Policy Theft: The Semantics of Politics

by / December 3, 2015 Comment, Print No Comments

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by Hugo Bromley,

Ah, the joys of the National Living Wage. The centrepiece of the July budget, and a political masterstroke of such remarkable proportions that the quiet man really did, for the first time in his life, in the middle of the House of Commons, turn up the volume (poor old Ian Duncan Smith; he’s never going to live that one down, is he…). But listen, what is this I hear? Why, it’s a large number of charities and foundations, all moderately furious that the Chancellor has stolen their signature idea. Or rather, furious that he has not. For the point which Nesta, the Living Wage Foundation, the Resolution Foundation e.t.c. are all legitimately making is that what George Osborne has actually done is just raise the minimum wage. A ‘Living Wage’, which involves varying the minimum wage depending on where you are in the country, as well as having various tiers of ‘minimum’ wage, was nowhere to be seen. Yet our beloved Chancellor has borrowed the name of a widely respected policy on the left to increase the potential political capital of the idea, and thus given many on that same left an excellent excuse to oppose an idea they were all in favour of until about six months ago (there are, to be fair, other tax credit based reasons for their skepticism as well).

So how do I, as a Tory, justify this theft? Simply by saying this: everybody does it. It is remarkably hard to copyright the heading of a policy document, and it is thus fair game for misappropriation. Nor is the title particularly misleading. Put simply, a national living wage, i.e. a wage everyone in the nation has to live on, describes the minimum wage rather well. Nor is this unique; it has been going on for centuries. Case in point: in 44 BC Julius Caesar, fresh from smashing Pompey at various battles across Greece, and indeed his senatorial allies in Spain, declared himself ‘Dictator for Life’. This may appear to us tautology, but to the Romans of the time it was in fact a contradiction in terms. The position of Dictator was an established constitutional role, which gave one individual executive powers to deal with a specific issue, normally a bunch of marauding Frenchmen after an olive oil surplus (I may have made that last bit up). And indeed, various respected, democratic dictators were revered by the Republic and beyond, to the extent that the Americans even named a town after one (Cincinnati, Ohio, I’m looking at you). So when Julius Caesar comes to power, he attempted to legitimise his illegitimate military junta by borrowing the name of a respected position. Job done.

Even the giants of today’s populist movement are not afraid of using the technique; take Jeremy Corbyn for example. One of the great triumphs of the response to the 2008 economic crash was the policy of quantitative easing. Essentially (and I am aware that I really don’t need to explain what quantitative easing is to students of the LSE) the central bank buys government bonds, to be repaid at a later date. The current Labour leader saw this idea and thought he’d copy it. But he would not be doing quantitative easing. He would do ‘people’s quantitative easing’. Leaving aside obvious Marks & Spencer jokes for a moment, what on Earth is he talking about? Was the inventive solution to a crisis that could have plunged us into a second Great Depression not in the interests of ‘the people’? No, he is doing precisely what George Osborne is doing: borrowing an established term which has associations with accepted economic success to add legitimacy to a policy which essentially constitutes printing money. Then again, I am aware that I am using almost exactly the same rhetorical technique to attack the policy, since what would actually happen is that someone at the Bank of England would merely add a few zeros onto a number on a computer screen. No one is truly suggesting that the roads are going to be built with fistfuls of five pound notes, yet the phrase ‘printing money’ has associations with Weimar Germany and hyperinflation, and so is a useful tool with which to explain our criticisms of the people’s (there we go again) investment bank.

Fundamentally, words change their meaning. The word dictator now has associations with tyranny and oppression, while its ancient meaning has probably been replaced by the word technocrat (the comparison between Cincinnatus and Mario Monti is an amusing one). Such evolution also provides an excellent opportunity for the Resolution Foundation et al to change the name of their policy to something which helps us understand what they are driving at; ‘the regional living wage’ for example. So there we are; the minimum wage is the living wage, dictators are technocrats, and quantitative easing is printing money (sort of). Any questions?