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 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.
In Orwell’s essay ‘Politics and the English Language’ (1946), he 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. Airstrip One, you will recall, is presiding over the misrepresentation of the English people to the point of their own extinction. Three years of Brexit has given us plenty examples of slovenliness and misrepresentation. In the mouths of Remainers, ‘crashing out’ and ‘off the cliff edge’ have long since replaced plausible economic speculation. In the mouths of Leavers, ‘taking back control’ has long since replaced consideration of what we will be able to control after Brexit that we couldn’t control before (immigration for instance). We have ‘Hard Right’ for governments that believe in borders, unless they are EU borders, and we have ‘Populists’ for democrats, unless they are People’s Vote democrats. ‘Peace in Northern Ireland’ invokes not peace but the veiled threat of violence. ‘Deal or No Deal’ is the question now, but never was the question then. A ‘People’s Vote’ means a second referendum. ‘Trust the People’ a second time means not trusting them the first time. ‘Integrity of the single market’ means integrity of the European state, if it is a state, and it is they who want an Irish border not the British. Johnson did not ‘Shut Down Democracy’, he is not a Nazi and we do not live in a Fascist state. He applied a constitutional convention to breaking point in order to secure his own political advantage. As did his opponents. Nor did the government ‘break the law’. They broke a law that had yet to be made (by one court) by keeping to a course of action that had recently been upheld (by another). Plenty of constitutional lawyers reckoned these were not proper matters of law anyway. If you want to insist that they broke the law regardless, you could say they broke a law that has itself been deemed unconstitutional by at least four professors of law I have managed to read and understand. As in war – and sadly this is a war – everything is simple but nothing is easy.
As for inflammatory language – and some of the above is inflammatory and Ken Loach is inflammatory – both sides match each other although that does not make them wrong. Boris has a voice, he is the Prime Minister, and you can see why his opponents would want to control his narrative as the saying goes. Labour decided not to have a voice on Brexit when it decided to abandon working-class patriotism and declare itself the party of middle-class dissent.
Speaking clearly has consequences. Not speaking clearly has consequences too. Speaking double has consequences as long as you can work out what they are. Mr Johnson has been speaking double since he came to power: one tongue for Parliament where he expected to fail; the other sharper tongue for the electorate where he expects to win. Labour meanwhile have taken Orwell’s idea of ‘Doublethink’ (“the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously”) to doctoral level.
Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four described the degradation of a nation by the systematic degradation of its language. Language was being nullified and ways of being human with it. Big Brother wanted to control everyone, including Nature, by the manipulation of language, truth and logic. Orwell called propagandists ‘gramophones’ because in his day, political debate was led by a few score men at the top while the rest listened on. This is not what is happening now. We live in a world of news, fake news, marketing messages, tweets, facebook and curated opinion – all salami-sliced into each other, not easy to discern and tedious to trace. There is no Big Brother, only Cambridge Analytica.
However, like Winston Smith, we also live in an age of binaries that signal whether we live or die. Truth or Untruth, Party or Prole, Leave or Remain, Woke or Unwoke calls us up and calls us out. No in-betweenies or bit-of- eachies. No know nothings. No maybes, live and let lives, or think agains. Absolutely no traditions. Not mindful of history but very keen on virtue, our New Puritans want to make the world over again by policing how we speak and keeping a ledger of what we have said. No one is safe from this, including them, but in Boris’s case we know the triggers. ‘Privileged white guy’ is not a good start. ‘Racism’ would be the end. ‘Mysogyny’ is being trailed. ‘Humbug’ will stay with him forever. Every Woke knows what ‘Bullingdon’ means. ‘Crimethink’ is Boris’s original condition. In order to be redeemed, he must stop himself short. He must say sorry to the nation. He must admit his guilt to the BBC. He must atone for who he is. Orwell, another old Etonian middle-class white guy, knew all about this.
What started out as talks with “our friends and partners” in Europe has turned out to be a war of ourselves against ourselves. We are living, therefore, in a Hobbesian moment where we need to act decisively. It is certainly the case that our politics is re-inventing itself and it won’t be the first time that our least deserving party is re-inventing itself first, but in the meantime, behind all the tactics and bad faith, the basic facts have not changed. Parliament asked those it represented what it should do and for a variety of reasons – all factional – it refused to do it. Orwell said we were a family with the wrong members in charge. Now we look like a family (Meet The Brexits) with no one in charge. In the words of the great Hank Williams, we have to move it on over.
Robert Colls is Professor of Cultural History at De Montfort University, and the author of George Orwell: English Rebel.