Westminster, Death and Decency: Politics and the English Language Revisited

Parliament image

There was a time when a tribute to the fallen at the outset of a Parliamentary debate served to not only declare an honour to those who had given their lives for the greater good, but often to bring to light some forgotten past to a current story; to remind why a war was being fought, for instance; or even that a war was being fought at all. It was an opportunity to say thank you to those who give the greatest sacrifice, to bring Parliament together over a subject that crosses political boundaries. We can all disagree on the best way to protect our country, but not that it needs protecting, or that often people will die in its defence.

There was a time when British involvement in war across Europe was so ubiquitous that Parliament was a centre-point for the dissemination of news from abroad, and the tributes to those fallen at Waterloo, Spion Kop, the Somme or Tobruk stood as confirmation to the public of sacrifices made for them. Not so now. We are in such an advanced age of information that it is almost deafening. And in some instances it carries that most striking of characteristics of din: inanity. Politicians, who used to lead in such spheres, are, for the first time, trying to catch up with the news, rather than set the agenda. When tragic news of the death of a member of the armed forces somewhere in the Middle East is announced at the outset of Prime Minister’s Questions, there is something crucially blank about the moment. The news of the tragic deceased is not new (it will have been reported by many news agencies and discussed on social media), it does not need confirming, and the commiserations of the leaders of the main parties surely does not need affirming. But still Cameron, Miliband and Clegg (when called upon) will begin their cat-calling, question-dodging and playground shenanigans by reading out the names of the killed and offering them grave thanks and beige tributes.

So why do the leaders do it? Why pay tribute to the fallen, thank them for the sacrifice for our Great Nation before debasing all such sentiments with the faeces-flinging of PMQs? Well, mainly because it would be most unseemly not to mention them in the chamber. That, of course, is quite correct. Also, there is a connection between the Christian notion of God, sacrifice, and a better place, that wraps around every inch of the Palace of Westminster, from the red leather of the Second Chamber to the mace of Black Rod, that should not be discounted. Westminster is very little without its traditions and those traditions, no matter how out of time, are made significant by the traditions of Christian doctrine. We’ll return to this later.

But there is also a more significant point, and perhaps a more modern one. What on earth would the voters think if the leaders of the major parties did not pay tribute to the dead?

There are two areas of concern for politicians in this day and age. Paramount is the interest of the lobbyist; big business, religious, whatever. Second to them are the voters, the people who, no matter how much politicians wished it otherwise, are the people who will keep them in a job. All public discourse in politics is now served up as a message to a third party. Very rarely is an issue discussed on its own terms, and even more rarely is it discussed with any moral focus. Every topic is twisted and turned to deliver a somewhat subliminal and largely superfluous message to that third party: in the case of the ‘voter’ that we are decent people working hard for issues that matter to you. As is blatantly obvious to most level-minded people, ‘decency’ is often extremely dubious, and ‘hard work’ is relative. But politics now is a constant campaign to connect a focus-group idea with a front-line public that has little to do with a party’s actual intentions or beliefs. Whatever these intentions, the public persona of the political class is uniform, it has its own dress code and, like all contrived theatre, it has its own language, all contributing to the overall ‘experience’.

Allow me briefly to return to tragedy – for politicians never think twice about being there. A few months ago Ed Miliband, recently elected to be new leader of the recently felled Labour Party in the United Kingdom, took to Twitter to offer his ‘heartfelt condolences’ to the victims and the families of the victims of a massacre carried out by a gun-wielding maniac at the premier of the movie, The Dark Knight Rises, in a town called Aurora in Colorado. Nobody doubts that Ed Miliband felt sympathy for those people, and was as saddened by the human loss of the horrible event as every other right-minded person. But when Ed Miliband tweeted his ‘heartfelt condolences’, to whom was he speaking? Did he actually believe news of his sympathy would reach the victims and their families? That they would have any idea who Ed Miliband was? Or did he really think he was screaming his distress into the void, like shouting at the moon? Or did he think that he was bolstering his public persona as a man who cares, as a man who is distressed by such events, just like the rest of us; a decent man.

