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Call it a load of old bull

Bad banks, troubled assets and securitised loans – such linguistic tricks just add to the madness of

Euphemisms, by their nature, are supposed to plaster over unpleasant truths. In my adopted home town of New Orleans, a city known for its straight talking, the estate agents have lately taken to renaming the little residen­ces at the backs of main houses - long known by their truthful name, "slave quarters" - as "dependency units". The mind rebels.

I always thought of the economic and financial worlds as similarly resistant to euphemising. We had bulls and bears, of course, but those were metaphorical caricatures of real attitudes. Most of the jargon of the money world was, if anything, mind-numbingly literal: puts and calls, debentures and debt. But that all changed during the recent madness, a madness that may have been exacerbated by the looseness of the language.

This was a time, after all, when financial services began to be called "products". Conventional thinking would suggest that if I lend you money I haven't given you a product; I've afforded you (temporarily) the means to purchase products or services. But that was the term financial firms, insurance companies and banks started to use to refer to what they were offering.

Did it make people in these enterprises feel more muscular, less nurturing? Was it a linguistic farewell wave to a manufacturing economy, disappearing just as finance took centre stage? Seemingly innocuous, this change naturally led, as it did in the world of actual products, to an important next step: product innovation. Loans are loans, but a loan product seems awfully lonely up there on the shelf, all by itself. It needed some friends, some fellow products. Some friends.

Enter Ninas, home loans that required from their prospective borrowers "no income, no assets". Like the other loan "products", they had something in common with their manufactured brethren: once sold, they left the purview of their sellers. As with products, future responsibility for them was farmed out to someone else, preferably in Bangalore. Calling these things products made it possible, maybe even mandatory, to treat them as such. The only "service" left in the equation was the "servicing" of the loans, which itself was a euphemism for collecting.

Calling these loans Ninas feminised them, made them seem cute, charming, a little naughty, perhaps, but not criminal. Just as referring to the whole class of loans as "sub-prime" avoided the unpleasantness of the reality that they were junk. It's like describing someone on his deathbed as "sub-well".

When things started going bad, the language started getting even cuter. A year ago, we were told that the main cause of the crisis was the crushing burden of "toxic assets" - home mortgages lent to borrowers who could afford to pay them off just as soon as pigs filed flight plans. That's why three-quarters of a trillion dollars went from the US treasury into the Troubled Assets Relief Programme, or TARP (reassuring, isn't it? A safe plastic covering, in capital letters), supposedly to get these toxic assets off the books of the banks. In fact, entirely something else happened with the money, and with the language. While the federal funds became a simple cash infusion into favoured banks, the word "toxic" was nudged aside in favour of "troubled". Really. The assets were now to be seen as delinquent youths, their faces smudged with dirt, their clothes tattered but their souls still full of potential. It wasn't really their fault. They didn't need to be wiped off the books, just . . . understood.

Where were those assets supposed to go? Many officials proposed the notion of a "bad bank". Again, just a miscreant, like the dog that poops on the living-room carpet. Bad bank! Sit over there in a corner and think about those stinky mortgages you're collecting! It's a rolled-up newspaper to your noggin if you try it again. Of course, the main thrust of this particular euphemistic gambit was a brave attempt to convince us that there was, by contrast, such a thing as a good bank. Nice try.

When you want your euphemising to be particularly opaque, you go French. Hence, "tranche". Look it up and the dictionary will tell you it means "slice", but that sounds like something that's done in a delicatessen, parcelling out thin portions of pastrami to the waiting rye bread. That's not what sophisticated gents (and ladies) in bespoke suitings do inside Important Offices. The desired effect of tranche was to induce a tranche-like state, in which investors would come to assume that the people slicing up pieces of bad mortgages actually knew what they were doing.

