has said there are grounds to consider whether electoral law may have been broken. But Mr Johnson will have none of it. He claims it’s absurd that anyone should be interested in any of this and that instead we should all be focussing our attention on what he calls ‘the people’s priorities’. Is this just the familiar diversionary tactic of a politician in a corner, and does the phrase mean anything anyway?
It’s hardly new for prime ministers finding themselves in sticky political positions to claim there’s nothing to talk about. They tend to protest that it’s all been ‘got up by the media’ or that it’s just the irresponsible opposition trying ‘to do the government down’, when all they themselves want to do is nobly get on with the business of governing the country in the interests of the people. Margaret Thatcher was once grilled on television by the great Brian Walden for a solid hour after her chancellor, Nigel Lawson, had walked out on her in protest at the way she was running her government. Time and again she dismissed the whole affair as mere ‘tittle-tattle’. She wanted us to believe the only thing that ever mattered in politics was what Tony Benn used to call the ‘ishoos’. The fact that Lawson’s resignation proved the beginning of the end for her and that she was dragged out of Downing Street a year later ultimately demonstrated what everyone else knew at the time: this was anything but ‘tittle-tattle’ and it was exactly what Walden needed to focus on.
Politicians in such a pickle often appeal directly to the public in their desperate attempts to change the subject. They claim it’s only the media and opposition politicians who are interested in whatever it is that’s embarrassing them but that, ‘on the doorstep’, so-called ‘ordinary’ people are talking about other things. And these are the things that really matter to them. You still hear the ‘doorstep’ phrase wheeled out even though it’s years since most of us have been accosted on our doorsteps by politicians wanting to know what matters to us. Or, to add colour to their distracting tactic, politicians will announce what the agenda on the doorsteps actually is. ‘Schools’n’hospitals’ is an old favourite – presumably on the basis that non-one can actually be against better education and health. But politicians in a fix will grab at anything.
Boris Johnson’s endless use of ‘the people’s priorities’ is just the latest variant in this tired old game. Only Covid, the future of the economy (and, no doubt, ‘schools’n’hospitals’) matter to us, he wants us to believe. Anything but the cost of gold wallpaper. By implication, the honesty and integrity of our prime minister is of no concern to us so let’s get back to the other stuff.
Although it’s easy just to dismiss his talk of ‘the people’s priorities’ as the shoddy and almost certainly ineffective tactic of a politician in a tight spot, it’s worth dwelling a little on the phrase itself. Does it actually have any meaning or is it just one of those empty phrases politicians trot out because it sort of sounds good?
Let’s start with ‘the people’s’. It takes only a moment to see that the idea is bogus. There isn’t a ‘people’ that has a set of priorities. There are lots of different people with lots of different priorities. Bunging them all together into a single body is at best misleading and at worst patronising and even self-aggrandising. It conjures up the image of a governing elite, cut off from the lumpen masses, pretending just to be serving their singular, lumpen interests. It reminded me of a remark Tony Blair made when he first became prime minister and which, for me at least, sounded bogus. It reversed the famous remark of a leading Labour politician after Attlee’s unexpected election victory in 1945 (that “we are the masters now”), Blair said: “we are the servants now”. Oh yes? He could just as well have said “we are here to serve the people’s priorities”.
Talk of the people’s priorities borders on sinister. The great eighteenth-century Swiss political philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau came up with the idea of the ‘general will’. It was meant to describe a collective view held by society as a whole. It was seized upon by the most radical zealots of the French Revolution to justify the repressive policies that ended up with the Terror and the guillotine. Everything these leaders did was justified, they claimed, because it accorded with the ‘general will’ which was, of course, defined by them. Dictators have sought endorsement from the ‘general will’ ever since. Perhaps it was a handier expression than ‘the people’s priorities’ but you can see the two phrases are cousins.