There is a great tragedy now in the banal roll call of the fallen members of the armed forces. There is an even greater tragedy when that banality is offered to people who did not willingly sign-up to put their lives at risk for liberty. There is a blanket of banality that comes from a long line of attempts by politicians to make it look as though they are not doing what they are actually doing. The politicising of death is a depth not newly dug, but the banality attached to it, and the dissemination of it, certainly is. Churchill would never have ‘offered his condolences to the families’ of those who fell during the Second World War, neither would Lloyd George or Wellington; their condolences would have been taken as read. And they would have politicised death with much more stirring language.

Instead of the arresting oratory of such figures in times of sorrow, we now have a new level to double-speak – the ‘non-politicisation of tragedy’. The apparent non-politicisation of a tragedy is now not only something worth commenting on for its own sake, but the insinuated decency embedded into that calculated non-politicisation is entirely part of the last movement of the Orwellian symphony of political obfuscation – that politicians are ‘decent’, ‘working for us’, and ‘part of our society’, not infiltrators of our society from the halls of their Mothership; Westminster.

For the astute, it is difficult not to come to the conclusion that when a politician obfuscates in his responses to reasonable questions from journalists that they are guarding a wall behind which the real business of the political sphere goes on. And here there is the modern equivalent of cross-party unity. Nobody wants to give the game away, and that is not from a party-perspective, but is from a wider and deeper form of tribalism – the tribalism of the Holy See. Westminster may be filled with politicians who serve constituencies geographically outside of Parliament, but their loyalty is to the green leather of the central idea of a political class. And just like The Vatican, power crawls outwards, not from the Pope (just like prime ministers, they come and go) but from the self-perpetuating power that exudes from the religion of politics. And nothing will be allowed to pierce that bubble. Persona, the cardinals of Westminster have decided, is the greatest weapon against any attempts to do so, and Persona is created through the obfuscation and banality of language.

The greatest threat to the sovereignty of this City State was the recent expenses scandal. Few politicians defended their immoral behaviour when it came to their expenses scams. Most did the decent thing and offered humble apologies. Decency, humbleness; feeble but effective cards, (played no more deftly than by David Laws, who even went so far as to explain that his own crookedness in financial matters was down to an exceptionally decent and humble insecurity over his homosexuality). The tribe of Westminster carries on much as before, just with a little more paperwork where expenses are concerned.

For a very long time anybody could become a member of this tribe. Man, woman, straight, gay, black, white, right, left: the only question asked at the gate is whether you can assimilate into the robes of office. In the past (and still in many cases) women needed to be either masculine or obviously subservient to male colleagues; ethnic politicians were forced to imitate the generations of Oxbridge imperialists who had occupied their offices before; working class politicians are adorned with garish robes of state. And now, the most important garb is the language of the political class. It is not right or left: it is Westminster.

The only thing that matters in public is that creation of an impression of decency. Compare the tributes to fallen service men and women given out in short sentences by the leaders of the parties with Prime Minister Cameron’s tribute to the late Labour MP for Middlesbrough, Stuart Bell, this October. Cameron said in his speech of Mr Bell, ‘Throughout his three decades in the House of Commons, he always stood up for those issues he cared most deeply about’. The fact that those ‘issues’ seemed to have not coincided with those of his constituents, but certainly did coincide with his own financial interests seems to have mattered very little. Cameron was using language to not only obfuscate the controversies that belittled Bell’s office, but he simultaneously publicly puffed up the image of Parliament as a whole, as a place filled with silent, dutiful public servants, the kind who will work tirelessly for the issues. Whatever they are.

