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Political oratory in 2017: the battle between clarity and incontinence

June 7, 2017

I can’t recall ever feeling more relieved to see the end of an election campaign. As Britain goes to the polls – yet again – I suspect that one politician will be particularly glad it’s over, whatever the result.

Theresa May has seemed so far out of her comfort zone that she must be praying for deliverance – desperate to return to the familiar embrace of her Westminster cloisters.

I’m even beginning to feel sorry for her. It must be deeply humiliating to have presided over such an abject train wreck of a campaign.

But I’m even sorrier for the English language. In the hands of her advisors, she is reduced to terse formulaic utterances as devoid of content as those terms and conditions you hear rattled out during the last ten seconds of a radio ad promoting financial services.

We all know about “strong and stable”, which seemed to be the anthem of the early part of the campaign. But I wonder if anyone else has noticed her new catch-phrase: “I’m clear that…..” As in her latest tweet: “I’m clear: if human rights laws get in the way of tackling extremism and terrorism, we will change these laws to protect the British people.”

The other day, she answered every question in an interview with “I’m clear that…” and proceeded not to answer the question.

She uses the word clear so often that I’m beginning to wonder whether this daughter of the Church has become a secret Scientologist. However, I looked up Scientology on Wikipedia and discovered this definition of the word:

“the attainment of Man’s dreams through the ages of attaining a new and higher state of existence and freedom from the endless cycle of birth, death, birth … Clear is the total erasure of the reactive mind from which stems all the anxieties and problems the individual has.”

That doesn’t sound like Mrs May’s state of mind to me, so the responsibility for her monochromatic delivery must lie with her hired sloganators.

How she must yearn for the gorgeous language she hears every Sunday from the pulpit. Phrases like:

“Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24).

A much more eloquent expression than “I’m clear that with a strong and stable government we will do what is necessary to bring these terrorists to justice”.

Another phrase I can’t abide, but which I can’t lay at Mrs May’s door, is “it is right that…..” That one seems to have originated during Tony Blair’s term of office. Every five seconds it seemed that some minister would pop up to claim that this was right and that was right. And I wanted ask “do you mean morally right, right as in the correct exam answer, right because it said so in your manifesto, or simply expedient?”

By tomorrow it will be over. Except that it won’t be over, because in the coming months we’ll be subjected to an endless stream of Brexit-speak. Who will be in power to utter the robo-rhetoric remains to be seen. If it’s Labour, be sure that their sloganators will be just as relentless as May’s.

Years ago I stumbled on to a language called Simplified English. It’s purpose is to ensure that in an international environment you should easily be able to learn a thousand words of English – enough to prevent catastrophic misunderstandings in fields such as aviation. Hence if you look out on to the wing of the aircraft taking you to Majorca, you will see the words “No Step” emblazoned on a part of the wing that is not built to withstand a technician jumping up and down on it like a demented gorilla.

The point about Simplified English is not just that there is a limited vocabulary, but that only authorised words and phrases can be used. Could it be that the sloganators have latched on to this in their inventive choice of words for the likes of Mrs May?

Certainly, monotonous though she may be, she is at least clear, in her gnomic kind of way. Unlike Boris Johnson, who sprays words about with the glee of a two-year-old boy peeing in a paddling pool.

I fear that from now onwards we shall have to endure both styles of discourse: politicians like May being clear and saying nothing, and incontinent orators like Johnson and Donald Trump saying the first things that come into their heads in incoherent lumps of brown, disconnected verbiage.

God protect us from both styles, though at least Trump is contributing to the development of the language with his imaginative new words.

Me, I’m going back to my grandfather’s King James Bible to find some proper English. The old words are the best ones, I reckon.

From → Politics, UK, USA

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