It is made of limestone, and takes the form of a monolithic beige block, over 2m in height. It sits on some kind of trolley arrangement, and so is presumably portable. There is writing on the stone, starting with block capitals:
A BETTER PLAN.
A BETTER FUTURE.
Below this are six statements which are aspirational and vacuous at the same time. And below that a squiggly signature and a logo.
For the Labour Party.
For Ed Miliband.
It is election fever.
I am describing Miliband’s megalith, or is has become known in the press, ‘Miliband’s manifesto monolith’, and more widely still, as #EdStone in social media. It is a remarkable standing stone version of the successful ‘pledge card’ that characterised the rise to power of New Labour and Tony Blair in 1997. It was unveiled by Ed Miliband itself, with a group of over-enthusiastic flag-wavers, on Sunday 3rd May, just five days before the UK general election. Miliband said of this peculiar gesture: ‘These six pledges are now carved in stone, and they are carved in stone because they won’t be abandoned after the general election.’ He was keen to stress the connection between stone, trustworthiness and promises – Miliband told the BBC the day after its unveiling: ‘Our pledges are carved in stone. I think trust is a huge issue in this election – the difference with our pledges is they are not going to expire on 8 May. We’re setting out promises – they don’t expire on May 8. They don’t disappear’. Although I think the megalith has actually disappeared now, a wee bit embarrassed.
This is all run of the mill election nonsense of course, but what got my interest was Miliband’s comment that he was prepared to turn Downing Street into an urban prehistory landmark. He suggested that if he were to win the election, he would erect the standing stone in the garden of 10 Downing Street, so he could be held to account or something. Westminster Council has already reported that they would not necessarily allow planning permission for Ed’s erection in the garden of a central London property. Even if planning permission were granted, it seems likely London’s newest standing stone would fall foul of propaganda regulations. The Daily Telegraph reported on the day after Miliband’s announcement that any monolith erection ‘would be likely to fall foul of the Ministerial Code, which bans the use of government buildings for the “dissemination of material which is essentially party political”, sources said.’ As ever, megaliths and politics are difficult to disentangle.
Miliband has laughed this suggestion off since (‘I’m not a landscape gardener’), and most observers have had a good laugh about the whole situation, with mockery commonplace on social media although little of this content (except the image reproduced below) has so far focused on the prehistoric nature of Miliband’s gesture. (Having said that Boris Johnstone tweeted ‘Future archaeologists will gaze with bafflement at this waste of good stone’ and this is perhaps an interpretation of Stonehenge which has not yet been considered).
It is difficult to find out much information about the standing stone itself. It is said to be made of limestone and is a harsh block rather than an organic megalith although the base seems slightly rippled and the top cut at a slight angle. It is 8 feet and 6 inches tall (which is 2.59m) and looks to me to be about half of that across (maybe 1.2m). The depth is also tricky to guess, as the stone seems to only have been photographed from the front – to allow it to be a stable megalith it must be at least 15 to 20cm deep. By this estimation, and based on my back-of-an-envelope calculations, the whole standing stone could weigh in the order of 1.597 tonnes. Hence the stone sitting on a rather rusty and crappy looking metal frame which, I assume is a trailer, upon which the stone can be driven about. (Having said all of that, from the pictures I have seen, the stone could actually be an elaborate cardboard cut out for all I know, or may only be a thin slab.) It is not clear where the stone will be stored until re-erected, and may now be residing in a garage or lock-up somewhere.
This is all reminiscent of the rather more poetic attempt by Alex Salmond, then Scotland’s First Minister and leader of the SNP, to leave a legacy in the form of a colourful standing stone which was erected in Edinburgh last year. It was unveiled on 18th November 2014, on Salmond’s final day as First Minister, and again ‘sets in stone’ a pledge, in this case paraphrasing Robert Burns:
‘The rocks will melt with the sun before I allow tuition fees to be imposed on Scotland’s students’
This stone sits in the grounds of Heriot-Watt University. It is a rather extravagant monument to Salmond himself, containing a pledge he can no longer deliver, and has elements of the hubris of the Miliband megalith. These are less monuments to political promises, more monuments to the men themselves. Salmond’s stone is known as his Legacy Stone, but Miliband’s version will, I am sure, be quickly forgotten even if does become resident at 10 Downing Street.
So why do politicians’ feel the need, on occasion, to carve their pledges and policies into stone, and erect them as megaliths? The idea is that these are promises, permanent and impossible to erase, ‘set in stone’. But there is also an unmistakable whiff of prehistoric, shamanic grandstanding in these gestures; politicians do appear to like to be associated with ancient places of permanence, wisdom and solidity. Stonehenge has seen its share of celebrity politician visits over the past year. When Obama visited, he said Stonehenge was ‘cool’. David Cameron remembered trips there as a youth when it was possible to ‘clamber all over the stones’. I have no idea what Nick Clegg said.
Are we fooled by these megalithic metaphors of power and permanence? Do we accept that when a pledge is carved into rock by machine or chisel that it has more resonance and reliability that a promise spoken, a paper manifesto, a ministerial tweet? Would this infamous pre-referendum promise, printed in newspaper form just before the independence referendum in Scotland in September 2014, have really been any more trustworthy or powerful had it been carved on a tablet of stone?
On the eve of the election, voter apathy is high, and patronising gestures like the ‘Daily Record Vow’ and Miliband’s megalith simply reinforce the credibility gap politicians are trying to breach. There is a sort of ‘pledge arms race’ going on here, where promises need to become more extravagant and tangible to be real, and so propaganda tools from the past are used to make this happen – treaties, tablets of stone, modern magna cartas. I fully expect the next election to be marked by promises written in blood on documents made of the leathered skin of ancient prime ministers, or for full scale trilithons to be erected with pledges hanging from them on banners and draped in flags.
The rocks will melt with the sun before politicians start to say things we really can believe in sadly, and the harder they try, the harder the surface they write on, the more like bollocks it looks.
Sources: this post contains a range of images which I have sourced online, most of which – the Stonehenge celeb pics, those of Miliband’s megalith, and Salmond’s stone for instance – are widely available online from various media outlets and newspaper websites.