‘Our best days lie ahead’: anatomy of a slogan

Dancing Queen: “I’ve been up all night supergluing the backdrop,” joked May. © Getty

Is the best yet to come? After dancing on stage to ABBA, yesterday Theresa May promised Britain: “our best days lie ahead of us.” The words have been spoken by politicians many times before.

For Prime Minister Theresa May, almost anything would have been better than her speech at the Conservative Party conference in 2017. A year ago, she coughed her way through a prankster invading the stage as her slogan fell from the wall behind her.

This year’s speech, made in Birmingham yesterday, could not have been more different. May danced on stage to ABBA, told a moving personal story, and even made a joke about the BBC’s Bodyguard.

The speech was well received — at least by those in the room with her. Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt called it “remarkable”, while another colleague said she had “found her mojo”.

“I passionately believe that our best days lie ahead of us and that our future is full of promise,” May told the crowd. She promised a festival celebrating the achievements of Britain after Brexit. She announced new plans to tackle cancer and help build more houses. She finished by declaring that “austerity is over”.

May is far from the first politician to insist that good times are ahead. Her predecessor David Cameron used the exact same phrase when he became leader of the Tory party in 2005, and again when he became prime minister in 2010. Former Labour leader Ed Miliband said it in 2013. Hillary Clinton said it in 2016 after losing to Donald Trump; two months later, Barack Obama said it in his farewell speech. But is it true?

If you take a long view of history, it is clear that life has been getting better for most people for centuries. As the philosopher Steven Pinker has pointed out, life expectancy has soared and deaths in wars are getting rarer. Only this week, the World Data Lab announced that more than half of the global population is now middle class or rich for the first time in history. These trends are likely to continue.

And yet in a YouGov poll yesterday, 43% of respondents said that Britain’s best days were behind it; only 24% said they were ahead. (A mere 4% said we are living through them right now.)

What do you think?

May day

Theresa May is deluded, say some. The UK was once the most powerful nation in the world; now, its power is dwindling. Brexit will only make things worse, as the UK cuts itself off from its allies and retreats into nostalgia and irrelevance. Perhaps that is okay — not everyone can be on top all the time. Britain would be happier if it accepted that its glory days are over.

How pessimistic, say others. Brexit does not have to be that way. Britain is still a wealthy, influential country with a culture that is admired around the world. Meanwhile, technology and medicine are constantly improving people’s lives. Cancer survival rates are going up; clean energy is getting cheaper. The future is bright.

You Decide

  1. Are Britain’s best days ahead or behind it?
  2. Are you optimistic about the future?

Activities

  1. As a class, draw a timeline of the last 200 years of British history on the board. Take it in turns to suggest significant events since 1818. Then discuss: which era would you most like to live in?
  2. Write your own speech about the future of Britain after Brexit. Think about how the country will change, the challenges it faces, and your own personal opinion about the years ahead.

Some People Say...

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Martin Luther King Jr

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It was not just dancing; Theresa May announced several new policies in her speech. There was a strategy to improve cancer survival rates by building “rapid diagnostic centres” and reducing the age for bowel cancer screenings. There was a new “auto-compensation” system for late trains. She said she would remove the cap on how much councils can spend on building new houses. She also said there would be no second referendum on Brexit, and that “austerity is over”.
What do we not know?
What the promise to end austerity means in practice: will the government stop cutting services? Start borrowing more money? Invest more in schools? We will not know until Chancellor Philip Hammond (who is in charge of the country’s budget) gives some details on October 29.

Word Watch

Personal story
Theresa May revealed that her god-daughter recently died of cancer. “Last summer, she sent me a text to tell me she was hoping to see another Christmas, but she didn’t make it.”
Festival
Simply known as “The Festival”, this event will take place in 2022. Earlier in the week, May said it would “celebrate our nation’s diversity and talent, and mark this moment of national renewal with a once-in-a-generation celebration.”
Cancer
The plan will introduce “rapid diagnostic centres” where patients with possible cancer symptoms can get scans within around three weeks of seeing their GP.
Austerity
A policy of cutting back government spending in order to reduce the budget deficit. It has been in place since the global financial crash in 2008.
Wars
The number of people to die in war has declined dramatically since 1950. The numbers rose again after 2011, due to the Syrian civil war, but are now in decline again.
Middle class
Around 3.6 billion people are now classed as middle class (meaning they spend £8.5-£85 per person each day, and have spending money for holidays and luxuries.)

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.