The American Dream and the Promise of Britain, Ed Miliband’s culture of entitlement.
An odd turn of phrase caught my attention in the Commons’ yesterday. Responding to the Prime Minister’s statement, Ed Miliband said:
Of course, as we look at the solutions we need, questions of hope and aspiration are relevant—the provision of opportunities to get on in life that do not involve illegality and wrongdoing. When we talk about responsibility, we must not forget ours, not to the tiny minority who did the violence, but to the vast majority of law-abiding young people. They are a generation—this is not about any one Government—worried about their prospects and we cannot afford to fail them. We cannot afford to have the next generation believe that they are going to do worse than the last. They should be able to do better. That is the promise of Britain that they have a right to expect.
House of Commons Hansard; 11 Aug 2011 at Column 1053
What struck me was the implicit contrast of the “Promise of Britain” with the American Dream. The “Promise of Britain” is concept Ed Miliband has been pushing for a while, although I can’t see it’s getting much traction. Aside from an article in LabourList in May, it’s had little coverage beyond reports of the speeches in which Miliband has used the phrase. LabourList’s Mark Ferguson argued that
As David Cameron relaunches the Big Society (for the 4th time) it will be interesting to see who can capture the public mood more effectively. As I argued on Friday, sunshine and optimism win elections. Miliband has been ramping up the optimism in recent weeks. Will the PM follow suit?
Miliband and ‘the promise of Britain’
In terms of awareness, there’s a stark contrast between “The Big Society” and the Promise of Britain. It may often be used jokingly, but the Big Society has embedded itself in the national consciousness, helped in no small part by attempts to downplay it or appropriate it. The same cannot be said of the Promise of Britain, which seems to be suffering the same fate as its predecessor “A Future Fair for All”.
This isn’t to say that Miliband has kept trying it. In his response to the Chancellor’s budget statement in March, he said:
We needed a Budget that changed the direction of economic policy. We needed a Budget that protected the promise of Britain that the next generation does better than the last. We needed a Budget that changed course on cutting too far and too fast. The Chancellor said at the weekend, with his customary modesty, that he had completed his rescue mission of the British economy. After this Budget, it is not the Chancellor who is rescuing the country; it is the country that needs rescuing from the Chancellor. When families look at this Budget-look at the squeeze on their living standards, look at the job losses in their communities-they will conclude: it’s hurting but it isn’t working.
House of Commons Hansard; 23 Mar 2011 at Column 970
That was its first outing in the Commons, but it had popped up in speeches before. In February, Miliband said:
We have always assumed that our kids, the next generation, would do better than us. Not just the well off, the vast majority can expect that their kids will do better than them. It is a promise that each generation will pass to the next: a life of greater opportunity, prosperity and wellbeing. In many ways that is the promise of Britain. We may not have given it a name in the way that Americans talk about the ‘American Dream’, but it is there nevertheless. But for the first time in generations, there is now a real fear that the British promise will be broken and the next generation will find it harder to get on than the last. Less than one in ten people believe that life will be easier for their children than it was for them, and seven out of ten think it will be harder. I don’t believe it has to be this way. But to say, if our national debate is about anything it should be about this.
In the closing section of his speech, he returned to the phrase, saying “Our national mission should be to deliver on the promise of Britain that the next generation does better than the last.”
There is, therein, the qualitative difference between the Promise of Britain and the American Dream. The American historian James Truslow Adams, credited with coining the term “American Dream”, said:
The American Dream is that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement. It is a difficult dream for the European upper classes to interpret adequately, and too many of us ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it. It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.
James Truslow Adams, The Epic of America
There’s no promise here. It’s an aspiration, and one which pivots about “…opportunity for each according to ability or achievement”. Contrast how Miliband expresses the Promise of Britain. Here he is in a speech on responsibility in 21st Century Britain:
When I think about the kind of country I want my sons to grow up in, it is a country where they—and millions of their generation—can do better than their parents. It’s what I call the ‘promise of Britain’ – that the next generation does better than the last.
Note the way in which he moves from a country where people can do better, to one in which they will, without even breaking his stride.
We’re in the middle of a debate about the causes of the riots, and one argument which has been advanced is the existence of an “entitlement culture”. The concept of a British Promise strikes me as more in tune with that concept than with refuting it.
David Wilson, professor of criminology at Birmingham City University, seemed to accept the idea that such a culture existed, when he told the BBC:
…it’s not just about the underclass – it’s about politicians, it’s about bankers, it’s about footballers. It’s not just about a particular class, it permeates all levels of society. When we see politicians claiming for flat-screen TVs and getting jailed for fiddling their expenses, it’s clear that young people of all classes aren’t being given appropriate leadership.
The competing arguments used to explain the riots: welfare dependence
If the politicians who purport to lead us are offering us visions of entitlement, it’s difficult to see how they can credibly offer leadership away from a “culture of entitlement”, much less claim one doesn’t exist. The American Dream is one of opportunity and of using that opportunity to better yourself. What Ed Miliband is selling is an entitlement, a British Promise. It is not a promise of opportunity, but of success, with no explanation for that success should follow.
If we look for the roots of an entitlement culture, we might start with politicians who try to sell us one.