Can somebody explain the global race?

“The global race” is one of David Cameron’s favourite phrases. He uses it regularly to talk about how Britain needs to be more competitive, and to justify austerity and its related policies. If we don’t cut the deficit, for example, we’ll fall behind in the global race.

Last week in his speech, Ed Miliband repeatedly referred to this race too. He disagrees with Cameron about what the race is, but he’s in no doubt that there is a race. I’m sure Cameron will respond in his own conference speech, but I’d like to get a few things sorted, as I’m a little confused.

First, what kind of race are we talking about? This seems like fairly critical information, but I’m not sure what it is that they have in mind. A space race, an arms race? Egg and spoons? Or in Mr Miliband’s case, perhaps a sack race?

According to Cameron, “you know what the global race means because you’re living it,” but that sounds like dodging the question.

Second, who are we racing? Presumably, if we’re all being urged to join in, then it must be a national race and we are competing as a country. But are we running against other countries? Which ones? If we’re competing against Tuvalu or Lesotho, that doesn’t seem very fair. But then it’s not very fair if we’re up against China either. They’re bigger than we are and I can’t see it ending well. Either way, the race is well underway. Cameron says “the world is breathing down our neck”, which sounds a bit like Britain has been on a breakaway and is being drawn back into the peloton.

Some suggest we’re in a race against global warming, but that’s not a race we want to win, apparently – Chancellor Osborne says “I don’t want us to be the only people out there in front of the rest of the world,” when it comes to climate change. Then again, Number10 has a habit of adding the hashtag #globalrace to tweets about the oil industry, so perhaps we’re in a race towards global warming rather than away from it. Cameron says that without fracking, “we could lose ground in the tough global race”, which would support that interpretation. Miliband however, promises to “take all of the carbon out of our energy by 2030” and suggests  that “that is how we win the race.” I’m clearly not the only one who isn’t sure what the race is all about.

Which brings me to my third question, which is looking increasingly important – where is this race to, exactly? This seems pretty vital, because a race is impossible without a finishing line. You can’t even tell who’s winning – you might be ahead of everybody else, but heading in the wrong direction. If we’re running without a destination in mind, it’s not a race. We might as well be lemmings, and we know what happens to them.

Miliband has given us some information here. He insists it’s a “race to the top, not to the bottom”, and that’s really important to him. “We’ve never believed in a race to the bottom,” he adds in case there was any confusion. “We’ve always believed in a race to the top.” But the top of what?

David Cameron on the other hand says that “Britain is in a global race to succeed”, but I can’t find Succeed on the map.

Finally, who signed us up for this race? I’m more of a team sports person myself, so I’m pleased that we’re all in this together, but I’d still rather not be entered into competitions without asking first. Especially if it’s a race with high stakes, and it turns out this one’s to the death. “In this global race” says David Cameron, “you are quick or you’re dead”.


  1. Beautiful piece of political satire, although I think that much of political rhetorics is involuntarily self-satirical anyway. You neatly expose the emptiness of these typical political buzzwords. Never ending races to non existing (and totally undefined) tops and destinations. Feels a bit like a Nordic myth – the race to Valhalla. What came to my mind was good old Sisiphos (he also “raced” to the top, over and again and back). Rolling up stones. Stone race. In German we also speak of a proverbial race, the “Hamsterrad”, hamster wheel – the English equivalent is the RAT RACE. This is, I suppose, the race Mr. Cameron is speaking of. The rat race, that went global. Rats in a labyrinth, banging their heads against the walls to find a morsel of food at the stressed out end. With a racing heart… Somehow I also thought of that great British philosopher who had a novel character named Arthur wonder why all the people from A always want to go to B, and vice versa, and what the heck they are doing there. A little later the planet was demolished. But that is a different story… :-).

