If her Guardian column on Monday 14th May is an indication, Polly Toynbee is becoming the Joe Louis of the left. There is something inspiring about a tough two fisted heroine. And since the Coalition Government, Polly Toynbee has been slinging punches faster than we thought possible. Meanwhile, Ed Milliband is a different kind of fighter, the kind who prefers the monotonous jab. We have to be hesitant about being convinced by Milliband but if he does eventually triumph and claim a place in history he will not be the first defensive jabber to be underestimated. The rest of us scream from the other side of the ropes and demand a punch that will knockout Cameron. But we are impatient spectators. The trainers at the side of the ring understand the rigours of a championship fight. Jab and keep your guard high and do not let the opponent get close.
‘What about hitting him with some policies, coach, you know, show him we have ideas?’
‘Just keep jabbing, son. You’ll be all right. His nose is bleeding and his eye is opening.’
There was a time when Polly was a jabber. She always had compassion which she proved by taking routine and unpleasant jobs but she believed pragmatism rather than idealism had to prevail. Thatcher had that effect on many of us. When a leader preaches hatred and contempt for half the population and the other half respond by cheering then your ideals suffer. In an odd way, Thatcher did shift the political opinions of almost everyone to the right. Much has been made of the massive majority Labour had in 1997 but many people voted Labour back then without any real expectation of reform. There is an irony. Blair and New Labour deserve all the condemnation that they have received because they continued with Thatcherism. But if their initiatives did nothing about the gap between rich and poor, the progress made in the NHS and the impact of tax credits was more significant than most thought possible in 1997. The problem for New Labour was that Thatcherism did not work. Industries vanished and Brown felt that he had no choice but to support an economic system based on finance and debt. He was clever enough to know it was flimsy but lacked the one virtue he admired, courage. His remark about abolishing boom and bust was misunderstood. He had abolished it, his policies were designed to maintain spending and growth at a steady rate and they were feasible providing that there was no wholesale financial collapse. Unfortunately, greed was not quite as good or as beneficial as some had promised.
The plates stopped spinning but long before the crash Toynbee had re-invented herself as a malcontent. She wanted to do more than jab. Note that the word radical has been avoided. Her social democracy values demanded efficient management from left wing governments and when Labour returns to power she will no doubt repeat her pleas for responsibility and efficiency. Somewhere and at some point, though, Toynbee became disgusted by what she saw in the elite of Britain. She acquired a quality that is hard to resist when it spills out on to the keyboard. Toynbee discovered the joy of loathing. This has been missed by her left wing critics. The lady who back in the eighties deserted Labour for the SDP has never been forgiven. Yet the world and people change. Toynbee who campaigns in The Guardian today on behalf of the poor and who exposes the callous greed of the rich is unrecognisable when compared to her predecessor, except the previous incarnation was also a battler.
She must be doing something well because the right wing hates her so much. This is how motor mouth Boris Johnson describes her; she “incarnates all the nannying, high-taxing, high-spending schoolmarminess of Blair’s Britain. Polly is the high priestess of our paranoid, mollycoddled, risk-averse, airbagged, booster-seated culture of political correctness and ‘elf ‘n’ safety fascism.’ In other words, she is concerned about social justice. Boris who managed to be re-elected as Mayor of London without promising any reforms that might improve the lives of ordinary Londoners presumably thought that thinking about the human hardships within his city constituted ‘elf ‘n safety fascism’.
Polly Toynbee angers the rich and powerful because her background means that she knows and understands them. In the British class system that pretends to be a society the word background is sometimes changed for pedigree. Because she knows them she can spot stupidity with the precise eye of an expert rifleman. And on Tuesday in The Guardian the repeater rifle was loaded and she took aim. I know she will not be flattered by the comparison but it reminded me of Elvis in Vegas when he used to do impressions of his rivals and then sing the song in his own voice. ‘And this is the real thing,’ he would say. He was right if arrogant. Like Elvis, Toynbee understands that the grinning upstarts who think they can brush aside others and avoid scrutiny and accountability will always justify contempt.
This Tuesday, she described the Government as ‘unwise’ which she soon demonstrated was sarcastic understatement. If that sounds oxymoronic read the article. Admittedly it has been a week when her opponents have stood like imbeciles next to the shooting targets but nothing defines present day economic absurdity better than her sentence, ‘iron laws set by bankers whose grotesque pay flows from bailouts by states they impoverished’. While the rest of us were still gobsmacked by cabinet ministers, William Hague, Phillip Hammond and Eric Pickles, arguing that economic growth would only be achieved if everybody worked harder she quickly held them all to account. She soon found opinion within the Chambers of Commerce and the CBI to remind the three not so wise men that economic growth requires a strategy from government. Swatting three ministers would be enough for anyone and any article, but Toynbee also battered Cameron, Osborne, Clegg, Gove and Duncan Smith. This is impressive even though she is correct, ‘the bungling and dogmatism are unrivalled in post war Britain.’ 1500 words and seven victims later she sneers at the end of the column. ‘You Gov yesterday reported Ed Milliband polling higher than David Cameron who with every passing day looks increasingly like the prime minister of a one term government.’ The reader can almost hear Cameron splutter his breakfast over the kitchen table. We cheer, hope and wait. Loathing and contempt have to be managed but when Duncan Smith talks about disabled people ‘festering’ he actually means eating and surviving. He deserves every blow that two fisted Polly lands. So does Michael Gove whose empty head supposedly yearns for a working class for whom ‘deprivation need not be destiny.’ Presumably the deprivation is fine; it is just the destiny that is embarrassing. Gove does not last long and is soon felled by blows from Toynbee to the head and the body. Clegg is the easiest target; he is knocked out with a direct upper cut.
Not everybody approves of the detours that this blog takes into politics. But rock and roll and Elvis grabbed me at an early age and insisted that I was entitled to heroes and fighters, especially those like Elvis who know a life that values consistency over growth is mistaken. The two fists make a difference.
If you want to read about Elvis, rock and roll and much more click here.