William Hague: A pale imitation of Norman Tebbit

21st May, 2012 11:36 am

Wouldn’t it be great to have Lord Tebbit back in the Cabinet? Gone are the days when a Conservative minister could, with a straight face, recommend his father’s attitude to unemployment with the words, “He got on his bike and looked for work, and he kept looking till he found it.” Or so we thought until William Hague stepped up to the plate and stated that “There’s only one growth strategy: work harder.”

Much has been made of the similarities between these two men and their respective statements. Zoe Williams has pointed out that “Hague, like Tebbit before him, has a “striver’s” authenticity: “I slogged my way out of poverty, you can too.”” By focusing on these similarities and relying on the invocation of the infamous Lord Tebbit, this momentary gaffe will be forgotten by the next election. However, this episode says something deeper about our politics and, in particular, this government. It should be a wake up call for Labour Party members to get on our bikes and work harder.

There are three aspects of Tebbit’s statement that have given it that enduring legacy simultaneously hoped for and feared by politicians. Firstly, it was outdated. Tebbit was suggesting a 1930s solution to a 1980s problem. There was a, typically Conservative, denial of the way in which society had changed in half a century. Secondly, it was deeply flawed. The arguments need not be rehearsed here but if there is one thing that every member of the Labour Party should be able to agree on, it is that ‘get on your bike’ is not an adequate government approach to the problem of unemployment. Finally, it was said with integrity.

No matter how much you disagree with the Thatcher Project, it is impossible to deny that it was passionately believed in and enacted with real determination and zeal. Thatcher herself is notorious for having hardly slept whilst in Downing Street. Tebbit represented a hard working government.

Compare this with William Hague. What have his Cabinet colleagues been doing this week? Let’s take the Champions League Final as an example. George Osborne enjoyed the game from the VIP seats in Munich whilst the British economy is in a double-dip recession. David Cameron was photographed taking a break from trying to save the Eurozone with other G8 leaders, to watch the match. All of this is taking place at the end of a week in which Elliot and Hanning’s new biography of David Cameron reveals a work-life balance more akin to a part-time consultant than the prime minister of a country in dire economic straits.

There are obvious resonances between Hague’s comments and those of Lord Tebbit. The most obvious similarity being that they are both wrong. They both reveal a fundamental misunderstanding of unemployment, its causes and solutions. Hague has, however, managed to avoid the trap of being outdated. When asked about the comparison with Lord Tebbit, he replied, “It’s more than that. It’s ‘Get on the plane, go and sell things overseas. Go and study overseas’. It’s much more than getting on the bike, the bike didn’t go that far.” How very twenty-first century.

The important difference between the two is that Hague and his government lack any credibility on the issue of hard graft. There are certainly hard-working members of the government, but nothing we have heard recently suggests that it is being led by individuals committed to living by their own advice and working unceasingly in pursuit of economic growth.

Those who swallowed the government’s message that fiscal responsibility means austerity and austerity means growth, will not be convinced to vote Labour on the basis of Hague’s gaffe. Those who wish to reject the worst excesses of austerity know that the Labour Party is the only viable option. The recent local election results showed as much. The Coalition parties were rejected, so the Labour Party gained. But, as has been said by so many, it didn’t show the electorate embracing Labour. The apathetic and uninspired middle are left cold and disillusioned by the whole process.

The temptation is to recast the Tories as the Nasty Party; but this is not a call to mud-slinging arms. Politicians of all stripes are seen as being out of touch and lacking integrity. It is a base form of politics that relies only on the opponent being worse. Ed Miliband was spot on when he said at the Progress Annual Conference that “we should knock not just on the doors of people we already know vote Labour, but also on people we haven’t contacted for years.” The Labour Party must listen carefully and translate those conversations into a party ethic and a policy platform that is in touch and has integrity. Most importantly we must demonstrate that the Labour Party embodies, rather than merely preaches, the values – including hard work – which should be the bedrock of our country and our economy. This is no small task but, if we manage it, this will be a one term government and it’ll be Hague getting on his bike.

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  • Tom Oakley

    This is a good article although I think you’re being a bit ridiculous by suggesting that politicians shouldn’t take an afternoon off to watch a bit of football. The ‘get on your bike’ work hard idea is a suggestion to those who are looking for work, it doesn’t mean you have to spend your weekend riding round on a bike looking for work when you’re already employed.

    The government is not doing a good job, but using the fact that some of them saw the champions league match as an example of this? Strikes me as a little bit silly.