This leads us to "securitising", which is to securing as "believitising" is to believing. In fact, believitising would be the creation of exactly the level of credulity this stuff called for; unfortunately, nobody bothered to coin that word until just now. The essence of securitising was persuading the financial ratings companies, by means as yet unknown, that a collection of slices of crappy mortgages (or a slice of a collection, take your pick) could be an AAA-grade investment. Those letters are themselves a kind of linguistic shorthand, as what they're really saying is: "Of course, this posits a new scale on which, if securitised mortgage packages are AAA, a truly secure investment would be ratedAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA+++." That is, it would be ratingised.

When the market tumbled a year ago, there was an uptick within a few weeks. That started a discussion about whether or not this was a "dead cat bounce", the short-lived surge upward before the destined plummeting resumes. When I first heard the phrase, I thought it was the name of a particularly inelegantly titled 1940s dance tune. But no, it's an example of financial malphemism, in which a mere reversal of market direction is depicted as an act of cruelty to animals - the dropping of an expired (or soon-to-be-expired) feline for the purpose of measuring gravity's effect on its air-worthiness. The deliberate crudity of the phrase probably reflects its origins among short-sellers and their contempt for any sign of hope.

Which brings us to the pedlars of positive thinking, among whom "green shoots" have contended with "glimmers of hope" as the optimistic usage of choice. "Green shoots" implies an organic process of growth, outside human control, but dependent on the season. "Glimmers" are more promising, requiring neither a green thumb nor the right time of year to make their appearance. This phrase has been a par­ticular favourite of the US treasury secretary, Timothy Geithner. Visualising these glimmers became for him almost an evangelical enterprise. Were they just an aurora geithnerealis, or were they signs of a true recovery? Don't ask, brothers and sisters, just believe.

And then there is the word tossed around blithely by CEOs and financial journalists alike, designed to drain all the dread out of one of the most frightening consequences of economic slowdown. That word is "shed" - not as in the little building out back where you keep your tools, but as in what prudent companies do to jobs. We've not been experiencing the widespread throwing of people out of work recently, just the shedding of jobs.
The word makes the process sound all National Geographic, like what snakes do with their skins every whenever. But its progress has not yet led it to the scene of the actual transaction: "Bill, we value your contribution to the company over the years. I'm sorry, but we're going to have to shed you." No, "let you go" still is the go-to euphemism. Which raises the question: "But what if I don't want to go?" We're still letting you do it.

Contemplating these linguistic tricks inspired me. I have written songs around them, including "Bad Bank", "Troubled Assets", "Dead Cat Bounce" and "Glimmers of Hope". They appear online as part of a collection of compositions about the meltdown, named after the two contending forces in stock markets: Greed and Fear. It was an act not so much of composing, frankly, as of songitising.

Harry Shearer plays more than 12 characters in "The Simpsons" and was Derek Smalls in "This is Spinal Tap". For more information, visit his website.

This article first appeared in the 07 December 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Boy George

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View from Paisley: How the Conservatives are wooing Labour's Scottish heartlands

Not so long ago, Conservative activists in Paisley could expect doors slammed in their faces. A referendum has changed that.

Tony Lawler, a Labour activist, was recently knocking on doors in the Scottish town of Paisley, when he came across a disgruntled resident. “I’m really disappointed in Douglas Alexander,” the potential voter complained. “I haven’t seen him. He used to be in Morrisons.”

Douglas Alexander, of course, has gone. He was the longstanding Labour MP and onetime International Development secretary who lost his seat in 2015 to a 20-year-old rival, the Scottish National Party’s Mhairi Black. He does not plan to stand again. But when I visit Paisley, a short train ride from Glasgow, I find that memories of him linger on. 

Two years after Alexander’s defeat, I meet Lawler and other local Labour activists in Morrisons, where Alexander used to hold his surgeries. As checkouts beep and trolley wheels roll over linoleum, they point to an empty table in the corner of this hallowed ground: “He used to sit just there.”

