Aspiration is the engine of progress. Countries rise when they allow their people to rise. In this world where brains matter more, where technologies shape our lives, where no-one is owed a living: the most powerful natural resource we have is our people. -David Cameron
In this post I take a critical eye to the use of ‘aspiration’ in David Cameron’s speech yesterday. What does he mean when he talks about aspiration? And what is left out?
David Cameron’s speech to the Conservative Party conference yesterday focused strongly on the topic of aspiration, positioned as the solution to economic crisis and the tool to ‘meet the challenges our country faces’.
Language is not a transparent thing. The words that we use and how we define particular terms construct certain versions of the world; what gets to count as ‘true’ in any given moment – what Foucault referred to as ‘truth effects’.
Cameron’s speech is a fascinating text to examine the construction of the notion of ‘aspiration’. Aspiration appears in the speech as a resource; something that can (and should) be worked on by every individual, ‘backed’ by a ‘pushy government’ with strict discipline and high expectations. It is something that resides in every individual, waiting to be ‘unlocked’ by the right government policies. Moreover, it is constructed as something that has been infected with a ‘toxic culture of low expectations’, therefore preventing progress.
While Cameron specifically defends against the notion that aspiration is purely about ‘growth and GDP’, the structure of the speech positions the purpose of aspiration as collectively ‘winning’ a global economic race against emerging markets, defeating the deficit to claim Britain’s place as ‘the greatest country on earth’. The speech is infused with a melancholy for empire that I felt was characteristic of much of the discourse surrounding the Olympic games, in particular the opening ceremony, which deserves some attention (perhaps another blog post elsewhere).
But what is this ‘aspiration’? And what does it mean to place it at the centre of a speech like this?
The speech constructs aspiration as the desire for commodities and participation in the paid workforce in order to buy products:
“The young people who dream of their first pay-cheque, their first car, their first home – and are ready and willing to work hard to get those things.”
“We are the party of the want to be better-off, those who strive to make a better life for themselves and their families.”
“There are young people who work hard year after year but are still living at home. They sit in their childhood bedroom, looking out of the window dreaming of a place of their own. I want us to say to them – you are our people, we are on your side, we will help you reach your dreams.”
This defines aspirations in rather narrow, economic terms, which rhetorically positions dreams outside of this narrow definition not as aspirations but rather ‘fantasies’. Similarly, ‘work’ is constructed as paid work rather than, for example, the work of caring for children or family members (Fairclough, 2010, p.186 has explored this construction of ‘work’ in New Labour political rhetoric about ‘welfare reform’). ‘Real life’, on the terms of the speech, is about getting a paid job (any job) and aspiring to buy commodities that are symbolically associated with financial success, such as a car or house. Thus selling council houses becomes reformulated not as removing social housing at a time of financial crisis, but about the fulfilment of aspiration.
The speech reminds me of a job I had when I had just left sixth form college. I worked in a telesales office, where we each had our own individual booths from which we made our calls. To help motivate us through the day, our manager encouraged us to cut out pictures of the things that we wanted to buy with our pay; cars, furniture, houses. Individuals, working in individual booths, aspiring to buy. Making money for the company.
There seems to be no space in this construction of aspiration for other kinds of dreams. Cameron pours scorn on the ‘guy who’s been out of work for years, playing computer games all day, living out a fantasy because he hates real life’. It is unlikely that Cameron will ever have to face the ‘real life’ of unemployment, work at the minimum wage, and precarious work on short term contracts.
Cameron’s speech echoes New Labour rhetoric which adapted the language of welfare with the language of business and enterprise, in which ‘helping’ means ‘getting people off welfare and into work’ (Fairclough, 2010, p.187). The speech positions poverty as the result of ‘lack of ambition’, obscuring the structural causes of poverty and presenting its solution firmly at the feet of the individual. This rhetorical move thus blames people for their poverty, rehearsing well-worn conservative discourses about the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor (Fairclough, 2010, p.190).
This distinction can be seen in the categories that Cameron uses to describe people. The speech rehearses the familiar category of ‘hard working people’, a staple in political speeches and manifestos that implies a group of people outside this category: those who do not work hard. Cameron argues that everyone has the potential to develop aspirations for paid work, buying a house or a car. Failure to work on these aspirations, on the terms of the speech, positions the individual as someone with ‘low expectations’.
Ideologically, this construction of aspiration places rhetorical limits around the kinds of dreams that are considered acceptable. While in a sense we can of course dream beyond these limits, this speech is linked to wider discourses of aspiration, educational and welfare policies that have an impact on how people are able to live in the world and think about their futures.
In our project we are adopting a much broader notion of aspiration: we are interested in the dreams that young people have, which may include, but are certainly not restricted to paid employment. I will be interested to see whether we find many more varied aspirations than the desire for a pay-cheque, a car, or a house.
Returning to my thoughts about my telesales cubicle, I wonder what pictures I would pin to my board today. One of the reasons I carry out research is the belief that understanding society can help us change it for the better. As such, my own aspirations are rooted firmly in a dream for a society in which economic growth isn’t valued over human need. Why is it so difficult for us to imagine what that looks like?
Fairclough, N. (2010) Critical discourse analysis : the critical study of language. Harlow: Pearson.
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