  2. Wonderful and savage exposée of the vacuous verbiage of our leaders! But do not forget that the slogan of the political leader is “I follow the crowd because I am their leader!” So we have to recognise that politicians court popularity by telling the people what the people want to hear and most of us want to hear that we will be winners and benefit materially and in the short-term from public policy. Jeremy’s efforts to influence the great internet-accessing public are remarkable for their clarity and consistency

  3. Just read it Jeremy, repeatedly taking the gems for my husband to laugh at! Many of my thoughts from yesterday are in it. It’s good to feel united. Thanks. (Keep on running!)

    1. Just wondered – isn’t the old story of the single stick that breaks easily while a bundle of sticks is stable and strong a rather conservative one? So that one is a metaphor of cooperation, and not one of “competition”. It says we are better of when we work together and help each other (i.e. strong cooperation in a European – or even a global – context?). When exactly did it happen that “conservative” adopted the meaning of “constant acceleration”? Wikipedia musings about conservatism “Some conservatives seek to preserve things as they are, emphasizing stability and continuity, while others, called reactionaries, oppose modernism and seek a return to “the way things were”. Both somehow don’t really strike me as corresponding well to the image of “racing to the top” (and back, I suppose).

  4. You make a very good point. It seems like politicians use a lot of empty phrases that don’t really mean anything and just act as earnest-sounding fillers in their speeches. Perhaps that’s not fair, I don’t know. But I’d certainly like them to explain themselves honestly once in a while.

    1. I don’t think most politicians even believe their own rhetoric, but you have to say something, and you have to try and say something that makes the other guys look bad. If one party is ‘on the side of hard-working people’, then by implication your opponents must be on the side of slackers and wasters. It doesn’t matter whether it’s true or if you believe what you’re saying, as long as you are continually drip-feeding these perceptions into the media and the population at large.

      It would be laughable if it didn’t work. Unfortunately it does. Nobody admits that they believe politicians, in the same way that everybody says they don’t pay any attention to adverts. But the advertising industry knows that adverts work, and the politicians know that their little catchphrases can and do shape our understanding of ourselves and what our priorities should be.

      1. Advertisement… good point, Jeremy. I like to think I am largely immune, but then I look around and wonder: where do all these things that just clutter my space actually come from? My clutter might be different from that of other people, that extra high-end voiceover microphone where my old one (that nobody wants anymore) just might have been sufficient. Or the armada of unread 2nd hand books. Or that professional camera lens far beyond my actual daily needs. The race is a race against ourselves, and I often think that the true goal (at least the true effect) of advertisement actually is not to desire a particular product, but to keep the desire to have, to possess alive in general — the uneasy feeling that something is lacking. Advertisement (and, in a sense, ideologies and partisan marketing, too) draw pictures of how things should be as opposed to how things are. So you want to change them. By filling the hole in your soul with things, “killing time” watching TV or playing mindless computer games or by voting for this or that. It never works, of course, because the approach is wrong in the first place. You cannot mend a broken spirit or fill and empty life by means of consumption or making little x-es on paper. That is all just distraction.

        1. Guilty as charged, especially on the books. I also have a high end microphone or two lying around, although I can blame them on my radio journalist wife. Of course, there were good reasons in mind when we got all those things, usually good intentions about what we were going to do with them or learn from them. But they’re still there and barely used…

          And that begs the question, what was it that convinced me that I needed better gear to do the job, that led me to conclude that what I had was inadequate? How much of that was rational, and how much of it was me making up reasons to do what I already wanted to do anyway, which was buy the new toy?

          We’re all hypocrites in that regard. The best we can do is live an ‘examined life’ as the monks used to say.

          1. Hypocrites – or simply weak and not up to the task. As members of a species calling itself “Homo Sapiens Sapiens” we should be able to live an examined life. Obviously most of us are not, and hence I often say we should take a hard and honest look at our nature and re-name ourselves as “Homo Sapiens Potentialis”.

  5. The race as uttered by politicians I’ve always interpreted as the greedy, selfish policies to become, unfairly, even richer than we are by using up even more rapidly the biosphere/environment.

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