Our politicians don't "get it" on speaking plainly. Photo: Getty
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They just don’t "get it": time to muffle mealy-mouthed politicians

As a party leader celebrated for being straight-talking dominates the political agenda while our potential future prime minister can’t stop talking like a wonk, it’s time to call our politicians out on their mealy-mouthed mumblings.

There is no place for "got" or "get" in the English language, my grandmother often tells me. Her theory is that the use of this all-purpose verb can always be replaced with "to have". So rather than "I’ve got a pedantic grandmother" – "I have a pedantic grandmother". Or "I’ve got to watch my words" can be "I have to watch my words". She sees the words "get", "got" – and their terrifying American cousin "gotten" – as a lazy and ugly linguistic shortcut.

Perhaps this is a bit of a rigid rule from a lady who steadfastly calls a single piece of broccoli a "broccolo", but I think communication at the top of British politics would be improved vastly if it were applied there. Because you can’t move for politicians "getting it" into their speeches these days. And it’s a particularly rhetorically flaccid feature of a growing trend for mealy-mouthed answers to urgent questions.
 

  • “People in Ukip always say that the other politicians don't get it. I mean, I do get it and I get them,” Tony Blair told the Today programme yesterday, weighing in on the European elections analysis.
     
  • “The Tories don’t get it,” Ed Miliband earnestly declared in a speech about tackling the cost-of-living crisis in April. And he’s used the phrase often in Commons appearances, particularly during PMQs.
     
  • “I want you to show the public that you get it,” Theresa May instructed the Police Federation annual conference last week.
     
  • “I get that,” David Cameron conceded in the Commons after losing the vote regarding military intervention in Syria last year.
     
  • Then there are the multiple variations on the perpetual mantra of “working hard to get on” employed by both halves of the coalition in their elucidation of a uniquely vague British dream.
     

"Getting it" and "getting on" are ways of avoiding identification of a problem, and fudging the proposed solution to it – in an irritatingly faux-colloquial tone, to boot.

The author of books about etymology and Inky Fool blogger Mark Forsyth tells me: "It's not just the word 'get' which is so vague (though it has 34 primary meanings listed in the OED), it's the 'it' that amuses me. Whenever I hear a politician saying 'I get it', I like to imagine that they're talking about diarrhoea or syphilis. Mind you, it's easy to be cruel to politicians. You find just as much of this meaningless stuff in pop music. With it. Where it's at. etc."

Yet he does acknowledge why such phrasing is employed by politicians: "The important thing is, of course, that everybody can imagine for themselves what 'it' is. It's the same idea as 'decent people' or 'hard-working families'. Coal miners and hedge-fund managers both believe they're hard-working. The words are mirrors in which each voter sees themselves. Everybody believes they're decent. Or almost everybody. I wish sometimes that there were a party representing indecent, workshy bachelors like me. But I fear it shall never come to pass."

And "getting it" is just a symptom of a wider problem: politicians refusing to speak plainly. A recent example is the Labour leader failing to sum up his leadership and what he offers voters in one word. “I’ll give you two – One Nation”, Miliband replied to the journalist, after making a big show of rolling his eyes. He then went on to give a fuzzy description of what One Nation means. He wouldn’t deign to speak concisely and clearly, regarding it as a silly challenge set by a frivolous journalist.

This is a problem for politicians. Nigel Farage and his party were overwhelmingly successful in the recent European elections, and are dominating the political agenda. It’s often discussed that Farage’s straight-talking manner is appealing to an electorate starved of politicians speaking human. Tory MP Sarah Wollaston pointed out this week that the election results have taught us that people "like straight-talking politicians". Miliband gives convoluted, wonkish answers, and Cameron is often compared to a PR man for his superficial style – saying little and sticking to his lines. And the majority of their MPs aren’t much better.

Political jargon is inaccessible and alienating, but vague, fluffy phrases can be equally as evasive.

It may be a hackneyed reference, but George Orwell’s Newspeak, the language invented in his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, warned that the fewer ways we have to say something, the less call there is to say it at all. If we want transparency in our politics, we have to ask our politicians precisely what they mean by their weasel words. Because at the moment they just don’t seem to get it.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser