The problem of the dislocation between political language and policy substance

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:




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.

Brace, brace.


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32 thoughts on “The problem of the dislocation between political language and policy substance”

  1. Whatever you are when you are beyond pessimism is where I am.

    Hopeless despair probably best Sims it up.

  2. The problem is words. When ‘we’ invented speech, it was to communicate more effectively than by wagging our backsides, screaming incoherently or waving our hands. However, when the first three-year-old (or possibly younger) discovered that he could say ‘not me’ when asked who took the biscuits the game was up.

    So far as I know (I’m not David Attenborough) animals do not use their signalling techniques to deceive their own kind. We do. And absent religious or other controls on how we do it, we’ll do it more and more. The problem now is not that no one gets found out, it’s that no one cares when they are found out.

    What Trump and Johnson have in common is not their specific political views or programmes (not, actually, all that similar) but their understanding that honesty, consistency and accuracy are handicaps rather than assets in the sphere they have chosen to work in. Until that changes, they will be joined by more ambitious (even ambitious to ‘do good’) politicians rather than rejected.

    1. It may be nice to think that other animals are straightforward and honest, and only humans have the capacity for dishonesty, but many other animals will lie, steal or cheat if it may get them some sort of advantage.

      To pick a simple example, some squirrels will watch others of their own species burying nuts so they can dig them up and steal them. And if a squirrel notices it is being observed by another, some will pretend to bury nuts – going through the motions of excavation and filling in, but without putting a nut in the hole – to deceive the putative thief.

      There are similar examples all over the animal kingdom – not just mammals, but also birds, cephalopods, crustacea, etc.

        1. What never? Well, hardly ever.

          Until the AI takes over, solicitors and barristers are humans too, with the range of good and bad features that entails. There are professional obligations and ethical standards, but some fail to meet them.

        2. Happy to see you have a sense of humour, Mr Green.

          More seriously, your piece today callsPolitical parties have become tribal repesentatives to mind the old saw that people get the government they deserve. I am then led down the depressing rabbit-hole to wonder whether The democratic political system we have created and which is held in such high esteem is no longer fit for purpose. The assumptions and experience upon which it is founded included the existence of a homogeneous society with common values, religion(mostly), and culture. It assumed that the voter would have stake in the community and would be informed and engaged and thus capable of understanding issues coming before parliament. As the franchise was extended by gender and age it was assumed that universal education would be the way to create an informed and engaged mass voting public. Clearly that has not occurred. In a time of culture wars, widespread ignorance and apathy, misinformation, a rapid decline in social trust, mendacious and hypocritical politicians (and lawyers}, intimidated officials, a scurrilous press, and a failing education system; add in a winner take all political system with consensus and compromise scorned, then what can we conclude about our democratic system. Built for another age on assumptions that no longer apply it evidently is no longer fit for purpose.

  3. The best outcome will be the breakup of the anachronism that is the UK. Independent Scotland and unified Ireland. Then the English nationalists will have to face reality as a small country on the edge of the biggest trading bloc in the world, and having just picked a fight with China. Brace indeed.

    1. The ultimate political protest is not to pay your taxes.

      Until recently Uk citizens had the right to up sticks and live and work in any one of 27 other countries no questions asked.

      This right has been taken away unless you have an Irish parent or grandparent or an Eu parent or spouse.

      18 to 21 are formative years. What would we all be doing and thinking if in this age group now.

      1. I totally agree, Richard. In fact, it was the widespread refusal to pay the poll tax that led to its demise, and I think was a key factor in the beginning of Scotland’s political break with “English” / Westminster political parties. However, I struggle to see how enough people will be unified enough to find the collective strength and determination to achieve that sort of action in England again. I’m lucky enough to be one of those with a spouse with EU nationality, so our little boy has that too. I don’t want him growing up here. So we are planning to leave in the next year or so.

      2. “Until recently Uk citizens had the right to up sticks and live and work in any one of 27 other countries no questions asked.

        This right has been taken away unless you have an Irish parent or grandparent or an Eu parent or spouse.”

        If you are a UK citizen, you can live and work in Ireland even if you have no Irish family heritage. You just can’t get an Irish passport instantly, instead you would need to wait five years for naturalisation. It’s called the Common Travel Area and it has nothing to do with the EU.

    2. I’m afraid I’m pessimistic about the effect on England of Scotland leaving. I don’t see why the same people who currently lie fluently and plausibly about the EU being the source of all our Brexit woes would not simply build a grievance narrative about how the EU conspired to trick Scotland into leaving. After all, England is the best country in the world, so why would anyone possibly not want to be run from London?

      As a solution for the people of Scotland, it makes a lot of sense. I just don’t see why it would bring the English to their senses when nothing else has yet done so.

      1. Peter, I’m pessimistic about that too. So we’re leaving. However, Scotland leaving the Union will mean the Scots no longer have to bear the Westminster government and its policies that they have not voted for, and consistently voted against for decades. Then the responsibility for sorting out the ethno-nationalist shitshow that England has turned into is an issue squarely for the Enlgish polis.

