I went to bed last night in a different world. David Cameron’s conference speech had transformed the United Kingdom into a new country, a more ambitious country, a Torier country. For the first time, I slept in Aspiration Nation. And it was bloody rubbish. Cameron drivelled out the words “aspiration” and “aspirational” nine times yesterday. He was so pleased with “aspiration nation”, he said it twice.
What a desperately empty word to fix on. A word that means, if we’re being literal, a puff of air. Here’s the thing about aspiration: as a political ethos, it’s nothing but a Ponzi scheme. Everyone deposits their hopes and dreams to do better, fervently trusting that the sharp fellow in the nice suit will turn this portion of our faith into a better future.
A few will get their aspiration back with interest, and the sharp fellow in the nice suit can claim this as proof that his extra-special investment scheme works. According to the speech, he’s found a way to – wait for it – spread privilege. That is, he’s claiming to be able to give everyone equal shares in a condition that is defined by inequality. A privilege is something that other people don’t have. If you share it out, it ceases to be privilege. Like any dodgy banker, Cameron is promising the impossible.
Most of the people who put their savings in with Aspiration Nation will gain nothing; many will come out worse. That’s not a regrettable side effect of the aspiration economy, by the way: it’s a necessary part of its function, because aspiration is relative. For some to do better, others must fail. For academies to be centres of excellence, the rest of the education system must miss out on money and resources. And for one person to rise, others must stay in the same place – or fall lower.
It wouldn’t have to be like this if the aspirations Cameron was encouraging were actually, well, aspirational. Who does he praise in his speech? “The doers. The risk takers. The young people who dream of their first pay cheque, their first car, their first home – and are ready and willing to work hard to get those things.” That’s the big Tory dream? A job, a car and a house? Clearly, house prices and unemployment in this crocked economy mean those things are a tantalising mirage beyond the reach of many of us; but if they’re the dream, then I’d suggest there’s something seriously wrong with the reality.
What about aspiring to an education, an accessible public transport system and a social care system that means children don’t starve to death in the UK? Is that “aspirational”, or does aspiration only cover being a money-earning, money-spending economic unit, sucking cash in at one end and parping it out the other like a financial lugworm? Am I allowed to aspire to decent employment benefits, or do true aspirants sell themselves out for a bundle of shares?
If we’re supposed to aspire to a first pay cheque, it does make me wonder where workfare – sorry, “the Work Programme” that Cameron boasts about in the speech – fits in, given that it’s a means of getting young people to do menial jobs for nothing under the guise of giving them “training”. (I’m a trained checkout operator. It took three days and because this was in the wild big government days of 1997, the company I was working for paid me to train. Crazy.)
When you buy into the aspiration economy, you buy into the idea that you can make your own luck by just wishing hard enough. And then, when the house and the car and the pay cheque don’t show up, you’ll be too busy blaming yourself (“If only I’d been more aspirational!”) to remember that we’re in the middle of a recession contrived by the same sharp fellow in the nice suit huffing and puffing on stage.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010