The terms we use to describe other people matter, deeply. Whether I refer to my fellow countrymen and women as “Brits”, “Scots”, “Jocks” or “a bunch of haggis-munching, salad-dodging ginger bastards” reveals a lot about how I view myself, how I view others, and, in time, will come to affect how others view themselves.
So, whence the “Jams“, the human beings formerly pigeon-holed as “hard-working families” or “the squeezed middle” or, for the retro amongst us, “the working class”, but now defined by the fact they are “just about managing”? A week ago the term hadn’t been heard beyond a Tory policy meeting. Today it’s being spurted out everywhere with the glee of a naturalist who’s just discovered a new species. There are all sorts of things wrong with this.
Firstly, when did we decide to let the Tories dictate what counts as “managing”? You don’t get to systematically undermine every financial and societal safety net the country has, and then judge people to be “managing” on it. The sums which qualify you for membership of this demographic (£12,000 at the bottom end, according to the think tank who dreamt it up) would barely pay a term’s boarding school fees for a Cabinet Member’s son. These are not the people who should be defining the boundary of survival income. They are not the people to be patting you on the back for your parsimony, for being brave little soldiers who are “getting by” in “tough times”.
Secondly, what’s with the cutesy “just about”? The phrase reeks of olde worlde English self-denial and deference. It’s “make do and mend”. It’s “mustn’t grumble”. It begs to be delivered with a tug of the forelock.
“And how are we today?”
“Not too bad, m’lady. The hospital cancelled my op, and I’m living on cans of cold beans, but, you know, I’m JUST ABOUT MANAGING, thank you kindly for asking. Would m’lady like drinks served on the terrace or in the drawing room?”
Even the acronym is handily folksy. What an image it conjures! Perhaps mother is making jam herself, foraging for berries on the village green, instead of buying a jar from the shop, all to save a few pennies for her darling children to spend on butterscotch from the grocer. We know what that’s like, little people, say Town Mayor May and Alderman Hammond. We know you’re “just about managing”, but it’ll all be worth it. A penny here and a penny there. It’s how we beat Hitler, you know.
Thirdly, why are the media repeating it parrot-fashion, as if Jams were an actual thing that existed, rather than something constructed by policy wonks to box off a swathe of society in one pithy, patronising swoop? If anyone were in any doubt of the power of a press release, see these almost identical articles from the BBC, i and the Guardian, each explaining what Jams are, each telling us the phrases it will now replace (as I’ve done myself above for effect), each validating it as a way of assessing people. These articles are all cut-and-paste jobs from official press releases, allowing government-think to pass seamlessly into the public realm. The media should be interrogating government rhetoric, not championing it.
And finally, but most importantly, who does the phrase “Jams” serve? Surely not the people it describes. “Are you a Jam?” they asked on the Jeremy Vine show earlier this week, and sure enough people phoned in, some even boasting of how thrifty they are. Maybe, to start with, there’s a buzz from self-identifying as a Jam. I’m just about managing. You’re just about managing. We’re all in the same boat. But how long before the drip, drip of being told you’re “just about” managing, becomes you’re “managing OK”, becomes you’re “fine”? How soon before you believe that “just about managing” is the norm, because there’s always some poor sod worse off than you, isn’t there? I’m “just about managing” and the Tories have got my back, it’ll be OK. I’m pretty sure those corporation tax cuts will help me in the long run. This phrase, “just about managing”, pumped into circulation by a government desperate for you to believe they care, is actually just another way of lowering expectations, of keeping the mob down.
There’s a reason politicians never refer to their own kind with such sweeping terms, and why they’re so spooked when others do (think how desperate they all are to shake off the suggestion they are part of the “elite”). Categorisation is a form of management, and they know it. No-one should feel the tender hand of government at their shoulder because they’ve invented a nifty phrase. Don’t fall for it.