If you thought the story of ancient Greek hero Prometheus having his liver pecked out by eagles was not the story for an eminent body such as the UN General Assembly, then think again. If you’re Boris Johnson, it seems just about anything goes in any given situation. Indeed, not only did Boris make an address comparing the Brexit process to Prometheus’s plight, he also made sure to mention ‘terrifying limbless chickens’, and threw in a couple of references to “nightmare-monitoring” devices for good measure.
Those convened in New York were treated to a spectacular display of Boris in full rambling-mode. Perhaps in previous years this might have been viewed as yet another amusing episode amongst a catalogue of Boris’s moments of madness. But this time, it was perhaps more sobering to see the prime minister so flippant and unruly with his language, even if it did strike something of a comedic note.
It is hard to miss the charges that pepper the news: according to several strands of opinion, the prime minister and his allies have been deliberately using language that is engineered to create division.
Perhaps the most prominent example which has been used to illustrate Boris Johnson’s linguistic rashness is his now infamous ‘humbug’ comment. Labour MP Paula Sherriff urged the prime minister to be careful with the language he was using, saying that certain words could be dangerous and might incite violence. She referenced the murder of MP Jo Cox in 2016 by a far-right white supremacist and the daily death threats and fear of attack that many MPs currently experience. When Boris dismissed Sherriff’s fears as ‘humbug’, not only did he refuse to acknowledge the poisonous potency of certain words; he reverted to linguistic frivolity to make his point.
And this is very telling. It seems that for Boris everything is a big joke. Say this, say that, what does it matter, when you can counter every charge that comes your way with an anachronistic put-down or two? Where Boris once relied on linguistic archaism to feed into his comic brand as London mayor, it is now a mark of his genuine contempt for and disregard towards viewpoints which he happens not to agree with.
And Boris is not alone in this behaviour. While the right of British politics are currently and perhaps quite rightly being vilified for their language, no side, as Jeremy Corbyn accurately noted, has a ‘monopoly on virtue’.
Left-wing politicians also have a lot to answer to. Consider the time when MP David Lammy said that comparing the ERG to Nazis wasn’t ‘strong enough’. Or that time when now shadow-chancellor John McDonnell ‘joked’ that he would like to go back to the 1980s and assassinate Margaret Thatcher. And of course there are the still relatively recent comments from Emily Thornberry, comparing the Liberal Democrats to the Taliban.
These comments are no less divisive, and no less out of proportion in their fervour than some of the utterances from the right-wing of British politics. The right-wing have little ground to stand on currently. There are the constant references to the EU as some kind of colonising empire, and there’s also Nigel Farage’s statement that post-Brexit he will ‘take a knife’ to civil servants. Additionally, consider the way that an extension to article 50 has been deemed a ‘surrender bill’.
Across the political spectrum, those who are supposed to represent the people are guilty of using specious language to attack anything that they cannot get fully behind. Instead of thinking about issues rationally, we find that politicians are all too ready to exaggerate and lie to score political points. Comparing the ERG to Nazis is not only manipulative and divisive, it is offensive and unthinking towards those who know the horrors of Naziism for what they are. Describing the EU as an empire, and referring to a UK subject to EU regulations as a ‘vassal state’ attempts to minimise the evils of genuine colonialism, and manipulatively presents the EU as on oppressor which seeks to make subordinates of all those in its fold.
These descriptions are not just incendiary; they are the words of those who care very little about this incendiary quality.
I do not like to emphasise the privileged upbringings that a large number of our politicians have had. I feel it is something that has been pointed out many times, to good effect, and bad, as a recent Guardian editorial makes apparent. But it is undeniable that just as most of our politicians have never experienced the cruelty of colonialism firsthand, nor the horrors of the holocaust, many have never had experiences that resonate particularly closely with the norm in British society. Not all of them are privileged Etonites in the mould of Boris Johnson; some, like David Lammy, had relatively humble beginnings. But the very fact of being a politician and operating in an environment blighted by archaic procedure like Westminster removes a person somewhat from the median point in society.
Many politicians live and operate in a sphere which is removed from society to the extent that social issues do not necessarily touch them. Because of this feeling of untouchability, it may be that politicians do not realise the extent to which the decisions they make have a genuine impact. And perhaps because of this disconnect, MPs have become complacent, and feel that what they say and do can cause no real harm, at least not to them.
But with left-wing politicians increasingly under verbal and physical threat, it is this side of the political divide that is now calling vociferously for change.
And change needs to happen. The language being deployed by those on the far right of politics currently is careless. And the politicians who deploy it are careless quite simply because they do not care. For them, this language is a means of engineering a political line of action by lazily giving rise to jingoistic fervour. All they have to do is say the word ‘surrender’, make a few subtly threatening statements about remain-voting politicians needing to ‘get Brexit done’ in order to be safe, and there they have it.
I do not believe in curtailing people’s freedom to speak; nor do I believe that verbal comments should ever incite physical responses or be used as a justification for them. But the fact is that there are people who are undoubtedly riled up by the sort of language used by Boris Johnson and his cronies. Riled up to the extent to the extent where they will threaten or enact violence. If the government refuses to acknowledge even this, then I fear that there is little hope of any decency from them, linguistic or otherwise.