Bad language

The strange thing about language, the anniversary of the death of Litvinenko, elections in Australia

One of our star turns on newstatesman.com is Victoria Brignell who writes on living life as a 'wheelchair rider' in her regular monthly slot Crip's Column.

This week she turned her wry gaze on the often vexed issue of language. Just how should we talk about disability. It's a useful - if inconclusive - insight into what labels are acceptable. As you would expect, I hope, there isn't unanimity on this issue.

Victoria writes: "I know disabled people who care about terminology passionately and others who aren’t really bothered. But every disabled person will contemplate the appropriateness of descriptions at some point. So what labels do us crips prefer to be stuck on us?"

Click on her pages to find out.

Much else has been turning up on the website. Mark Weisbrot of the Center for Economy and Policy Research wrote us a piece in which he tried to redress some of the blatant bias in the reporting of Hugo Chavez and the forthcoming referendum in Venezuela. We'll be returning to this subject very shortly.

We've also been focusing on the Australian elections. Ahead of the game we profiled that country's new prime minister Kevin Rudd a few weeks ago.

Then there was the first anniversary of the death of Alexander Litvinenko, the perilous state of UK house prices (or otherwise), Sian Berry's London mayoral launch plus a look at Lebanese politics and Hezbollah's leader Nasrallah.

All that plus my interview with Sian's rival for mayor, Lib Dem candidate Brian Paddick - the former top Met officer which I'd like to draw special attention to. Oh the power I wield.

Moving back briefly, if I may, to the knotty issue of language. During my lunchbreak I sometimes like to visit the pigeon eating pelicans of St James' Park.

Anyway en route there the other day from Terminal House, I encountered an American family in a tunnel under a busy junction near Victoria Station. Without preamble the mother approached me and said: "Where's the subway?"

I said, given we were in a subway: "Do you mean what we call the Tube or Underground'?" She replied she did and I pointed her in the right direction.

"Is this the subway?" she then asked.

"No," I said patiently, keen to avoid confusion, "this is the underpass."

Anyway I tell you this to demonstrate how confusing language can be because I was watching some TV the other day. Suddenly on my flickering set appeared a bunch of sweaty people who seemed to be dwelling like troglodytes among the jungley tendrils.

One by one these people did a 'piece to camera' and begged to be allowed to remain where they were.

Now, with the exception of Cerys Matthews, whom I eventually identified, they were nothing to celebrate and all insisted they wanted to stay put. Yet I then learned at the commercial break that the programme was called I'm a celebrity get me out of here. Now in this era of dodgy TV shows that can't be right. A more accurate title might be: I'm not a celebrity, leave me where I am. I'm hoping the public will be happy to oblige.

Ben Davies trained as a journalist after taking most of the 1990s off. Prior to joining the New Statesman he spent five years working as a politics reporter for the BBC News website. He lives in North London.
Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Emily Thornberry heckled by Labour MPs as tensions over Trident erupt

Shadow defence secretary's performance at PLP meeting described as "risible" and "cringeworthy". 

"There's no point trying to shout me down" shadow defence secretary Emily Thornberry declared midway through tonight's Parliamentary Labour Party meeting. Even by recent standards, the 70-minute gathering was remarkably fractious (with PLP chair John Cryer at one point threatening to halt it). Addressing MPs and peers for the first time since replacing Maria Eagle, Thornberry's performance did nothing to reassure Trident supporters. 

The Islington South MP, who voted against renewal in 2007, said that the defence review would be "wide-ranging" and did not take a position on the nuclear question (though she emphasised it was right to "question" renewal). She vowed to listen to colleagues as well as taking "expert advice" and promised to soon visit the Barrow construction site. But MPs' anger was remorseless. Former shadow defence minister Kevan Jones was one of the first to emerge from Committee Room 14. "Waffly and incoherent, cringeworthy" was his verdict. Another Labour MP told me: "Risible. Appalling. She compared Trident to patrolling the skies with spitfires ... It was embarrassing." A party source said afterwards that Thornberry's "spitfire" remark was merely an observation on changing technology. 

"She was talking originally in that whole section about drones. She'd been talking to some people about drones and it was apparent that it was absolutely possible, with improving technology, that large submarines could easily be tracked, detected and attacked by drones. She said it is a question of keeping your eye on new technology ... We don't have the spitfires of the 21st century but we do have some quite old planes, Tornadoes, but they've been updated with modern technology and modern weaponry." 

Former first sea lord and security minister Alan West complained, however, that she had failed to understand how nuclear submarines worked. "Physics, basic physics!" he cried as he left. Asked how the meeting went, Neil Kinnock, who as leader reversed Labour's unilateralist position in 1989, simply let out a belly laugh. Thornberry herself stoically insisted that it went "alright". But a shadow minister told me: "Emily just evidently hadn't put in the work required to be able to credibly address the PLP - totally humiliated. Not by the noise of the hecklers but by the silence of any defenders, no one speaking up for her." 

Labour has long awaited the Europe split currently unfolding among the Tories. But its divide on Trident is far worse. The majority of its MPs are opposed to unilateral disarmament and just seven of the shadow cabinet's 31 members share Jeremy Corbyn's position. While Labour MPs will be given a free vote when the Commons votes on Trident renewal later this year (a fait accompli), the real battle is to determine the party's manifesto stance. 

Thornberry will tomorrow address the shadow cabinet and, for the first time this year, Corbyn will attend the next PLP meeting on 22 February. Both will have to contend with a divide which appears unbridgeable. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.