Written by Robert Colls

This article was first published in Briefings for Brexit and we republish with their kind permission.

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Politics always involves language and the control of language. In his essay ‘Politics and the English Language’ (1946), Orwell pointed out how slovenly language made for slovenly politics. In Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), he warned also against the manipulation of language in order to misrepresent reality. As our politics is being recast, we need to speak plainly.

Things are moving so fast it may seem perverse to freeze the frame and go back to 29 September.  But we academics are supposed to be perverse and anyway, this piece is really about language, not politics, so I’m allowed to be picky.  I want to pick out a moment when the BBC’s lead political interviewer accused the Prime Minister of something to do with making death threats.

Well, not making death threats as such. Andrew Marr put it to the Prime Minister that he was saying things that had been, or could be, death threatening in their consequences.  It’s hard to tell just what was being put. This was not a court of law. It was a television studio, and all sorts of funny things can happen in a television studio.

Mr Marr started by asking Mr Johnson if he knew the murdered MP Jo Cox.  This immediately personalized the subject and raised the stakes. He then reminded Mr Johnson that he had responded to Paula Sherriff’s impassioned appeal about death threats against her and other MPs by saying ‘humbug’.  As indeed he had. Then, in a series of interruptions, Mr Johnson was accused of “whipping up” bad feeling in the country, of “playing with fire”, of inciting violence, and of (sounding like he was) threatening an uprising unless he got his way.  I say ‘accused’ but Mr Marr didn’t so much accuse as invite responses. ‘The Interview’ has many forms but this one was looking for a straight admission of guilt and contrition. And when Mr Johnson didn’t admit his guilt or offer contrition, more followed centring on his (alleged) peculiar taste for military metaphors aligned with his (apparent) intention “to crush” 48% of the population. The raw power of politics comes not in the written word but face to face, and it was face to face that the BBC was asking the Prime Minister to apologize for insulting the memory of a murdered MP, for stoking violence, and for not keeping his head when all around who were losing theirs. Was he not sorry?  Would he say sorry? Did he get it?

It was a disturbing 20 minutes, both in the vagueness of the charges and the hostile manner in which they were put.  Mr Johnson can speak for himself, and he did. He’s doesn’t need any help from me and isn’t going to get it, but note: our politics have got to such a pass that the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom can be accused of being responsible in vicarious ways for death threats made by madmen, and murders that have yet to happen, also by madmen, and no one should be in doubt that if one should happen, God forbid, he would be the prime political suspect.  It’s a long way for a small word, ‘humbug’, to travel.

There are three issues here.  First it is clear, or should be clear, that in response to Ms Sherriff’s frantic request that the Prime Minister should calm down, Mr Johnson was saying ‘humbug’ not to the fact, or the idea, of Jo Cox’s murder or Ms Sherriff’s fragile state but to the notion that his use of language was responsible for future deaths, or death threats, or both (or neither).

Perceptive and intelligent as he is, this was a bad day at the office for Andrew Marr.  Johnson was correct. The main reason for the breakdown of normal politics in this country is the failure of the political elite to carry out a democratic decision.  Why Mr Marr and his production team could not see this I do not know. As a student, I believed in Antonio Gramsci’s concept of ‘hegemony’ [the conventional set of ideas about how society should operate].  As a man, I didn’t. These days I’m not so sure. The hegemon might be back. It’s not Andrew Marr of course. It’s not the BBC either, a corporate body that often finds itself caught between sides. Nor is it the Mail or the Sun, who are minority tastes, quite unable to produce the nascent philosophy that hegemony requires. If there is hegemony the universities could be part of it, but that’s another story.  It’s hard to name the nameless but it is something to do with the thinking of a self-appointed intellectual family that believes itself to be not only morally and culturally superior, and progressive, but self-evidently so.

Second, and far more pressing, something bad has happened in the body politic.  MPs used to live freely amongst their constituents. I once saw David Miliband and his agent sitting alone at a question table in Asda and reflected on the good sense of the British people.  Now that MPs are being abused and threatened it must stop forthwith. Andrew Marr and his producers would have been better employed thinking about how it can be stopped in a society that remains free.

The third issue concerns our ability to speak clearly.  How many politicians or journalists can honestly claim they have never spoken in order to rouse angry feelings?  It might be that we need not less inflammation but better, not cheap name-calling but analysis, not Groupthink but Art.  Ken Loach’s politics leave me cold, but his art is different. You watch his latest film, ‘Sorry I Missed You’, and ask yourself where are all those worker protections that leaving the EU will so endanger.

(To be continued tomorrow in Part 2) 

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