When politicians talk or write to you we may sense they are being insincere. We know they want us to do something, vote for them, and so we are suspicious of their motives. Since Brexit, and intensified in the General Election campaign, we have faced a storm of political phrases rained down on us by politicians attempting to control our fast-changing political landscape. The phrases are deliberately used, as George Orwell wrote in his great work “Politics and the English Language”, to conceal meaning and motives. Orwell wrote:
“People who write in this manner usually have a general emotional meaning — they dislike one thing and want to express solidarity with another — but they are not interested in the detail of what they are saying. A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus: What am I trying to say? What words will express it? What image or idiom will make it clearer? Is this image fresh enough to have an effect? And he will probably ask himself two more: Could I put it more shortly? Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly? But you are not obliged to go to all this trouble. You can shirk it by simply throwing your mind open and letting the ready-made phrases come crowding in. The will construct your sentences for you — even think your thoughts for you, to a certain extent — and at need, they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even from yourself.”
Perhaps, as this election campaign ends, we can recite these ‘ready-made phrases’ like a child recites their lines at a nativity. But what do they mean? What effect are they having on us? Here is an autopsy on the state of political language of Britain in 2017.
“Brexit means Brexit.”
The recent game-changer in the way politicians use language. The vote to leave the EU as a referendum result was clear. But as clear as the 2% majority was, the manner in which the UK might leave was clouded. Immediately or in 2 years? With a good deal or a bad deal? Economic withdrawal from the single market of just a political withdrawal? “Brexit means Brexit” was the blunt instrument Theresa May needed to club together authority after 52% of the population disarmed the establishment.
It is an Orwellian phrase in the truest sense because it is self-defining, impenetrable, unarguable and violent. Orwell’s society of “1984” was one where vocabulary contracted to the point where only a handful of words would remain to express yourself. As the pool of words became shallower your ability to think independently decayed, allowing the government to control your behaviour more easily. By saying “Brexit means Brexit” as opposed to “my government will implement Brexit” Theresa May moved the terms of the debate away from a classic pros and cons policy discussion with 2 or more competing sides, whether Brexit is good or bad, complex or simple, and transformed the matter to a place where to challenge her is to deny a self-evident fact of language. How can you deny Brexit when it manifestly exists? To argue against Brexit like that is to argue against the rising of the sun or the falling of the rain.
Imagine this approach for another policy, for that, is what Brexit is. “The NHS is the NHS”, “Revolution means Revolution”, “The economy should be economical” (classic Soviet Union phrase). To say these words is to endorse it entirely before you have chance to understand or review what is being said. By using this phrase, available vocabulary immediately contracts and we struggle to think about alternatives or the pros and cons – and the government increase its control and power.
“No deal is better than a bad deal”
Why would anyone want something that was bad? Here, the Conservatives compare a bad thing with no thing. It brings to our minds the idea that in the order of things there are in the following progression from least good to best: bad things, the absence of things, good things and the best things. By placing these ideas in this order is pure poker as Theresa May indicates she would walk away from the negotiations with the European Union.
The phrase is so powerful because to disagree you have to defend, by definition, a bad thing making the criticism immediately weak. By giving the deals simple names like ‘bad’, good’ and ‘no deal’ we are forced to pick a side and are unable to talk about the ingredients in each deal. If a conversation is lucky enough to break out then it is often about ‘us’ buying their Prosecco and ‘them’ selling us Volkswagens.
The phrase suggests that so mutually rewarding are our trade deals with Europe [which they are], to argue against the ‘good deal’ is to seem idiotic. But the deal doesn’t just mean an arrangement for the Prosecco cum Volkswagen based economy in which we apparently now live [don’t drink and drive] but include regulation on food, antitrust and data protection, the transport and disposal of nuclear waste, the E111 card for British tourists seeking care in a European hospital, and the licensing of both airlines and pilots between EU, UK and the USA. In these areas, which many at the very least affect the safety of British citizens, it is not a transactional trade deal but agreement on cooperation – a word rarely heard when it comes to Brexit, but cooperation is actually at the heart of many of the 759 treaties the UK will now have to renegotiate. So the absence of agreement in these hidden areas of cooperation would be a bad deal, but this catchphrase ignores it.
“To be clear.”
Sometimes equivalent to ‘that’s a very good question, and I’m glad you asked it’ in the sense that it can be used to buy time. Also, a cousin of ‘to be honest’ as it implies a positive quality of being honest or clear but also leads to that nagging sense that everything that preceded was somehow deliberately unclear or dishonest. This phrase has been used especially by Miliband, Cameron, Corbyn and May so now on hearing it the listener feels the heavy weight of cliché as well as the imminent certainty that what follows will not be clear. By repeating it as often as possible politicians will hope you assume they are clear and direct without the need for you to pay attention to what followed.
Facing accusations of deliberately and chronically underfunding the NHS, Conservatives from Theresa May to Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt will reply “the NHS is receiving record funding”. This sounds so great as it gives the impression that it belongs in the Guinness Book of World Records or is equivalent to Usain Bolt‘s record-shattering sprinting achievements. However, it’s is nothing more than the verbal charm of a car salesman. Sure, higher amounts of money now, in 2017, are being invested in the NHS than ever before. But is that enough? Is that the right amount of funding? As a percentage of GDP is that higher than previous years or other western countries? Are the demands of the NHS equivalent to the funding amounts? These questions remain unasked.
Bread and milk cost far beyond what they cost in 1967, so now we spend record amounts of money on bread and milk. But it’s not a big deal because inflation causes prices and incomes to rise in some correlation which means we’re also receiving record amounts of salaries if you look simply at the numbers. By responding to the British Red Cross’ assessment that the NHS faced a humanitarian crisis last winter with the defence ‘We are investing record funding in the NHS’ would be like sprinter Asafa Powell clutching to his 9.74 seconds 100 meters World Record as Usain Bolt flies past him into the 21st century.
“For the many, not the few.”
Disarmingly simple and attractively sensible “for the many, not the few” is an interesting phrase because it exploits how individuals see themselves in society. Most of us consider ourselves as part of “the many”. “The few”, far from the “happy few” of Shakespeare’s Henry V is instead a euphemism for the elite, the 1%, the bankers, the super-rich. The groups of people it has become toxic to be associated with.
The Labour manifesto which takes this name shows a costed pledge to raise taxes on the richest 5% and no increase or tax cuts for the bottom 95%. The day after this announcement some unhappy few discovered their elite status. In a country where even David Cameron considers himself ‘middle class,’ it isn’t surprising that those earning over £80,000 a year were shocked and ashamed to discover that “the few” was, in fact, them all along.
Jeremy Corbyn’s socialist approach has not been in the mainstream for decades, and we are unaccustomed to hearing the idea championed that the broadest shoulders should bear the heaviest load. This principle has been normal in rich countries like Norway and Sweden. However, some of the richest 5% find it galling to be asked to pay yet more. The reintroduction of basic socialist language into British political debate jars profoundly with the individualistic language of our society normalised by Thatcher in the 1980s. As a result, Corbyn’s old ideas sound new and exciting to young people because they have never heard them before.