All the main storylines of Cameron’s Britain are there in this book. The food banks. The explosion of payday loans. Plunging wages for young workers, soaring rents and house prices, and almost no social house-building.
The hype about government debt as the monster threatening us all. The social cuts first pushed with the story that they were necessary to tame debt, and then continued, when they leave debt still rising fast, with the story that the capitalist free market will eventually bring prosperity if only liberated from social overheads and from taxes on profits and high incomes.
The press phone-hacking scandal, the Leveson inquiry and its non-outcome, the Scottish disaffection, the scapegoating of the European Union.
“If an abiding impression from the Thatcher era was Covent Garden opera-goers stumbling over rough sleepers in the Strand, Cameron’s is food banks. A million people are being fed from them...”
Polly Toynbee is a Guardian columnist, now sometimes a critic of the Labour leadership from the left, although in her basic thinking still an old stalwart of the SDP (the right-wing split from Labour in 1981 which then merged with the Liberals to form today’s Liberal Democrats). Her co-author David Walker is her partner and a top official at the Audit Commission.
Towards the end of the book they say flatly that Cameron has governed for “those who possess property and wealth”, “for his own kind”, for the “plutocracy”. “Why not just make corporate chieftains the government?”, they ask rhetorically.
The counterpoint in earlier chapters is a presentation of Cameron as “ideological” and driven by “dogma”, and his ministers as “not up to it”.
The authors wistfully cite another mode of Tory government, that of Cameron’s claimed hero Harold Macmillan, prime minister from 1957 to 1963, “a Keynesian, a builder of council houses...”
Macmillan’s blander policy reflected the impress on him of a stronger, more confident labour movement. That part of the story is missing for Toynbee and Walker.
They record the results of the defeats of the battles against Cameron’s government like the public sector pensions battle of 2010-1, but without mentioning those battles.
Their vox pop side-stories seek the unusual: small businessmen keen for more public regulation of industrial health and safety and better welfare provision, working-class Tories. No collective body opposed to Cameron, however disarrayed, however dejected for now, is in the picture.
They record that 76% of the population supports cuts, and that the dominant image of a “Labour” person is a fat man stretched on a sofa drinking lager and watching daytime TV.
These statistics, like all others, they report unrigorously. Who was asked? Exactly what question were they asked? What alternatives were proposed to them?...
The statistical sloppiness not only writes the working-class movement out of the picture, but also makes the book less useful than it might be for socialists seeking hard facts to counter the Tories. Even when the basic drift of their statistics seems surely correct, they lack the detail and the references which would make them stand up against a well-informed and clever Tory opponent.