This government may seem posh and metro but their slogans are increasingly brash and retro. The latest – “Build Back Better” – is the sort of thing you’d see on the rear door of a battered white van, followed by a fax number.
Look at last year’s pop hit, “Get Brexit Done”. Massive, massive banger. Smashed it. Algorithmed by Dominic Cummings and his TikTok army, it appealed both to the beery (Here We Go) and the weary (Make It Stop). But how odd it sounded, elbowing its way through the expensively tutored vocal cords of Alexander Boris de Pfuck-Jumbo Johnson. “We, er, have to, to, er, get Brexit DONE!” he mugged with both fists, having spent the weekend rehearsing in a windowless room with Dom and a low-voltage stun gun.
Now here’s Johnson on the telly, framed by a backdrop of hard hats and hi-vis, gargling this: “Build build build. Build back better, build back bolder …” On the page it looks like something a scaffolder might cheerily shout along to, rather than cartoonishly inflected by a plummy careerist whose persona is defined by a sort of decorative classicism. Johnson may look like the contents of a builder’s skip, but he sounds like a fluted pilaster.
As political slogans go, “Build Back Better” is right down there with “alarm clock Britain”, Nick Clegg’s fatuous crusade against the idle poor. See also “not flash – just Gordon”, New Labour’s apology with its dying breath that the heir to Blair was only as good as he appeared to be. Or Ed Miliband’s offering – the paralysed, bathetic “Labour’s plan for Britain’s future”. Less a slogan, more a reminder to do one.
How weird is it, then, that the centre-left thinktank Compass came up with “Build Back Better” in May? Or that Joe Biden’s latest campaign slogan unveiled earlier this month is also “Build Back Better”? Everyone’s banging the same drum – a fairer post-Covid-19 reconstruction – but Biden and Johnson clearly want us to see them as “builders”. No. You wouldn’t call either of them “handy”. Not in that sense, anyway. Let’s put it down to morphic resonance – the notion that some ideas, brilliant or brainless, are just in the air. It happened in 2016 when comedy don Simon Blackwell came up with the exquisitely hedged, cynically vacant slogan “Continuity with change” for a presidential campaign in Armando Iannucci’s political comedy Veep. Not long afterwards, Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull launched a campaign promising the equally preposterous “Continuity and change”.
Why are bad political slogans so good? Or rather, why are effective political slogans so bad? It’s the vacuity, stupid. Politicians all over the world like a catchy phrase, something easy to rehearse and simple to remember when they address a person – woman or man – via a camera for TV. And let’s face it, liberal boomerphobes, Team Trump played a blinder with “Make America Great Again”. Of course, in the spirit of an enterprise built entirely on borrowed credit, Trump stole the slogan from Ronald Reagan, as Bill Clinton had. It worked in the 80s, it worked in the 90s, and it did the job in 2016.
But recently the magic seems to have evaporated. Trump’s latest pitch is “transition to greatness”. Having assured America he would made it Great Again, Trump’s pledge last year was to “Keep America Great”. People are quite reasonably asking why they must now transition to greatness. Again.
Incredibly – yet also in the age of Wikipedia, not – “slogan” is a smoothened version of the ancient Gaelic sluagh-ghairm. Literally, the cry of a tribal army. Now imagine ninth-century Scottish clans clashing in deadly battle, yelling out their focus-grouped political slogans. “Forward, not back!” (Labour, 2005). “Take back control!” (Vote Leave, 2016). “Yes, we can!” (Democrats, 2008, although “Sí se puede” had pinged around activist groups for years. Scottish tribal army the SNP also used “Yes, we can” in 1997. Maybe even earlier. (.)
Arguably the worst political sloganeering in recent memory was in the service of hapless Beano schoolboy David Cameron. “Big society, not big government”. That was one of his. “Sorry about Brexit, however I now have a writing caravan”, that was another. But his greatest slogan legacy was accidental. In 2015 he said that Britain faced a simple choice – “stability and strong government with me, or chaos with Ed Miliband”. That last bit’s still orbiting social media, gleefully owned by Miliband himself and ironically highlighted every time there’s a Conservative balls-up, three times a day. Truly a slogan for the many, not the few.