Bad political language, that is.
Political debate is typically black and white. Secondary arguments are subsumed under big headings. The Brexit morass is in theory black and white, in practice we have multiple agendas with no clear majority for any of them. Language has been one of the first casualties.
‘The first casualty of war is truth,’ is the famous quotation. How about ‘the first casualty of intemperate discourse is truth’. We are not at war… but our discourse is intemperate.
To take one high level example. Mrs May sought last week in an address to the nation to take the high ground, and was pilloried for it. She wound up animosities (and, some have argued, stoked death threats) even further.
Mrs May: ‘You’re tired of infighting, you’re tired of arcane procedural rows, tired of MPs talking about nothing else but Brexit when you have concerns about our children’s schools. Our National Health Service, knife crime…’
Many would argue that Mrs May’s refusal to compromise has been a direct cause of the infighting, and the distraction. Indeed that Brexit itself is the distraction – a secondary issue catapulted by internal Tory politics into the defining issue of our time.
It’s too late for Mrs May to capture the high ground, two years too late. She is so deeply embedded that she is beyond any understanding of cause and effect. Or of the impact of the language she uses.
An article on the website Brave New Europe, by an LSE law professor: ‘…. Britain’s right to leave is … contested by a British ruling class …The EU’s liberal empire is a type of government improvised by national governing elites that are reluctant … to rely on the political authority provided democratic politics. These elites look outwards to supranational arrangements for their authority.’
It was the use of the word ‘empire’ that caught by eye. German economic dominance is considered a kind of empire. ‘Empire’ is a loaded word weighed down with pejoratives. By implication the ‘elites’ are aspiring to empire. They look outwards to ‘supranational governmental arrangements’.
There is a simple heuristic at work here, using ’empire’ as a loaded word to dictate the terms of the argument. I’d put a counter-argument, that governing elites are an inevitable part of government and in the modern globalised world countries have to operate at a supranational level, and structures have to be invented to facilitate this.
It may sound complacent, and it certainly doesn’t sound exciting. But it is closer to reality. The argument must be how we strike the balance between supranational and local, and accommodate all the levels inbetween. Without measured language and measured debate we will never find answers.
Spurious statistics … John Kay highlights in an article in Prospect the difficulties associated with cost-benefit analysis (‘cost-benefit analysis today offers a bogus rationale for bad decisions’) and how the debate over HS2 (the high-speed London to Birmingham rail link) has been conducted without any convincing analysis of the outcomes.
So too Brexit. The debate revolves around a single market and a customs union, a free trade area and WTO rules, Norway and Canada options. ‘But insofar as we heard any economic argument during the referendum it consisted of the exchange of unfounded numerical assertions. It was only after the result that any of the substantive choices entered public discourse.’
I read, at second-hand, a report of a radio phone-in when a Brexit supporter had no fear of a hard Brexit because we still have ‘our rabbits and vegetable gardens’. I paraphrase, I can’t recall the exact words. But we are it seems at war, under siege. The enemy as in 1940 is only a few miles over the water.
How have we so quickly reached this point – that the EU is our enemy?
Conspiracy … A recent study of conspiracy theories reported in the Economist found that 60% of British people believe in conspiracies, Leavers more than Remainers. 31% of Leavers believe that Muslim immigration is part of a wider plot to make Muslims the majority in Britain, compared to 6% of Remainers.
Jeremy Corbin: ‘They’ve stitched up our political system to protect the powerful. They’ve rigged the … rules to line the pockets of their friends. ’
The system works to the benefit of the powerful. And people have – we have , I have – a right to be angry. So I’d go part way with Corbin. But ‘stitched up’, as if there’s a plot or conspiracy involved. It would be simpler if there was.
Emotive language and easy assumptions, shouting loudest, attempts to dictate the terms of a debate, assertion at the expense of debate, appeal to prejudice. The best counters to alternative versions of truth in this post-truth world is the careful and considered use of language. I wondered whether to add ’emotive’, and thought not. Emotion, anger – yes – but don’t let them dictate our use of language.