Could anything be more brazen and mendacious than the Tory party, in their annual conference, parroting Sam Cooke's Civil Rights anthem 'A Change Is Gonna Come'? Theresa May employed the phrase six times in her speech today, making it more than a mere coincidence. Is a change going to come? Well, in a year that has seen political lies, manipulation and distortion reach a truly gut-quaking nadir, this has to count as one of the biggest daddies of all.
When Sam Cooke recorded 'A Change Is Gonnna Come' in 1964, it was as a direct result of personal injustices he had undergone, being turned away from a hotel with his wife because of the colour of his skin. He saw the racial injustice all around him, and was inspired by Bob Dylan's Blowing In The Wind to write a protest song of his own. Cooke's song is personal from the get-go: "I" is the very first word you hear. This "I" relates specific experiences: an unhallowed birth, being chased away from movies and downtown, and dealings with a "brother" (read: the man) who knocks him down to his knees over and over again. Although Cooke's song has had a sort of popular universality bestowed upon it since, its agenda is actually precise, and its voice goes against the current. Cooke makes very clear that his experience is that of a marginalised person - destitute at the beginning, then running, displaced, and brought down to the ground in the final verse. His story takes place not in parallel with a mainstream, dominant culture, but in opposition to it, in a seemingly perpetual struggle with it.
Does the Tory party speak for the rejected, the turned away, the displaced? It's not just that the Tory party doesn't do that, but the extent to which they do the exact opposite could take your breath away when juxtaposed with this song. If you listened to the lyric "just like the river, I've been running ever since" and were to seek a political parallel, I wonder if you might not alight on the refugee crisis, rather than the sort of duff meritocracy that Theresa May purports to be selling to the country? Britain's record for welcoming refugees is a disgrace, and Theresa May has even mooted deporting European nationals from Britain. When Cooke sings "Somebody keeps telling me, don't hang around", he is alluding precisely to this experience, of being impoverished, unwanted, and racially discriminated against. Britain isn't the object of the world's injustices, but a proponent of it. Theresa May's ilk aren't Sam Cooke, they're the people who move him along.
Theresa May speaks of wanting to build a meritocracy, but the grammar schools she plans are an objective example, verified by studies, of the sort of social injustice Sam Cooke was calling out, and of the racial discrimination, even, against which he railed. It isn't fucking hard to see that the 11-plus, a test which clearly favours the privileged, isn't going to be doing Britain's ethnic minorities a whopping solid. And sure enough, a study in Buckinghamshire in June of this year found that British Pakistani and Black Caribbean children were half as likely to pass the 11-plus as their white counterparts. Oh go on then Sam, let's hear it: "Then I go to my brother, and I say brother, can you help me please. And he winds up knocking me back down on my knees." Thank you Sam, I think that'll do.
How, how can this government have the gall not only to bring its needless, stupid, unproven measures in so brazenly, but to accompany it with the patronising and unearned language of struggle? How can they speak in racist terms of immigrants while cloaking themselves in the words of a black leader? The use of Cooke's words isn't just a detail, it's a measure of how confident the Tory party now is, that they could do so with such impunity. It's a flaunting of their apparently unassailable position. It's a slap in the face delivered with a smirk.