In 2015, the SNP’s victory in this former manufacturing town seemed to epitomise the earthquake in Scottish politics. But as the Labour activists know too well, no political fortress is undefeatable. And in Paisley, the home of one of the oldest workers’ festivals in the world, the party with the most to gain is one that previously never dared to canvass in the high street – the Conservative party. 

The town the Brexiteers forgot

In 1988, the historian Sylvia Clarke reflected on Paisley’s lost industries, wondering what was next for the former weaving towns. “Paisley as a tourist centre?” she wondered, in Paisley: A History. “Paisley as a place for visitors to come to, rather than a send-out of goods and emigrants?” 

For all Paisley’s industrial decline, it’s a pretty place. The town is in the running for the 2021 City of Culture, and has the second biggest number of listed buildings after Edinburgh. When I visit in the middle of April, blossom floats on the trees, and a river meanders through a neighbourhood of old, stone houses. It takes a moment to notice weeds tightening their grasp on the window frames. When I try the door of the ancient Paisley Abbey, it’s locked.

Perhaps if Paisley had been located the other side of the border, in Sunderland or Northumbria, it would be voting Leave and flirting with Ukip. But in the most deprived areas here, Labour activists tell me the EU referendum tally was still almost 50-50, and overall the town voted Remain.

There is a view that Brexit is an English concern. “We haven’t picked up anything about the EU referendum,” says Lawler of his doorstep conversations. “What people are talking about is the independence referendum, Jeremy Corbyn and the kids’ ward.” Scotland’s health secretary, Shona Robison, is due to make a decision on whether the specialist ward should be moved to a large hospital in the First Minister’s Glasgow constituency, against the wishes of many Paisley residents. The hospital in question is nicknamed “the Death Star”.  

Another concern, reminiscent of small towns across the UK, is the decline of the high street. When I walk down the historical shopping area Causeyside Street, I find mother and daughter Kate and Linda Hancy packing up what remains of The Pattern Café and Gift Shop. The wallpaper is a glorious Paisley print, but the scented candles are in boxes and a spray soap bottle hangs from a chair. After two years of trying, they are closing down.  

“People just don’t have money to spend,” Kate says. “A lot of people have been on the same wage for more than five years.”

Linda chimes in: “The cost of living going up but wages aren’t the same. I work in a supermarket, and people come in and say ‘How did I spend this much money?’ A lot of people are paying by credit cards.”

The Hancys voted to remain in the UK, and the EU. Although they knew Alexander, they have never met Mhairi Black, and feel devolution, if anything, has made politicians less accountable. “Why are we picking 1,2,3,4,” demands Kate, referring to Holyrood's voting system, which rejected first past the post. “Why can’t we pick one like we used to?”

Without the EU to blame, the most obvious culprits for Paisley town centre’s decline are the out-of-town shopping centres, where cinemas are opening just as historical ones in town close their doors.

Gavin Simpson, owner of Feel the Groove, a new record shop, remembers the 1980s, when a new release would have shoppers queuing round the block. However, he believes the town is over the worst. (As we speak, a customer comes in to reserve such a record and cheerfully warns Gavin that “even if I ask for my money back, don’t give it to me.”)

One thriving business is the longstanding butchers, Wm Phelps. Manager James Peacock tells me it is down to the trustworthy Scottish produce, which is carefully tracked and labelled. But the business has also embraced globalisation.  After noticing a large number of South African customers, Peacock began selling boerewors and biltong.

The other referendum campaign

If Paisley has been spared the divisions of the EU referendum campaign, its “buddies” – as residents are known – are still reeling with the repercussions of an earlier referendum, that on Scotland in the UK. In 2014, the town voted for independence, although the county overall opted to stay in the UK. 

The town is home to a particularly brash strain of indyreffers, including the “Smith Commission burners”, three SNP councillors who gathered in front of the council headquarters to burn a copy of the report setting out new powers for Scotland. One of them, Mags MacLaren, went on to manage Black’s constituency office.

But if the Paisley independence movement has been well covered, less is known about its opposite - the rise of pro-unionism. 