    • treborc1

      Well it did mean more when it was said, Thatcher believed that people should  get out and look for work beyond the area they were working as labour did as well.

      Well Hoon of course went Skiing with his family as our troops had leave cancelled and many soldiers did not go skiing for eighteen months, it’s the idea do as I say not what I do.

      I wonder what people will think if they are aged between eighteen to twenty sitting at home no legs and you hear labour talking about hard work and not getting anything for nothing. It was labour that made soldiers go through the WCA even if they were severely wounded.

      Right now I suspect the public will agree with you when you say they are all the same, and Miliband will say anything to win the next election, but what has changed  in the last few hundred years.

    • AlanGiles

      I have to say I agree with Tom. If we are talking about politicians sneaking off to watch football, it might be embarrassing to remember March 10th 2012.

      On this day Ed Miliband should have been attending an NHS rally and a metting with medical staff in HUll.

      The previous evening he cancelled the engagement due to being ill.

      On the day of the rally, Mr Miliband had receovered, but didn’t appear – he turned up….. AT A FOOTBALL MATCH.

      Unpleasant he might be, but at least Osborne wasn’t pretending to be ill.

      Let’s be fair.

      * Johnny Hawkesworth (1924 –  ? )

      • treborc1

         Is that right Miliband went to the match as well, it does say a lot.

        • AlanGiles

          Yes  I am afraid he did:


          Thats my lot for today all my links today were that they all played in the Ted Heath Band in the 50s and 60s (That’s Ted Heath, trombonist/band leader 1903-1969, not Mrs Thatcher’s dearest friend)

          • treborc1

             Nothing surprises me anymore within all Political parties, if you have money own a football team, far better then speaking to a bunch of highly paid nurses.

    • Appleseed

      With dribs and drabs of temporary part-time work pretty much the only employment available it’s not so much a case of “get on your bike” these days as “hop aboard your unicycle”.

      • Winston_from_the_Ministry

        That’s news to the recruitment industry.


        • Appleseed
          • Winston_from_the_Ministry

            My point remains, there are more than “dribs and drabs” available.

            Whether we have the people available to fill them is a different issue.

          • Appleseed

            The problem is actually astronomical because the distribution of opportunity is not homogeneous throughout the country. Additionally, the cap in housing benefit will prevent anybody moving from poorer areas to wealthier areas in order to take up an offer of employment; mobility as far as the labour market goes will become more and more stymied as wages remain static, or actually fall because of inflation, and the cost of accommodation continues to rise inexorably.

            Simply keep your eye on tax revenue and welfare costs over the remaining few years (or less) left to the coalition government. Tax revenue will not rise much while welfare costs will continue to spiral upwards or at the very least fail to fall conspicuously, despite £12 billion worth of cuts already pencilled in, because more and more of the working population will no longer be earning enough from their labours to pay much or any tax or do without top-up benefits from the state.

            The coalition are living in a fantasy.

            Osborne’s economic gamble is not going to pay off.

          • Winston_from_the_Ministry

            Seeing as everything you’ve put there is about the future, I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.

          • Appleseed

            I hope to God that I am wrong. 

            As you say, time will tell.

  • Vincent Cable

    The five year plan proceeds apace. All is well.

  • jaime taurosangastre candelas

    I’ve never really understood the opposition in left of centre circles to Tebbit’s remark, but I acknowledge that it does depend on how you read it.  

    To me, all that Tebbit did was to highlight the social contract that existed as part of the welfare state as set up by Beveridge.  Yes, of course the Government has a duty to set in place effective support arrangements for those unemployed, yes the government can invest in public programmes to boost employment, and everything else.  But equally, the individual has a duty back to the state to actively seek work, and to me that is all Tebbit was saying.

    Reading the remark that way, I do not see it as objectionable. 

    There is also some context to the remark.  Tebbit had been challenged by a tory that the Brixton Riot was a reaction to unemployment (he was the Employment Minister at the time).  His full response was ”I grew up in the ’30s with an unemployed father. He didn’t riot. He got on his bike and looked for work, and he kept looking ’til he found it.”  

    I suspect I may get some counter-opinions, but let me also state that I do not believe that the vast majority of unemployed people are simply sitting about, waiting for the government to find them a job.  I believe that the vast majority will be “working” – and it will be hard and dispiriting work – to get themselves back into employment.  Perhaps there are some who need more encouragement to help themselves, and it is that small group to whom the Tebbit remark was made, I believe.

