When I was a trainee journalist on the Belfast Telegraph newspaper in Northern Ireland, my mentor was a wonderful editor called Norman Jenkinson. He was a hard-headed Ulsterman of wit and wisdom, affectionately nicknamed “Jenks.” He would see me rushing into the office breathlessly excited about some news story involving a political announcement and would calm me down with a simple phrase.
“Listen, lad,” he would say, staring at me above his glasses, “never confuse activity with progress.”
Nowadays, when I hear politicians make announcements and public promises of action, Jenks’s observation comes to mind. It happens constantly with US President Donald Trump’s promises to “build a wall and make Mexico pay for it,” or forcing China to take more US imports, or reviving America’s old industries in the so-called “rust belt” states or, in some unspecified way, “Making America Great Again.” I wondered then, and still wonder now, if Mr Trump’s Mexican-funded “wall” will ever come into existence, even if he wins another term. Since America has always seemed “great” to me, I continue to wonder in what sense Mr Trump would re-create its greatness. We shall see. Or not.
Here in Britain, Jenks's phrase comes to mind almost daily. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s new government is a fountain of hyperactivity, although it is unclear where real progress is being made. We have a daily blizzard of announcements, slogans, plans and promises. One big promise is to “level up” the British economy by investing more in the north of England. I am all for it. The most eye-catching bit of “levelling up” is the announcement to build the “HS2” high-speed rail line, which will eventually connect London with the great northern English cities of Manchester and Leeds at a cost in excess of £100 billion. I am for that too.
Then there was the announcement that “experts” will be studying whether to build a bridge from Scotland to Ireland. This is a daft idea and it will likely never happen. There are further announcements: Britain will next month switch the colour of its passports from the current red burgundy to blue. Add to this rumours that the government has declared war on the BBC and will scrap its funding model. And news that immigration rules will be changed with a new points-based system for skilled workers. And a determination within the government not to talk about Brexit any more since on leaving the European Union on January 31; Brexit is, in the words of their election slogan, “done.”
So much activity! But how much real progress amid the snowstorm of announcements? How much is reality, and how much just spin and clever public relations?
The case to build HS2, for instance, is ultimately sound, but construction work has been going on for years. HS2 actually began in 2009. All Mr Johnson’s government has done is manufacture a PR coup by not actually cancelling it. If he was really “levelling up” the economy of the north of England, then full construction work on the project would be starting in the north. It is not. It is starting in London, and is merely another great building project which increases London’s dominance of the British economy, even if connectivity will eventually benefit the north of England too.
Then there is the switch to “traditional” blue passports. This is the clearest symbol of a government obsessed with public-relations activity rather than progress. The Home Secretary Priti Patel says blue passports are in some way “entwined with our national identity.” Well, possibly among some citizens over 50. Britain agreed to switch from blue to red passports 30 years ago. But this was not a European Union imposition. Croatia, an EU member, still has blue passports. Yet London is trumpeting switching back to blue as some kind of “taking back control” activity. Moreover, these new (or old?) blue passports will be printed not, as you might expect, by a patriotic British company but in Poland by French-Dutch consortium Gemalto. Giving contracts to Polish workers and foreign companies may be Ms Patel’s sense of “national identity”, but not everyone agrees.
In all this there is a bizarre phrase much loved by political insiders to describe such public relations activities – “throwing a dead cat on the table.” It means that when everyone is talking about something that the government finds unhelpful or negative, the way to change and dominate the national conversation is to interrupt with something else, however bizarre – like interrupting a business meeting with a dead cat. Everyone ends up talking about the dead cat. Mr Trump has used the “dead cat” technique brilliantly in his tweets.
In Britain, from blue passports to impossible bridges to Ireland, Mr Johnson is masterfully steering Britain’s national conversation with his own “dead cats on the table.” Whether his PR hyperactivity results in any discernible progress remains uncertain. Jenks would suggest we all treat it with great suspicion.
Gavin Esler is a journalist, author and presenter