Our political leaders seem far too eager these days to turn themselves into walking billboards for any passing PR baboon who has brainstormed another tiresome photo-coup.
Sometimes it’s a case of damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t. So there’s Clegg and Miliband going along with the prank because they are so desperate for re-election that they will even try to court the piss-stained-sofa-dweller vote by posing in T-shirts advertising a certain newspaper, one of the vilest organs of corporatist, anti-European propaganda on earth and the arch-enemy of the feminist tendency.
And here’s the prime minister, poor David Cameron, for once exercising sound judgement in refusing to join them in being photographed with his prime-ministerial paunch and midlife manboobs squeezed into a T-shirt labelled, obscurely, ‘This is what a feminist looks like’.
Can you imagine Harold Macmillan or Mrs Thatcher agreeing to put on a sloganeering T-shirt proclaiming the half-baked views of some obscure lobbying group dubiously arrogating to itself the right to speak for half the population on some vital issue of the day? William Ewart Gladstone? Winston Churchill? (Disraeli might have…)
And what happens, when the Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland refuses to demean himself (and, by extension, the nation) by appearing before the cameras in a common item of weekend leisurewear (probably made by not very feminist female labour in some condemned Bangladeshi sweatshop) to silently mouth an equally infantile, reductionist and quite meaningless commercial slogan, cooked up by a brilliantly witty PR beanbag in a fashionably minimalist office on a wet Thursday afternoon?
He is pilloried in the press for not supporting the cause of equality for women.
As if wearing a T-shirt proclaiming that the wearer looks like a feminist is going to advance the historic cause of women’s equality one jot.
Does the press praise Mr Cameron for upholding the dignity of the office of Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, a great nation of 65 million souls, the sixth or seventh largest economy on earth, once the envy, the engine and the mistress of the world, now reduced to the parody of a cheapjack reality TV show whose contestants are happily videoing themselves crawling about having drunken sex and being sick in the gutter?
No, because the press is alive to the possibility of any opportunity to go along with a vacuous publicity stunt that, whatever its outcome, will embarrass their hated enemies, the political class – especially that toffee-nosed Camwrong….
I am not exactly noted, either for my political correctness or for my unstinting respect for any jack-in-office. I do not cleave to the tragic myth of the ‘great’ British empire; nor do I care for many of the supposed virtues of ‘Britishness’, as I have bogld elsewhere. I believe with Dr Johnson that the last refuge of a scoundrel is indeed patriotism. I am broadly in favour of freedoms that include the freedom to move, to live and to work anywhere unmolested; and the right to peacefully pursue life, liberty and happiness regardless of creed or colour. Along with John Stuart Mill, I incline to the belief that one ought to be free to do anything – even shopping – that does not do actual harm to others (that rules out religion, I’m afraid). I’m no respecter of boundaries, and foreign to the very concept of foreignness.
However, I have lived long enough now to realise that the process of debunking the myth of institutional sacrosanctity, which began in the heady days of the 1960s, and of which one obviously approved at the time, lit a fuse that is now detonating around us, in slow-motion, a bomb that will soon have destroyed any social cohesion or respect for anything honourable, decent or respectable.
For, there comes – has come – a point where healthy, critical, informed disrespect for minorly corrupt, overweening, vain and less-than-competent public institutions turns to an attack on all our civilised values.
As Naomi Klein has suggested, capitalism thrives on promoting chaos and disorder. Capitalism is the enemy of public institutions. Capitalism likes to pick us off one-by-one and hates us when we organise. What possibility is there for social cohesion and stability in a country whose leaders, with an increasingly tenuous hold on tangled globalised reins, are persistently and ruthlessly dragged down, regardless of their true motives and abilities, by a feral populace in lynch-mob mode egged-on by a nihilistic media drunk on its power to bring the whole lot crashing down for a good headline, and by TV comedians in desperate search of a cheap laugh?
The press, the lesser-spotted lower-middle-class, the surviving electorate wandering in a desolate democratic wilderness do not give a fig for feminism. They do not look behind the headlines, the soundbites, the empty rhetoric, the phoniness of Farageism, the increasingly dangerous disorientation of the political class and the bungling incompetence of civil servants, local authorities, social services, the medical profession, the police.
They are interested only in the heady smell of revolution. They perceive their natural leaders as being the shiny dimwits they see capering and gurning on the telly.
Today’s revolutionary dreams are so grand, so empowering, they can be expounded in a line or two of text, screenprinted on your chest.
So, any T-shirt will do.
Turns out the ‘obscure lobbying group’ referred to is a slebrity-obsessed fashionplate confection called Elle magazine (as Sartre so nearly said, Elle is other people…), in cahoots with the Millicent Fawcett Society, a community of latterday suffragettes venerable enough to know better.
The sweatshop turns out to be in Mauritius, rather than Bangladesh*. The women are paid 62 pence an hour, which for a ten-hour day could add up to £36 a week, probably enough to survive on in Mauritius, the island in the Indian Ocean where, as you recall, the Dodo was last spotted; and is coincidentally the same amount as the British government allows many female asylum claimants in weekly benefit, whose cases remain unheard – some of them after seven years.
Could be another T-shirt in it?