Few people will know that the Prime Minister’s Office issues a daily Points of Light award. The awards are designed to reward exceptional acts of community service or volunteering. Some of the people granted awards certainly represent the very best of philanthropic achievement and endeavour.
The phrase “Points of Light” is a direct quote from George H. W. Bush (right), who first used it when accepting his nomination as the 1988 Republican presidential candidate. His speechwriters were attempting to capture the idea of the American community as
a brilliant diversity spread like stars, like a thousand points of light in a broad and peaceful sky.
In the speech, this undeniably powerful image is immediately followed by a hard-edged passage on social policy, in which inter alia Bush issues his infamous pledge “read my lips: no new taxes”; sings the praises of capital punishment; and demands “zero tolerance” for drug dealers.
To me, the phrase has always seemed backward. Light itself is reliant on darkness in order to create a contrast. The use of the phrase in the speech makes that reliance explicit: these “points of light” are stars. To take the phrase literally, it suggests a predominantly dark environment.
In other words, Bush’s phrase – with its rhetorical intention to create a sense of hope – actually implied the opposite.
Bush went on to win the Presidency. He repeated the “thousand points of light” phrase in his inaugural address. He also wanted a “kinder and gentler nation” – a soundbite that quickly turned sour.
A month later, Neil Young performed a new song live for the first time. It was called “Rockin’ in the Free World”, and it was released on record in November 1989.**
A victim of circumstance, Young’s song would quickly become associated with the fall of communism and the break-up of the Soviet Union. But his poetry had a very different aim. The song was, and remains, a caustic assessment of Bush’s administration: its three verses seethe with ambivalence and anger about the state of American society and the country’s influence in the world – then at its absolute peak.
In the third verse, Young takes direct aim at the emptiness and hypocrisy of political rhetoric:
We got a thousand points of light for the homeless man
We got a kinder, gentler machine gun hand
In two sentences Young demolishes Bush’s insubstantial posturing. The first contrasts the hopey-changey rhetoric of “a thousand points of light” with the darkness that consumes millions of lives. The second mocks “kinder, gentler” by raising the spectre of Bush’s own history as CIA head and Iran/Contra collaborator – not to mention the wider US foreign policy escapades which, in the first verse, had left Young singing “don’t feel like Satan – but I am to them”.
But Young doesn’t stop there. The third verse takes in the US citizen-as-consumer, decrying “department stores and toilet paper/styrofoam boxes for the ozone layer”. He then goes on:
Got a man of the people says keep hope alive
And here is the sting in the tail. “Keep hope alive” was Jesse Jackson’s campaign slogan when running for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1988. The mocking tag “man of the people” shows just what Young thinks of it. Against a Republican candidate basing his campaign on shallow rhetoric, the American left in the late 1980s could muster nothing but equally vacuous slogans.
David Cameron’s “Big Society” was an attempt to find another way to say the same thing. Steve Hilton, for a while the Prime Minister’s Director of Strategy, used to be fond of wearing a tee-shirt that said “Big Society Not Big Government” (see example, right).
The idea presented to us was that as the bloated state got out of the way, it would be replaced by a more active and philanthropic civic society. But as this 2013 demolition of the policy’s pretended principles argued, it was a mere cipher, making room for the same traditional – and inadequate – paternalism.
No wonder it was quietly abandoned.
Nowadays, in the UK in 2015, the Conservative government so lacks ways to veil its continued campaign to unpick a comprehensive state-funded social security system that it is content simply to recycle Bush’s sloganeering. So it doles out daily Points of Light awards.
I do not suggest that the people receiving such awards are undeserving. Their work is valuable and, in many ways, increasingly so. But like the inexorable rise of food banks run by volunteers, the gaps opening up in our society are too wide for them to fill. They are sailors using tiny buckets to bail out a sinking ship as the icy ocean waters begin to freeze their blood.
Here is the nub of the matter: we live in dangerous times. We live in an era when the government is able to pass “reforms” to the social insurance system we have without a shred of opposition from, well, the official opposition. We live in a corrosive atmosphere where the foreigner is increasingly regarded not merely with suspicion but with outright hatred.
And the UK left is about to elect someone whose ability to hammer out an alternative is seriously questionable. In short, they’re going to elect a “man of the people” who says “keep hope alive”, but whose version of hope is as relevant as George H. W. Bush is now. A man who says on becoming leader he will apologise for a war that happened so long ago that the gap between it and today is already as long as the gap between it and the war that preceded it.
When people see that this “man of the people” is nothing more than a decent human being trapped in a vice of his own devising, slowly squeezed to death by a combination of a totally idealistic left and a resistant right, they will turn elsewhere. They will look for other populist movements. They will look for other plain talkers. And most of all, they will want someone whose politics match their fears.
Meanwhile those same fears will be amplified, by degrees and by stealth, by the government, which will chart a course that, by comparison, seems all moderation and good sense.
Got fuel to burn. Got roads to drive.
Keep on rockin’ in the free world.*
*The total usurpation of this song was completed recently by Donald Trump’s unauthorised decision to use it when announcing his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination. The wheel turns.
**The performance Neil Young gave of RITFW on Saturday Night Live in 1989 is justly regarded as one of the greatest live TV performances of all time. He worked himself into a frenzy backstage in order to mimic the feeling of performing an encore after a full two hour set. And it shows.