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Daniel Coughlan is a teacher.

Maybe it’s foolish to pigeon-hole people, but we automatically do it. A quick look and we think, “she’s high-maintenance”, “he’s a pompous twat”, or “the hell I’m walking near those yobbos”.

This isn’t necessarily prejudice, it can be a kind of subconscious judgement, a gut feeling which is squarely based on many, many, experiences. And we’ve got to generalise. Life’s too short. So when we present ourselves to others it’s with an awareness that they may well judge us fast and that early impressions are hugely important.

Political parties are the same. And it’s why before elections they carefully preface the policy detail in their manifestos with images, slogans, and nice pithy forewords. It’s so the reader gets the desired impression.

A close look, therefore, at how the 2017 manifestos introduce themselves is bound to be revealing, and in the Conservative case, what it reveals – consciously and unconsciously – is highly unusual.

The Labour manifesto makes a very obvious impression. Its bright red cover bears an appeal to “the many not the few”. It’s that old binary class-struggle idea through which its authors view the world. And this is remarkably well represented by the black and white image of the unkempt bearded man on the reverse. He’s an old socialist, and looks it.

Corbyn’s foreword, like his appearance, doesn’t surprise. It complains that “the rich are getting richer” – something must be wrong – and how “the system is rigged”. Before getting anywhere near the main body, we can tell that this is the stuff of 1983, even 1848, all over again. It’s a manifesto designed for the socialist faithful, implicitly admitting little hope of drawing converts.

The Liberal Democrat manifesto starts with confusion. The leading slogan, Change Britain’s Future, is a call to the logically impossible (which in the Christian tradition, the devout Tim Farron should know, even God can’t do). But it does chime with the Party’s main policy of ‘Brexit and not Brexit’.

The Greens, predictably enough, take the John Lennon approach in their foreword; several times the reader is invited to “Imagine a government…” And the fantasy unfolds within; Britain’s future economic prosperity is to be wondrously secured whilst we move to a four-day (and carbon-free) working week. It’s the stuff of Neverland.

The more practically-minded UKIP manifesto, just published, presents the Party’s politicians as “guard dogs of Brexit”. It’s an unflattering analogy for such a highly trained and professional group (of canines), but it evokes an apposite image – one of reactionary defensiveness.

The manifesto introductions are all – deliberately as well as not-so-deliberately – typical of their authors and the policies they introduce.

With the Conservative manifesto even the Party name is put to work; it’s once again the Conservative and Unionist Party – take note Scottish unionists. But the theme of unity in diversity then quickly fades away. The principal image is of the Prime Minister before a banner: “THERESA MAY’S TEAM”. And from this supreme leader there is, unusually, a personal message and a personal foreword.

The latter is remarkably personal; “I want”, “I choose” and, three times in quick succession, “I believe”. It’s Theresa May’s personal credo we’re reading. In style it reads a bit like Thatcher’s first manifesto foreword; both warn that the challenges ahead won’t be “easy” and that we not only “can” but “must” face them head on. But there’s a markedly different idea about who is going to do the legwork to ensure Britain’s future greatness. Just read this:

“It is essential that the affairs of this country are in the hands of a strong government, able to take firm measures in defence of the national interest… This means a Conservative Government with a renewed mandate from the people and with a full five years in which to guide the nation safely through the difficult period that lies ahead.”

I quote from the Conservative manifesto foreword of February 1974. But you’d be forgiven for thinking you were reading the latest effort. For the 2017 foreword, like that of Ted Heath, repeatedly returns to the same theme of “leadership from a government that is strong.” This leadership is said to be needed to meet “the great challenges of our time and to take the big, difficult decisions.”

In itself, of course, strong government is no bad thing, and what other body could handle such tasks as the Brexit negotiations, but the most startling feature of the 2017 foreword is its lack of balance, or what it does not say, in particular about the British people and their liberty.

In 1979 Thatcher’s foreword explained that her proposals were “based not on dogma, but on reason, on common sense, above all on the liberty of the people.” Free people would be responsible for Britain’s future success. And this was a constant theme in all future Conservative manifesto forewords:

  • “Our history is the story of a free people” (1983)
  • “Together we are building One Nation of free, prosperous and responsible families and people” (1987)
  • “Conservatives [unlike socialists] want to give… [people] independence” (1992)
  • “the British people have been liberated from the dead hand of the state” (1997)
  • “We want to set people free” (2001)
  • “Britain has “a love of freedom” (2005)
  • “we need fundamental change: from big government that presumes to know best, to the big Society that trusts in the people” (2010)
  • “It is a profound Conservative belief that our country is made great not through the action of government alone, but through the flair, the ingenuity and hard work of the British people” (2015)

But in Theresa May’s foreword there is no mention of the great good that free people can do. The clear impression is that government will be the active player in securing Britain’s future prosperity. And this is unusual from the Conservative Party.

At the manifesto launch Mrs May was asked, “What this manifesto tells us about you personally and your political philosophy?” She responded, “Well, I think it tells me I’m a good Conservative.” “There is no Mayism… there is good solid Conservativism” she continued. This might be her not wanting to lay claim to a particular kind of Conservativism, but it could also be a denial that there are valid alternatives.

Time will tell, but the impression that this prospective Conservative government will be less of a broad church – and one that does not place a premium on people’s individual freedom – is hard to avoid.

43 comments for: Daniel Coughlan: Why is liberty so absent from May’s manifesto?

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