Sometimes, a politician manages to do something, or say something, or even stand for something so iconic that it reverberates for years. It haunts the lives and careers of those who come after them, damning them to forever live in the shadow of that moment of greatness, doomed never to escape it and forge a moment of their own.
There’s Harry Truman’s stopping buck. JFK’s ‘before this decade is out’. Churchill’s fight on the beaches. Mandela’s long walk to freedom.
Over the course of this year, I’ve had a lot of occasion to think of Margaret Thatcher’s famous quote. Not in the same league as those, but iconic nonetheless. In her 1980 speech to the Tory party conference, she turned on those waiting for the announcement of a U-turn on economic policy by saying “You turn if you want to. The Lady’s not for turning.”
Cameron, by contrast, has seemed at times to be trying his best to set a new record for the number of U-turns in a calendar year. They’ve come thick and fast, and have been a pleasure to watch as an outsider to British politics (although I suspect most Labour supporters would have had a terrific year as well). What really intrigues me is the piffling detail that things get dragged down to in order to be blown up out of all proportion.
Like the famous Pasty Tax Shambles. Most food in the UK doesn’t have any VAT charged on it, but takeaway food does. Except, for some reason that probably made perfect sense at some point to somebody, pies and pasties. The proposal was to include them in the definition of takeaway food (sounds reasonable to me), and levy VAT on them. Cue uproarious and disbelieving opposition from all quarters, calling for heads to roll (with no apparent reference to Sweeney Todd being intentional). Cameron sheepishly says “Sorry!”, and backtracks to say that if the pies are left on a shelf to cool to ambient temperatures, then it’s ok – those will only get 5% VAT added instead of 20%. Oh, and food sold from caravans is different (but only if they’re static!). The cost of trying to administer a scheme like that must pretty soon start outweighing the additional revenue you’re bringing in.
Then there was the charitable donations issue, the VAT on alterations to listed buildings, the buzzard cull, the badger cull, school inspections, and a few others (and that list only goes up to May!).
And then there’s the issue of resignations. I find it quite intriguing that British politicians are so ready to fall on their sword in the face of opposition opprobrium. They make a simple mistake (swearing at a policeman in a fit of temper and calling him a pleb), and a few days later they’re out of a job. But not before the prime minister makes a big fuss about how these calls for resignation are ridiculous, and that he’s behind the person involved 100%, and he’ll never let them down. Here’s a tip if you’re a Tory politician: If David Cameron says he’s behind you 100%, run while you can.
And so, at the end of all of that, I think it’s wholly appropriate that the Oxford Dictionary’s word of the year is Omnishambles.