Elections are dangerous things because politicians are let out in front of cameras at times when children might be watching, allowing young minds to be corrupted by such phrases as ‘hard-working families’.
If politicians were to be believed, the entire electorate of Eastleigh, who recently went to the polls in a byelection, consisted of these implausible creatures. According to Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister, there were ‘millions’ of them, not necessarily all in the constituency, obviously, but all wanting him to decrease their tax bills.
I don’t really blame Bill Clinton. When he accepted the Democratic Party’s nomination in 1992, he said: ‘In the name of all the people who do the work, pay the taxes, raise the kids and play by the rules, in the name of the hard-working Americans who make up our forgotten middle class, I accept your nomination for President of the United States.’
Working hard and playing by the rules became one of those prefabricated sections of the Standard American Political Speech. It was a solid piece of work, and you couldn’t object to it: it identified its target accurately and felt his and her pain.
Things started to go wrong when Tony Blair imported it to these shores. He dropped the ‘forgotten middle class’ – that means something quite different over here: people who moved to Guildford and were never heard of again. But the working hard and the playing by the rules: that couplet came over on a temporary idiom visa, even though nobody in this country ever says ‘I play by the rules’ to mean ‘I am a law-abiding citizen’. Then something terrible happened in the New Labour Language Lab. The appalling phrase ‘hard-working families’ was spawned in the gene-mixing soup of sloganizing.