JAMs today, Mexit tomorrow

For reasons that are not wholly clear, some Tory MPs have lately added their somewhat muted whispers to the rather more raucous calls from Labour ranks for an end to austerity.

These muted calls may be attributable for some to a Damascene conversion from support for belt-tightening to an endorsement of an approach that will yield land flowing with milk and honey.

Some of the muted calls may be triggered rather more by a prudent perception that the public mood has changed in favour of an approach based on the maxim of “enjoy yourself, it’s later than you think”

In recent years, political leaders across the spectrum in the UK have argued the case for improving the rewards earned by hard working people. Following her promotion to the coveted role of Prime Minister, Mrs May identified an additional economic category deemed to be worthy of support. This group was labelled as the JAMs, an unfortunate acronym for those deemed to be  Just About Managing.

As might be expected these statements of intent secured widespread support among the voters and understandably so since most of us regard ourselves as belonging clearly to both the categories delineated above. The difficulties arise as soon as we attempt to decide how to put some flesh onto the bones of the slogans.

  • Who  are the Hard Workers?  
  • Who  are the JAMs?

 Therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the Garden of Eden to till the ground from whence he was takenGenesis 3, 23.

Genesis 3 described the very first cushy numbers arranged by the Lord God for Adam and Eve. They were not required to work, and the only limitation placed upon them in terms of consumption was to give a miss to the fruit of the tree of knowledge. Sadly, Eve was unable to resist the wiles of the serpent and she, and, a little later, Adam, sampled the forbidden fruit.

The Lord God took a very dim view of their offence, and immediately put into effect the relevant disciplinary procedures. By the end of Genesis 3, their cushy number in the Garden of Eden had been brought to an abrupt end, and our illustrious ancestors became reluctant founder members of the working class.

So who – in these confusing times – are the hard working?

We have only to pose the question to in order to grasp the formidable difficulties that we face in coming up with definitions. 

Let me make a tentative start with a couple of possibly controversial assertions.

Throughout my working life, which stretched from 1962 to 2014,  I was fully persuaded that the demands made upon me by my jobs down the years were such as to make the job of Alexei Stakhanov in the Siberian coal mines seem languid by comparison. Equally,  I was convinced that the jobs of those around me could be compared with those of  the Lilies of the Field in that “they toiled not neither did they spin as Jesus almost put it in his sermon on the Mount.

Those around me would doubtless have disagreed. 

How therefore are we to decide and on what basis who are the hard working and who, by contrast,  are the Lilies of the Field, the semi detached members of the working class,  the ones with the enviable capacity to simulate but not to carry out high intensity toil? I will return later to this tricky question.

Who are the JAMs?

To take just 3 examples which might be thought to verge on the extreme.

A year or so ago Tribune magazine published a piece by me in which I argued the case for the state to bring pressure to bear on Sir Phillip Green, Sir Martin Sorrell and Mr Bob Dudley in order to discourage their cupidity. 

It never occurred to me that Sir Phillip Green (the 2016 version of the portly pilferer Robert Maxwell), Sir Martin Sorrell (who has to scrape by on a measly £50 million per annum), and Bob Dudley (the CEO of BP – said to be sinking below the poverty line on no more than £14 million a year) might see themselves as JAMs and that all three would argue, indeed did argue, that they were just about managing.

If this acquisitive trio see themselves as JAMs – where does that leave you and me?

You see the problem?

The PMQ factor

It was unfortunate that much of the raucous public political activity surrounding the Hard Working and The JAMs took place during Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQ), an arena more notable for heat than light. It was doubly unfortunate that Mrs May proved adept at combining a combination of meaningless slogans with the interminable recitation of the gargantuan contributions, usually quoted in billions or, on a good day, trillions, to this or that socially popular cause. Mr Corbyn, faced with this formidable combination, wilted as he struggled to query the tsunami of figures.

For my part I rather suspect that the Prime Minister might be said to have added an extra term to the catalogue of lies, damned lies and statistics – namely the Maybe – a term to describe the implausibility of the figures shrilly quoted by Mrs May and which may and then again which may not be accurate, quite possibly a tale told by an idiot full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

What can be asserted with confidence is that the theatrical arena that is PMQs did little to clarify who were/are the hard workers and who were/are the JAMs.

Back to the hard working JAMs. In my book A Cushy Number, I define a cushy number as a well rewarded sinecure. The word sinecure is defined as an office of profit with no duties. Cushy number seekers are looking for a lot more than an office of profit, although they are quite happy with the absence of duties. They demand a job which combines the minimum of effort with the maximum of reward. It must be stressed that cushy number seekers are a determined, clear-thinking group and they insist on having both criteria satisfied. They don’t want a demanding well rewarded job although they accept that this would be a step in the right direction. Equally they don’t just want a sinecure. They demand a well rewarded sinecure.

Got that?

