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 senior writer at the New Statesman.

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"We repealed, then forgot": the long shadow of Section 28 homophobia

Why are deeply conservative views about the "promotion" of homosexuality still being reiterated to Scottish school pupils? 

Grim stories of LGBTI children being bullied in school are all too common. But one which emerged over the weekend garnered particular attention - because of the echoes of the infamous Section 28, nearly two decades after it was scrapped.

A 16-year-old pupil of a West Lothian school, who does not wish to be named, told Pink News that staff asked him to remove his small rainbow pride badge because, though they had "no problem" with his sexuality, it was not appropriate to "promote it" in school. It's a blast from the past - the rules against "promoting" homosexuality were repealed in 2000 in Scotland, but the long legacy of Section 28 seems hard to shake off. 

The local authority responsible said in a statement that non-school related badges are not permitted on uniforms, and says it is "committed to equal rights for LGBT people". 

The small badge depicted a rainbow-striped heart, which the pupil said he had brought back from the Edinburgh Pride march the previous weekend. He reportedly "no longer feels comfortable going to school", and said homophobia from staff members felt "much more scar[y] than when I encountered the same from other pupils". 

At a time when four Scottish party leaders are gay, and the new Westminster parliament included a record number of LGBTQ MPs, the political world is making progress in promoting equality. But education, it seems, has not kept up. According to research from LGBT rights campaigners Stonewall, 40 per cent of LGBT pupils across the UK reported being taught nothing about LGBT issues at school. Among trans students, 44 per cent said school staff didn’t know what "trans" even means.

The need for teacher training and curriculum reform is at the top of campaigners' agendas. "We're disappointed but not surprised by this example," says Jordan Daly, the co-founder of Time for Inclusive Education [TIE]. His grassroots campaign focuses on making politicians and wider society aware of the reality LGBTI school students in Scotland face. "We're in schools on a monthly basis, so we know this is by no means an isolated incident." 

Studies have repeatedly shown a startling level of self-harm and mental illness reported by LGBTI school students. Trans students are particularly at risk. In 2015, Daly and colleagues began a tour of schools. Shocking stories included one in which a teacher singled out a trans pupils for ridicule in front of the class. More commonly, though, staff told them the same story: we just don't know what we're allowed to say about gay relationships. 

This is the point, according to Daly - retraining, or rather the lack of it. For some of those teachers trained during the 1980s and 1990s, when Section 28 prevented local authorities from "promoting homosexuality", confusion still reigns about what they can and cannot teach - or even mention in front of their pupils. 

The infamous clause was specific in its homophobia: the "acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship" could not be mentioned in schools. But it's been 17 years since the clause was repealed in Scotland - indeed, it was one of the very first acts of the new Scottish Parliament (the rest of the UK followed suit three years later). Why are we still hearing this archaic language? 

"We repealed, we clapped and cheered, and then we just forgot," Daly says. After the bitter campaign in Scotland, in which an alliance of churches led by millionaire businessman Brian Souter poured money into "Keeping the Clause", the government was pleased with its victory, which seemed to establish Holyrood as a progressive political space early on in the life of the parliament. But without updating the curriculum or retraining teaching staff, Daly argues, it left a "massive vacuum" of uncertainty. 

The Stonewall research suggests a similar confusion is likely across the UK. Daly doesn't believe the situation in Scotland is notably worse than in England, and disputes the oft-cited allegation that the issue is somehow worse in Scotland's denominational schools. Homophobia may be "wrapped up in the language of religious belief" in certain schools, he says, but it's "just as much of a problem elsewhere. The TIE campaign doesn't have different strategies for different schools." 

After initial disappointments - their thousands-strong petition to change the curriculum was thrown out by parliament in 2016 - the campaign has won the support of leaders such as Nicola Sturgeon and Kezia Dugdale, and recently, the backing of a majority of MSPs. The Scottish government has set up a working group, and promised a national strategy. 

But for Daly, who himself struggled at a young age with his sexuality and society's failure to accept it, the matter remains an urgent one.  At just 21, he can reel off countless painful stories of young LGBTI students - some of which end in tragedy. One of the saddest elements of the story from St Kentigern's is that the pupil claimed his school was the safest place he had to express his identity, because he was not out at home. Perhaps for a gay pupil in ten years time, that will be a guarantee. 

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