….or the language of post-truth politics.
Two months on, a story from the referendum – a friend was awoken by her partner on the morning of 24th June, with the hurrah – ‘Britain is Free!’.
Irony, of course, but prompted by the rhetoric used in the Brexit campaign. From exhortations to ‘Take our country back!’ to the widely referenced ‘Regain control of our borders’ ( that one really annoyed a friend who works for the Home Office ) to the hybrid ‘Take back control’.
Headline-grabbing slogans. Let us not forget that the spearheads of Brexit were Gove and Johnson, both former journalists. Of course, the latter got himself fired from The Times for fabricating a quote, only to spend his time as Telegraph EU correspondent filing ‘EU bans curved bananas’ type stories – he was furthering his career, even then, at the EU’s ( and the truth’s ) expense.
Consider the phrases.
‘Take our country back!‘
From whom? I assume it to mean from the EU, indeed one of the mildest interpretation of this slogan is to assume the country is being taken back from ‘Brussels bureaucrats‘. Though it could mean ‘from the Europeans‘ – those Poles working in the Lincolnshire fields perhaps? Or from those who have come via the EU – refugees? Turks? You don’t have to dig into this too far to come up against some fairly unsavoury connotations, especially given what else was said during the campaign.
Such a useful phrase, it fits a multiplicity of circumstances and grievances. And there is always that ‘our‘. Who are the ‘we‘ this phrase appeals to? Those who really own the country. Who would consider themselves to be one of those? This is similar to the ‘dog-whistle’ phraseology long used by the Republican party in the US. Nothing overtly unethical or racist about the slogans, but they mean more to those to whom they are directed, like a dog hears a dog whistle, above or beyond the hearing of humans. There’s even a US TOCB web-site .
‘Regain control of our borders!‘
But we have control of our borders ( you can, if you should so wish, watch a number of popular TV shows which demonstrate exactly that, several times a week ). This is all about inferring the presence of and preventing the incursion of the ‘other’. So ‘Let’s leave the EU so that we don’t have to let in EU citizens/refugees/possible new EU entrants’ and, given the nature of controlling a border, terrorists and undesirable aliens. N.B. The recent terror attacks in the UK have all been by UK citizens.
The borders point arose in another context the other day when I listened to a speech by Donald Trump ( yes, all of it, though I didn’t know who was speaking when I heard the beginning ). It was remarkable for two main reasons – its apparent reasonableness and its lack of any specific details. Much was about Trump and how ‘I know I can fix it‘, for ‘it‘ read the US economy, relations with the world, wage deflation and just about any other grievance held by his audience. There was, of course, no detail on how he might do all this.
But what astonished me was the chanting of his audience -‘Build the wall, build the wall‘ they shouted. This was in response to his statement that ‘Those citizens who live close to our borders should feel safe in their homes‘. That was the dog whistle. The true meaning of that statement was ‘Keep out the criminal Mexicans/Latinos.’ Oh, I thought, maybe all those reasonable sounding statements were dog whistles too, only I couldn’t hear them?
Demagogues Handbook, item one. Focus on your potential supporters deepest anxiety. Tell them this can be resolved. Coin a slogan to encapsulate this. ‘Take back control‘. In the modern, multi-national, fast moving, technologically agile, low pay, war-torn terrorist-riven world, this is seductive.
Item two – offer a quick, apparently radical, fix to people who feel ignored or abandoned, who have done badly through no fault of their own ( the income of all but the top 10% in the US and the top 20% in the UK has fallen ) and who want to reject the current political elites as representatives of the ‘system’.
Item three – identify an ‘other’ on to whom to project all the ills and grievances of those people and then stigmatise and exclude them (or worse). Burkini bans in France, forbidding entry to foreign Muslims in Trumpland, Jews in Nazi Germany. This isn’t new.
How to oppose this? Just being rational won’t be enough. It will take a lot of work.
In Britain there are constituencies, like Dagenham, where UKIP and the BNP have been beaten back, when Labour has gone out on to the streets and addressed the issues disturbing the, mainly, working class voter who feels left behind. But this takes commitment on the ground by activists who believe in Parliament as a force to change things. The Labour Party’s activists seem intent on other things right now.
To return to language. I think I will try to say what is actually meant, with precision, rather than using received phrases.
I have long been annoyed by the encroachment of ‘welfare‘ or ‘benefits‘ to describe ‘social security‘ i.e. those payments to individuals who, having paid into the system, are forced by circumstance or ill-luck to draw upon it. These are not charity, or some sort of lottery win. I am also frustrated by the distinction between ‘tax avoidance‘ and ‘tax evasion‘, ( aren’t we all ) though I know why and how it arises. From now on I’ll say ‘not making their contribution‘? In Jerez one’s municipal taxes are called one’s ‘contribucion‘ a neat way of making the point that everybody contributes and, by inference, if you don’t, you are cheating your fellow citizens who do. If you can think of anything better, let me know.
More on the Demagogue’s Handbook soon.