Of the three mainstream parties opposed to independence, it is the Scottish Conservatives, with their unconventional leader Ruth Davidson, who have most effectively capitalised on the pro-union message. In the 2016 Scottish Parliament elections, the Tory Jackson Carlaw captured the West of Scotland constituency of Eastwood, which had been held by Labour since its creation. 

In Holyrood, the Scottish Tories benefit from proportional representation, which allows voters to choose a constituency MSP but also rank parties. 

According to Paul Masterton, the Tory candidate for East Renfrewshire, and the secretary of the Renfrewshire and Inverclyde Scottish Conservative Association, the Conservatives are now getting huge numbers of first preference votes, including in neighbourhoods like the suburb of Ralston, where both Black and Masterton are from. So who are these voters? Masterton describes them as “New Labour voters who were happy with Tony Blair and Gordon Brown but didn’t like Jeremy Corbyn and get tied up into knots by [Scottish Labour leader] Kezia Dugdale flipflopping on the union stance".

The 2016 election saw the Scottish Conservatives surge to second place in Scotland – a superb comeback for a party once ridiculed as being rarer than pandas. The next electoral test is the local council elections. In Paisley, even Labour activists acknowledged the Conservatives were likely to be the most notable winners.

“For a long time we simply didn’t go out in Paisley," says Masterton. "We were written off and we allowed ourselves to be written off.”

But the referendum has changed this. “What I found was that last May, people weren’t shutting the door in your face," he adds. "Once you started the conversation they were far more receptive to that.” 

Like the Labour activists, Masterton argues that the constitutional question matters more than Brexit. “When Theresa May said ‘now is not the time’, I think a lot of people across Paisley did a small quiet fist pump,” he says of a second independence referendum.  

Ironically, after the early election is called, the Scottish Conservatives do everything they can to mention the prospect. “Don't mention the 'i' word,” crows a recent press release about the “SNP indyref ban”. Davidson tweets: “Nicola doesn't want to stand on her record. She knows the country doesn't want her #indyref2.” A Panelbase survey commissioned by The Sunday Times Scotland published shortly after the early election was announced finds support for the Conservatives at Scotland at 33 per cent, 18 percentage points higher than in 2015. 

What you stand for

For now, Paisley remains a Scottish National Party stronghold. George Adams, the MSP with an office off the high street, proves elusive – Labour activists confirm his reputation as a hardworking local. Black’s aide turns down my request for an interview for similar reasons, but I bump into her that evening at a protest against cutting child tax credits in Glasgow’s George Square.

Black, an admirer of the left-wing Labour figure Tony Benn, once said she feels "it is the Labour party that left me". I ask her if she, like her Labour predecessor, holds surgeries in supermarkets. Black says she’d considered it, but given the sensitivity of some of the issues, such as benefit problems, she thought her constituents might appreciate a more private space. “The main thing that crosses the door in my offices is Universal Credit changes,” she explains. She says she has raised her concerns about the children’s ward.

As for the independence debate, she argues that the Scottish government have been “incredibly compromising” since Brexit, but adds: “A lot of folk want another chance at the question.”

Black is standing for re-election. With a majority of more than 5,000, and neither of her previous challengers in the running, she’s likely to keep her seat, even if buddies' discontent over local issues rumbles on. 

Still, as I have discovered, the 2014 referendum continues to reverberate in towns like Paisley. It has divided friends and neighbours on constitutional lines, galvanised new strains of politics, and brought a Labour heavyweight crashing down, with no appetite to return. 

The Tories believe their unionist message is enough to flip seats like East Renfrewshire, once Conservative, then Labour, and now an SNP marginal. As the SNP's shine wears off, could Paisley, with its long tradition of the left, one day follow? It no longer feels implausible. “The one thing about the Scottish Conservatives - and this is true whatever you like us or not,” says Masterton. “You know what we stand for.”

 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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