Political Promise

Constructing Common Sense

In Andrew Forsey on April 18, 2011 at 8:38 am

Andrew Forsey says the Tories’ arguments are based on a flawed vision of ‘common sense’. Don’t be afraid to say your beliefs are ‘ideological’ whatever they may be.

Labour plunged this country into a catastrophic mess by wasting taxpayers’ money; eliminating the entire deficit is the only way to get this country going again; welfare reform is urgently needed to weed out the scroungers; ‘broken Britain’ is in perennial decline because we’ve let all the immigrants in, and they are to blame for taking our culture away; all criminals should be forced to eat their own excrement in solitary confinement to punish them for their pure evils; students should be made to pay for their education, and it makes no sense for the taxpayer to fund their pointless degrees on David Beckham and Australian fashion.

I’d like to make it clear at this point that I do not agree with any of the above. However, these statements can all be grounded within the assumption that they represent pure ‘common sense’. Surely you can’t argue with common sense, right? That’s just the way things ought to be, isn’t it?

Indeed, the ‘common sense’ approach is one that possesses the utmost appeal to a significant quantity of public opinion, especially within the working/ lower middle classes of Britain. Without wishing to generalise, they would largely view factors such as ideology and philosophy as something those bloody Guardian readers do in their spare time, with no impact upon the daily lives of Joe Bloggs and his family. Therefore, the power to construct an idea as based upon ‘common sense’ is an extremely powerful concept and provides a useful tool in politics, especially when attempting to cultivate the support of these traditional swing voters in regions such as Essex, the Midlands, and numerous cities across the country.

Additionally, when this basic level of ‘common sense’ is dressed up with emotive language, such as the aforementioned ‘broken Britain’, ‘fairness’ and ‘scroungers’, this can really touch the collective nerve within your average working family. One reason I think the Tory-led coalition have maintained relatively high approval ratings thus far, is that they have blamed this country’s problems largely on migrants, ‘scroungers’, profligate socialists, fat cat public sector bureaucrats, and soppy spoon fed students. These groups form the collective Other, which the commonsensical self can define themselves against. Therefore, policies such as the immigration cap, swingeing public sector spending cuts, abolishing EMA and trebling tuition fees, are viewed as the logical, commonsensical solution to the country’s problems. With me so far? The government can portray itself as making the tough, necessary decisions that will restore the British people to the promised land of prosperity and fairness. Meanwhile, the protests from Labour allow Ed Miliband’s party to be portrayed as sticking up for those darned people that are holding this country back, and therefore surely that mob can’t be trusted with power again, as they would govern on behalf of the Other, and do nothing for the commonsensical self. It’s just common sense again, right? All those loony lefties don’t realise what life’s like in the real world of Joe Bloggs and his family.

To use a parallel analogy, the working-class Protestants of Northern Ireland have vehemently opposed any attempts increase in welfare opportunities in Ulster, as this would merely serve to enhance the standing and wellbeing of their Catholic counterparts, thus further undermining a Unionism in perceived decline, that once prided itself on an individualistic work ethic and exceptional superiority, as opposed to those Catholic scroungers who seemed to be given everything for nothing in return.

It seems essential for politicians of all persuasion, therefore, to stop playing to these traditional myths and stereotypes if they want to ensure a richer quality of democratic debate in the future, and move on from the era of Peter Pan politics. To use one example, many of your Daily Mail types wheel out the ‘fact’ that immigrants are stretching our public services to breaking point and are receiving all of this at the cost of the taxpayer. Well, for a start we wouldn’t have an NHS, an institution which guarantees universal access to healthcare, if it wasn’t for the introduction of migrant labour to the UK in the 1950s and 1960s, and I am sure that the vast majority of their fellow newcomers and their families have paid more than their fair share of tax to fund these services. The Tories, I feel, are merely undermining the future confidence of the electorate with policies such as the immigration cap, as they are offering the false hope that such a ‘common sense’ policy will cure Britain’s ills in just a couple of years of Tory rule. Yet, come 2015, Joe Bloggs may well be unemployed, have had his benefits/tax credits withdrawn or substantially reduced, with his child having to support their own education at a greater cost. Who to blame then?

What I am trying to argue here, is that whilst cloaking ideologically charged policies as ‘common sense’ and ‘in the national interest’ is a highly powerful means of justifying the imposition of a favoured policy, in the long term it may fuel a further disillusionment with mainstream politics, and force lower-income voters into the arms of the extremes of both left and right. To use the Northern Ireland example again, electoral turnout has rapidly decline within the last decade, particularly among unionists, as the constant ‘common sense’ policies pursued by the more radical and fundamentalist Democratic Unionist Party in the name of ‘defending Ulster’, whilst largely neglecting the real material needs of the Protestant working classes, have exacerbated the community’s disillusionment.

Thus, as a Labour supporter, I would be looking for Miliband and co to oppose the Tory-led coalition’s policies using their own common sense arguments, for example:

The immigration cap will prevent the world’s most talented doctors and intellectuals from plying their trade here, thus undermining our nation of ‘Great’ Britain; the thought of having to pay through the nose for a half decent education will dent the aspirations of ordinary young people, pushing them onto the scrapheap; abolishing government schemes such as the Future Jobs Fund and the existing welfare to work schemes will merely create more ‘scroungers’ on the unemployment register, and may tempt some into a life of crime, adding to the perception of fear and insecurity in ‘broken Britain’, a Britain that has 28,000 few coppers on the beat; swingeing cuts to the public sector will reduce demand in the private sector, leading to further job losses. These are all just common sense, right?

The first and penultimate paragraphs of this article have attempted presented rival claims in commonsensical terms, and I would argue that both appear at first sight to be highly believable. Indeed, to the average voter who doesn’t share an interest in sifting through the details of each report published by the Institute of Fiscal Studies, it is these ‘common sense’, face value arguments that form their political preferences, and ultimately determine the electoral swings and trends. Therefore, I feel that the coming weeks, months, and years will witness an overarching battle over who can present their ideologies and policies as those that appeal to the ‘common sense’ values of millions of ordinary Britons. Whilst the right will undoubtedly draw upon its mythical stereotypes of the Other in the form of migrants, scroungers etc to justify their positioning, those on the left of centre need to take care in avoiding the perception that they live in a different universe, where their hearts are perceived to be in the right place, but their brains operate separately from the lives of ordinary Britons, as they just don’t get ‘common sense’.

Trust me, the perceived credibility and robustness of ideas and rhetoric, particularly in the spheres of economics and welfare policy, will largely determine the fortunes of the main political parties throughout this parliament. Well, that’s what common sense suggests anyway.

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