A cushy number has been the dream of those who combine indolence and cupidity from the earliest days of social organisation. In our times and with the breakdown of social and class barriers, the desire is stronger and more widespread than ever before.  Most of us – let’s admit it – yearn for a job which combines the minimum of effort for the maximum of reward, and this aspiration is likely to intensify in the years to come. We want a cushy number, we fume whenever we hear that one of our friends has got what we believe to be one, but that’s about as far as the analysis goes.  Given this widespread demand for a cushy number, it is astonishing how little work or even thought has gone into this crucial issue. We need to think through what we mean in order to get what we want.  How on earth can we get a cushy number if we don’t know what we are looking for?  How exactly will we know one when we see one? What are the defining features of the cushy number, the features that separate it from your job and from all the jobs I ever had?

Pay rise for hard-working Britons is priority, says May
The Times. Aug 2, 2016

In the run up to the general election in May 2015, politicians from all parties proclaimed their love of and support for the hard working people in British society. This view is commendable as far as it goes – which is not very far at all.

To repeat: who are the hard workers, what jobs do they do and why might they deserve the favoured support of HMG in the austere times which are said to lie ahead? A little probing is called for.

As noted earlier I have given careful thought to the matter and a few years ago I published on the internet a book in which I explored the demands made on and rewards collected by a selection of professional jobs. Sales of the book soared quickly into double figures but then levelled off as the supply of relatives and friends ran out.

Those parts of the book which dealt with job demands are of relevance in the search for hard working people and I propose to re-examine them in the context of the present debate.

A few examples: Politicians, Doctors and the Police

No one would dispute that many – maybe most – of the senior executives that work in the square mile that constitutes the city of London work very hard, by just about any measure. So far so good. But does this group, dedicated as it is to working tirelessly to stealing from the rest of us, really merit the support of HMG, especially given the perceived reluctance of the group to pay taxes?

Politicians will assure us that whilst there are and will continue to be profound differences of opinion as the causes of and cures for the myriad of social and economic problems that plague our society, the factor which unites the profession of politicians is the hard work performed by politicians across the political spectrum.

And yet I recall a sting carried out not long ago which lured two ex-foreign secretaries, Jack Straw and Malcom Rifkind, to say on (hidden) cameras that, freed from the burdens of office, they had ample spare time at their disposal. For fees thought by some to verge on the exorbitant they would be happy to place their undoubted skills and experience at the service of whoever.

It was difficult to reconcile the languid life as outlined by two former leading politicians with the typical assertions of a hectic, high pressure working life.

What about our doctors, grafting away in the GP section of the beleaguered NHS? Time was when this group really was under pressure and not especially well paid, but things changed when a senior Labour politician, possibly doubling up as Santa Claus, awarded the GPs a most welcome combination of a huge pay rise and the removal of the requirement to provide a service outside normal office hours on Monday to Friday.

Since winning the professional equivalent of the National Lottery – indeed despite winning the professional equivalent of the National Lottery – the GPs have continued to plead that the appalling combination of poverty and overwork is persuading them to abandon the profession. It would be impolite to point out that this exodus arises at least in point because they can afford to do so.

What about our police? This is the group that is happiest trying to decide who committed criminal acts of a sexual nature years ago – even decades ago. In some cases the alleged offenders were in no position to defend themselves, having been called to the courtroom in the sky.

All good stuff but not quite as demanding as chasing current criminals.

I could on – and elsewhere I have gone on –  but you get the picture.

You and I and the editor of the Times Lit Supp, and the Nancy poets, and the Archbishop of Canterbury and Comrade X, author of Marxism for Infants- all of us really owe the comparative decency of our lives to poor drudges underground, blackened to the eyes, with their throats full of coal dust, driving their shovels forward with arms and belly muscles of steel
The Road to Wigan Pier by George Orwell

I have brought in the Orwell quote to illustrate the extent to which times have changed since The Road to Wigan Pier was published back in 1936. In those days, those in the economic comfort zones were relaxed that coal miners endured appalling working conditions on rock bottom wages in order to secure “the comparative decency of our lives.”

Subsequently, the mining communities experienced a few decades of  relative prosperity – a prosperity which was to end in the harsh confrontation of the miners’ strike and the closure of almost all the deep mines in the UK.

The chanting of Tory slogans about rewarding the hard working would not trigger favourable responses amongst the JAMs abandoned in what remains of the mining communities.

Stop press: The JAMs in Number 10

Any article which looks at the contribution of Mrs May to the national debate about the hard working JAMs must acknowledge that Mrs May herself is exceptionally hard working and, slightly more controversially, is barely managing. Indeed this latter quality has got to the point that the issue is not if but when she will receive her marching orders. I gather that William Hill do not rate her chances of still residing in No 10 by the end of the conference season very highly.

 “We’re going to leave you alone for half an hour. There’s your revolver. You know what to do ……………luckily they had left a decanter of whisky in there with me”
Captain Grimes describing his ordeal after getting into the soup in Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall.

Mexit – the exit of Mrs May from Number 10 – can be described in terms of a soft Mexit or a hard Mexit.

Under the terms of a soft Mexit, Mrs May will be left in solitary confinement with a loaded revolver and a bottle of whisky

Under the terms of a hard Mexit, Mrs May will be left in solitary confinement with just a loaded revolver.

Image courtesy of @UKDemockery on Twitter

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