Democracy is supposed to be the antidote to tyranny because it denies there is such a thing as the ‘general will’. Instead, democracy recognises that society is not a single monolith with a single, general will, but a collection of lots of people, each with their own views, their own priorities and that the business of running such a society is to find a way that all these different views and priorities can be resolved peacefully. Some will win, some will lose, but the process is continuous so that democratic government is a never-ending competition between people’s different priorities. The idea that there is a single thing called ‘the people’s priorities’ doesn’t get a look in within a democracy. Or at least, it shouldn’t.
And that brings us to the second half of Mr Johnson’s phrase. Politicians talk a lot about priorities, but they rarely use the word according to what it actually means. Perhaps the most famous use of the term is Aneurin Bevan’s, but for all his undoubted eloquence and oratory, the great firebrand of the Labour left was surely muddying the waters if not downright muddled when he said: ‘The language of priorities is the religion of socialism.’ It’s not at all clear to me how a language can be a religion but then I suppose party conference speeches are not the same as philosophy seminar papers, and no doubt he got rousing applause for the inspiring vacuousness of the phrase.
The point about priorities is that they imply choice. If you prioritise something, it means something else gets pushed down the pecking order. Yet that’s not usually how politicians use the word. Instead, they use it to convey the sense that they think something is not just important, but really important. And then the word gets further qualified for added emphasis. So something is not just a priority but a top priority or even an overriding priority. If you tot up what politicians claim to be a priority to them, you quite commonly discover that everything is a priority. What gets de-prioritised as a consequence of something else having priority in the proper sense of the term rarely gets a mention.
This is not to say that politicians never make priorities. Of course they do. But they often deny that they are doing it. Instead they claim there is no alternative to what they have, in fact, already decided to do. And it’s far from the case that the priorities they have chosen could in any sense be called the people’s priorities.
Take Margaret Thatcher and the radical approach she took to the economy, tightening trade union law, freeing up the City, decimating manufacturing, closing down the coal industry, ‘prioritising’ the consumer over the producer and so on. These were choices, reflecting what she considered to be the right priorities for the country. And in prioritising them she was inevitably required to sacrifice things that other people regarded as their priorities. But it was rarely presented in terms of the regrettable inevitability of making such a choice. When a Thatcherite minister tactlessly remarked that unemployment was ‘a price worth paying’ for fighting inflation, he was quickly shut up and disowned for his frank admission of what priority entails. Instead, Mrs Thatcher’s motto was Tina: ‘there is no alternative’. Well, of course there was an alternative. There always is. But for politicians to admit it requires them to start talking the genuine language of priorities: that to achieve one thing, you’ve got to sacrifice another. And for all their love of the word ‘priority’ they rarely face up to its meaning.
Another example might be Tony Blair and the Iraq War. One interpretation of his decision to go to war is that he thought Britain’s priority was to be best friends with the United States whatever the collateral damage. One of his closest lieutenants, Peter Mandelson, came close to saying so explicitly on BBC’s Question Time. That sparked an argument with the war-sceptic Tory, Ken Clarke. But Mr Blair himself never said that was his priority. He knew it would trigger the debate that always accompanies discussion of priorities: whether the supposed benefits of the choice match the inevitable costs. Instead he kept telling us it was the ‘right thing to do’. That’s the moralist’s equivalent of saying ‘there is no alternative’.
Equally, David Cameron made an explicit decision to prioritise tackling the government’s budget deficit. Inevitably (such is the nature of choices) that required public spending to be slashed as never before. But the policy was presented not as a chosen priority entailing a chosen sacrifice, but as if there were really no alternative.
I cite these examples not to suggest that these three prime ministers made the wrong choice of priorities. Maybe they did, maybe they didn’t. My point is that for all that politicians use the word ‘priority’, they rarely present their chosen policies in terms of what the word actually implies. They run away from the meaning of priority. And so far as these three examples go, their choices could hardly be described as reflecting ‘the people’s priorities’ – even assuming that phrase retains any vestiges of meaning.
So I’d suggest that when politicians talk about ‘the people’s priorities’ it’s wise to start counting the spoons. Which is not, of course, to say we don’t have priorities. We do. They may even include having a prime minister who is honest. Does that matter to you? And what other priorities do you think we should have?
Let us know.