17th March 2021
The problem of political language not being tied firmly to particular meanings is not a new one:
‘From where Winston stood it was just possible to read, picked out on its white face in elegant lettering, the three slogans of the Party:
WAR IS PEACE
FREEDOM IS SLAVERY
IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH’
Indeed, it is no doubt a problem as old as political discourse itself.
But the fact that it is not a novelty does not make it any less irksome.
And nor does it mean that its instances should be left unremarked.
Currently there is a severe dislocation between political words and things.
Those ‘free speech warriors’ who decry ‘cancel culture’ often seem at ease with a government putting forward legislation that is capable of prohibiting any form of effective protest.
There are also the ‘classical liberals’ who commend ‘free trade’ who are in support of Brexit, which is the biggest imposition of trade barriers on the United Kingdom in modern history – and has even led to a trade barrier down the Irish Sea.
And there are the champions of the liberties under Magna Carta and of ‘common law rights’ who also somehow support restrictions on access to the court for judicial review applications and sneer at imaginary activist judges.
Like a gear stick that has come loose, there seems no connection between the political phrases and the policy substance.
But the phrases are not meaningless – they still have purchase (else they would not be used).
The phrases are enough to get people to nod-along and to clap and cheer.
It is just that they are nodding-along and clapping and cheering when the actual policies then being adopted and implemented have the opposite effect.
Can anything be done?
An optimist will aver that mankind can only bear so much unreality – and that people will realise they have been taken in by follies and lies.
That, for example, Americans will realise that politicians who seek support to ‘make American great again’ have made America anything but.
Or that those who said they would ‘get Brexit done’ have instead placed the United Kingdom in a structure where Brexit will be a negotiation without end.
Or there will be a realisation that a government is seeking greater legal protections for statues than for actual human beings.
A pessimist will see the opposite – that the breakdown of traditional media and political structures (with traditional political parties and newspapers seeming quaint survivors from another age) – means that it will be harder to align words with meanings.
Meaning the dismal prospect of liberals and progressives having to also adopt such insincere approaches so as to counter and defeat the illiberals and authoritarians.
Whatever the solution, it needs to come rather quickly – at least in the United Kingdom – as the current illiberal and authoritarian government is in possession of a large parliamentary majority and is showing itself willing and able to push through illiberal and authoritarian laws and policies.
While pretending to itself and others that it has ‘libertarian instincts’.
And so it may not just be the gear stick which has come loose but also the brakes as well.
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