Back in March of this year, Chancellor George Osborne rose in the House of Commons to deliver his annual budget. Over the next 45 minutes or so, he used the word “aspiration” eleven times (in 2011 it was only used twice), and three of those utterances were paired with the word ‘nation’.
As he delivered the punch line of his speech, commentators across the political spectrum groaned inwardly; it seemed clear that ‘aspiration nation’ was going to be a phrase we were all going to grow steadily sick of. And yet, since then, nothing. The ‘Aspiration Nation’ seems to have quietly expired.
There can be no-one who regrets the speedy demise of this particular rhetorical flourish, but it is a shame, both for Conservatives and for the country at large, that the idea of aspiration seems also to have been dropped. In fact, the only group that has gained by Osborne’s inability or unwillingness to see this particular theme through is UKIP, as that party is happily hoovering up the aspirational vote.
Writing a reaction to the budget for Conservative Home at the time, I commented:
“Those of us interested in politics have been lamenting for years that voter turnout at the ballot box is falling year on year. We blame apathy, a lack of education, an increasing obsession with gadgetry and entertainment, a ‘dumbing down’ of the population. The cause is none of those. Rather the electorate are increasingly aware that politicians are talking to, and acting in reference to each other only. If politicians show no interest in the electorate, why should the electorate show any interest in politicians?”
Since crossing from the Conservatives to UKIP last January, I have been struck by the level of animosity displayed by some in the Conservative party towards UKIP – it far outstrips the dislike shown from any other quarter. UKIP is full of clowns and closet racists, its manifesto is non-existent or contradictory or both, and, of course, that harshest of political slurs, it’s only picking up the protest vote.
But if UKIP are taking the protest vote, do Conservatives never stop to ask themselves what it is the people are protesting about? Not austerity – polls have shown that the public has accepted the need for austerity.
Less than a month after that budget was read, the right wing movement was brought together on the saddest of days: the funeral of Baroness Thatcher. The Bow Group, in conjunction with The Freedom Association, organised a tribute event for all those who wanted to show their love and admiration for the Great Lady. It was a resounding success. Speakers from across the conservative spectrum lined up to talk about their fondness for Thatcher and what she stood for. Tories and Kippers stood side by side in bestowing that greatest of political honours: they came together to share with each other the many ways in which she changed their lives for the better. For a politician, there can surely be no higher ambition.
Thatcher was a great leader for many reasons. Her forthrightness and her self-belief spring to mind, but also her instinctive understanding of what it is people want. Put simply: they want to get on in life.
To illustrate, let me quote from the popular TV series Game of Thrones. A young girl, Daenarys Targaryen, is conversing with her companion Ser Jorah Mormont. She believes that the people her family once ruled over will rise up in support of her brother Viserys’ claim to the throne upon his return, and remarks that “the common people are waiting for him. Magister Illyrio says they are sewing dragon banners and praying for Viserys to return from across the narrow sea to free them.” Mormont replies “The common people pray for rain, healthy children, and a summer that never ends. It is no matter to them if the high lords play their game of thrones, so long as they are left in peace. They never are.”
A modern interpretation might go something like:
Cameron: “My pollsters tell me that the people are clamouring for gay marriage and wind farms as symbols of our enlightened society”
Thatcherite advisor: “The people want disposable income after the bills are paid, and a decent education for their children. They care not for liberal tokenism.”
Would Thatcher have joined UKIP had her career played out within this generation? It’s an impossible question to answer as she was so much of her own time. But it is inconceivable that Thatcher ever needed an advisor to tell her what the British public wanted. She knew full well what the people’s aspirations were, having grown up in a community built upon small business commerce and traditional values. More importantly, she never judged people on their aspirations. Her job was only to create the opportunity for people to better their own lives in whichever way they wish, and she did it admirably.
So if the UKIP vote is a protest vote, it is the protest of people who feel that the opportunity to better their lives as been diminished, and who can blame them for that? Social mobility is at its lowest for decades, and we are once again ruled by Old Etonians. If the Conservatives are struggling to gain a foothold in the polls, it is not because the party has been tarnished by Thatcher’s rule, as many of them seem to believe, but because they have failed to grasp fully the key element to Thatcherism: aspiration.
Crucially, aspiration can’t simply be a sound bite. Osborne may be a master tactician when it comes to besting Miliband and the Labour Party, but aspiration can’t simply be a political grenade to be detonated when it suits the Westminster battlefield. The British people are bright enough to know when a politician is talking to them (a trait they recognise in Farage), and when politicians are merely talking or more usually bickering amongst themselves.
Perhaps ‘Aspiration Nation’ was quietly dropped because, having used the sound bite, Osborne realised that he doesn’t actually know what it means. Let’s face it, why would the heir to a Baronetcy need to grasp aspiration as a concept?
If that is the case, he needs to learn from those in his party who do understand aspiration, many of which have first-hand experience of the concept, because aspiration needs to be at the very centre of every policy this government has. The future of the Conservative Party, and the future of the country, depends upon it.
Donna Edmunds is a former Officer of the Bow Group and a journalist for Breitbart London.