In 1946 George Orwell wrote an essay titled, ‘Politics and the English Language’, in which he discusses the crimes committed against the mother tongue in that ever-energetic search for the flatness of the Earth. (Not only is the flatness of the earth a lie, but it is a lie we can all agree on). Orwell writes like a tireless as well as tired cynic. He looks at the slavish bastardisation of English by people who, he suspects, know exactly what they are doing. Orwell picks apart the four humours that comprise the contemporary political carcass of linguistic chicanery and obfuscation. They are Dying Metaphors, Verbal False Limbs, Pretentious Diction, and Meaningless Words.

All of these categories encapsulate fully the political language of our age. However, Language has been deliberately tempered down from the altogether more colourful examples of embattled prose that Orwell uses to vent his spleen in his essay. Banality is the currency of the age in oratorical terms. (Boris Johnson may be perceived as a colourful fop nowadays, but that is largely to do with the colourlessness that surrounds him. He would have been nothing special in Douglas-Home’s cabinet, maybe even regarded as a little vulgar by the likes of Reginald Maudling, Lord Hailsham and Lord Woolton).

Nowadays the metaphors Orwell talks about in political language, for instance, are rare. For metaphors to do their work they require an attentive audience, the lingering on an image, and that is the last thing political operatives want from the listener: lingering. Politicians, in their quest to ‘connect’, have instead taken to soundbites like the proverbial fly to the proverbial turd, (to use a dying metaphor). And make no mistake: ‘heartfelt condolences’ in the gruellingly grey conversations of Millbank Towers and Brewers Green is no different to ‘fit for purpose’ or ‘collateral damage’. A Soundbite is a connection between speaker and voter that exists on a purely sonic level, the understanding of which bears no relation to the etymology of the words within the phrase. It is a wink to the listener, a lazy conduit of sound and (lack-of) meaning. It is both armoury and Achilles heel; it is the essence of what Francis Bacon was talking about when he said, ‘that mixture of falsehood is like allay in coin of gold and silver; which make the metal work the better, but which embaseth it’. When a politician takes to Twitter to offer his severely soundbitten condolences, the underlying truth (that he is in the process of the constant regeneration of his public persona) is the lie that embaseth his voters as well as himself. It is the banality of such sentiments that renders them the most meaningless.

Let us look at an example. Sir John Reid, on offering a public statement of his report on the state of the Home Office in 2006 said that elements within the institution were ‘not fit for purpose’. What he meant is that the Home Office was not doing what it was meant to do, that it was tired, flabby. The headline writers liked the line, and in response (an example yet again of politicians following in order to dictate) politicians began, and still do, use it to describe anything that does not work as it should. A lunch that is not filling is now ‘not fit for purpose’. The language in the phrase is pompous and ridiculous and pseudo-official, but because it is these things it sticks in the mind and becomes a soundbite, regardless of the meaning. The phrase is proud in sound whilst also being humble in insinuation; it is serious, it is the phrase of a decent person trying improve things; but it is also the phrase of a man not apportioning blame. ‘Fit’ is the key word. It is vague, and it suggests something that can be improved with a little hard-work. Fallibility is also important to the British idea of decency, and in this phrase we see the insinuated journey of the hero, restoring greatness to a once great institution, with a bit of hard work and graft to make it fit and decent. How very British.

Now, John Reid may well have meant exactly all those things, and with good reason, when talking about the state of the Home Office and his plans for it. But when Graham Evans MP (who is ‘working hard for Weaver and Vale’, according to his website) writes he is part of a government trying to create a fit-for-purpose rail line, he is drawing on the origins of that remark to instil completely false ideals of officialdom and humbleness. To Modern politicians, in their gilded chairs, ‘Not Fit for Purpose’ seems to have accrued all the resonance of one of the Ten Commandments. And here is that cabalistic notion of Westminster once again – politicians use the language of the pulpit. The intrinsic ‘decency’ of a figure on that plinth is the essence of the banality of their language, and it is the essence of their blithe protections of their own City State. They wear the robes, they use the language, they sit at the table.

Banner illustration by Dean Lewis