    • Loxxie

      At least Norman Tebbit’s dad had a bike…

      • Mark

        Norman Tebbit had a dad?

  • Quiet_Sceptic

    ‘Get on your bike’  isn’t always the wrong medicine though.

    If you live in a area with high unemployment yet there are jobs available in towns or cities nearby or even other counties or regions then is ‘getting on your bike’ wrong?  What’s the alternative?

    As a solution for the unemployed during times of relatively low unemployment it’s not that bad a suggestion, witness the millions of commuters who figuratively speaking get on their bikes every morning to go to work.

    Where it goes wrong is believing it is a solution for all the unemployed during periods cyclical unemployment – it’s the fallacy of composition

    • Rexhip Swabe

      There is a BIG difference in, say, a 23 year old Polish man or woman moving temporarily to the United Kingdom, away from their family, and a UK born citizen with ties, roots, children and nowhere else realistically to go. The young Pole in moving from their homeland to another country usually has no local relationships and is quite happy to go anywhere in the country where work exists, sometimes moving like a nomad from place to place following seasonal work: such transient labour is only interested usually in working as long as possible, as often as possible, in order to earn as much as possible for the short while he (or she) is resident in Great Britain. Immigrant labour often puts up with absolutely atrocious conditions as far as accommodation goes seeking to live as cheaply as possible in order to retain as much of earnings as possible; no British citizen could or should be expected to live such a pinched life, separated from their family and friends, long term, in the nation of his or her birth, nor indeed would the immigrant expect to be asked to do so in their country of his (or her) origin.

      Most immigrant labour consists of armies of young people who are perfectly able and willing to go anywhere and work all the hours that God sends in order to rake in as much money as possible, putting up with all kinds of tribulations and privations because they know that their hardships are temporary. These youngsters visit the United Kingdom, rough it for a few years, and then return to their own country with some money and stories to tell, just like British youngsters that work picking grapes in French vineyards during their gap year and similar. 

      While in this country immigrants live to work.

      Most British people in the country of their birth work to live.

      There is a difference.

      • Mark

        This is true. Near to where I live there is a transient camp of Polish agricultural workers living in terrible squalor in caravans sited in a field. It really is a proper bad sight to see in 21st century Britain. I doubt very much whether any Brit in his right senses would swap family and home, even if they’re on the Jobseeker’s Allowance, to live with five or six strangers in a leaky dilapidated caravan and paddle about in manure and mud for sixty or seventy hours a week for a minimum wage! Poor sods!

      • Quiet_Sceptic

        We do have quite a lot of unemployed 23 year olds of our own here in the UK, would you argue it is too much to expect them to move around the UK in search of work? Many have few commitments and being relatively close (as compared to say someone from Poland) can travel to see friends and family.

        You paint a picture of immigrant labour suffering in appalling conditions and no doubt some do but we also know that many do pretty typical jobs; working in shops, cafes, factories, restaurants and bars. Doing jobs that are not degrading or would not be considered unreasonable for anyone to do.

        So I’m curious, when it comes to distance, at what point is it unreasonable to expect a native Britain to move or commute to find work?

        1 mile? 5? 10? 25? 50? 100?

        • Rexhip Swabe

          The law says that unemployed people must be willing to travel for up to 3 hours to work and back on a daily basis in order to qualify for Jobseeker’s Allowance. What does that mean? Well, if you’re fit and active I suppose you could walk, say, 9 km (5.5 miles) or so, on the flat, in about 1.5 hours and so your on foot any job would have to be no more than 9 km from your home. If you had access to a vehicle of some sort, e.g., bicycle, moped, motorbike, ferry, boat, car, bus, coach, tram, train, or some mixture of two or more of any of these modes of transport you could travel further with a proportionate loss of income due to transport costs incurred, e.g., fuel, wear and tear, parking fees, congestion charges and so forth as per any private vehicle(s) used or ticketing costs if/when using public transport. 

          Travel to work is determined only by the 3 hour specification.

          The actual distance expected to be travelled by Jobseekers is of course wholly determined by what modes of transport are available and affordable to the individual depending of where he/she lives in Great Britain, e.g., rural areas have no tube trains.

          • Mark

            If you were born on the planet Krypton our yellow sun would enable you to fly, any distance, to work and back in no time. You would also be super-strong and super-fast and could do any amount of work in a day. No wonder is it then that British employers like alien labour!

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