  4. Get some people who want to see what you set out happen to run high profile BAFTA type awards for those who do the right thing (and brickbat awards for those who don’t – focussed around
    The Nolan Principles / The Seven Principles of Public Life

    first set out by Lord Nolan in 1995 and apply to anyone who works as a public office holder. This includes people who are elected or appointed to public office. In accordance with the Law, persons in public life shall observe the following principles:

    Holders of public office should take decisions solely in terms of the public interest. They should not do so in order to gain financial or other material benefits for themselves, their family or their friends.

    Holders of public office should not place themselves under any financial or other obligation to outside individuals or organisations that might seek to influence them in the performance of their official duties.

    In carrying out public business, including making public appointments, awarding contracts, or recommending individuals for rewards and benefits, holders of public office should make choices on merit.

    Holders of public office are accountable for their decisions and actions to the public and must submit themselves to whatever scrutiny is appropriate to their office.

    Holders of public office should be as open as possible about all the decisions and actions that they take. They should give reasons for their decisions and restrict information only when the wider public interest clearly demands.

    Holders of public office have a duty to declare any private interests relating to their public duties and to take steps to resolve any conflicts arising in a way that protects the public interest.

    Holders of public office should promote and support these principles by leadership and example.

    1. That is a good idea. The danger of course is that the awarding body would be in danger of being subverted by a political faction, and an award for honesty would turn into an award for sharing the “correct” political stance. And that anyone not getting such an award would immediately blame political bias.

      Nonetheless, it is an excellent suggestion and better than sitting here in a state of despair. It needs someone of impeccable reputation and no known party political bias to run with it.

  5. Political lying has proven to be a very successful strategy for the Right (across the world). It is a recognition that their actual aims are not accepted by the electorate, and so will be followed by attempts to rig the electoral process (as we have seen in the USA and now the UK) and the legal process to maintain a sole grip on power.

    Are there any examples of this approach being overcome by democratic means? Or solely by major disruptions such as wars (civil or other)? Maybe the breakup of the Soviet Union?

    I fear the 20th Century may turn out to be the only century of broad democracy.

  6. “WAR IS PEACE” as quoted from 1984 by George Orwell.

    It seems that this is Johnston’s latest mantra. To beef up the armed forces, the largest reputedly since the Second World War, if I recall correctly. To allow for a significant increase in nuclear weapons – if not an actual increase. Does “Landing Strip One” now see the need for “Oceania” to gear up for the next war? If the UK is going to increase its WMD, what will the so-called rogue countries do, sit back and watch? To rattle the sabre over the Channel at “our friends”. The prime object of the European Union was to prevent all future wars on the European continent!

    And all this is while the NHS staff is to receive a paltry increase, while the country has dolled out billions to fund Covid-19 relief and while the real costs of Brexit are becoming manifest.

    Noise and distraction??

    1. This policy echoes the NRA’s view that the way to prevent mass shootings in US schools is to arm the teachers, if not the children.

  7. As in Trump’s Republican Party, the key concept here now seems to be winning – at any cost. But as in Trump’s Republican Party, I think this is likely to play out as a Greek tragedy, where the twisted logic driving people’s actions inevitably leads to their downfall.

  8. Politicians have always lied. What is so breathtaking about the present government is its shamelessness. Not correcting the record when caught in a lie, but doubling down on the lie.

    It surprises and disappoints me, but it seems few people care: they lap up the propaganda, and cheer and clap. Just look at the polls.

    You can deny reality for a while, but eventually something has to give.

    As someone might have once said in a different context: “As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding. Like the Roman, I seem to see “the River Tiber foaming with much blood”.”

  9. Is the in UK a structure where Brexit will be a negotiation without end or is it in a stricture where Brexit will be a negotiation without end? Discuss ;-)

  10. As in George Orwell’s brilliant fictitious slogans, the reality is the opposite of what is claimed. One of the most egregious was Bush’s claim that the war against Iraq would make the world a safer place. It demonstrably did exactly the opposite. (Who now is prepared to admit they supported the war?). I take it as axiomatic that whatever is claimed by a politician as a policy either the intent or the result will be the opposite. The latest example being the Second reading of a bill yesterday that purports to defend our freedoms but in fact is to be used to prohibit protest and demonstrations with a draconian 10 year prison sentence – so Home Office, so Priti Patel. This increasing tendency is not helped by a populace which has willingly rushed headlong into the arms of the most comprehensive system of surveillance, access and intrusion of privacy and personal freedoms under the slogan of “personal convenience” and “protecting the public”. How could Orwell have imagined in 1948 that everyone would willingly carry around a personal tracking system in the form of a mobile phone or raise his eyebrows at all those who have voluntarily installed a personal surveillance system in their home which monitors, records and analyses every word they utter? Maybe the deception is in fact self-deception and it starts at home.

  11. “Like a gear stick that has come loose, there seems no connection between the political phrases and the policy substance.”

    Any connection is that both are designed to serve the convenience of the person uttering them and/or the policies they wish to pursue, as in ‘The rules are for thee and not for me.’ The people nodding and clapping along are doing so in the assumption that ‘the rules’ will apply to other people and not to themselves.

  12. One way to think about the current situation is to consider whether it is the consequence (or symptom) rather than the cause. By this I mean that (at least) several low-level longterm changes have brought us (Western Hemisphere English-speaking countries along with AU & NZ) to where we are. These changes are: (1) decline of education as a commonly accepted social good; (2) technology (including the psychology of human motivation) continuing to far outpace social norms; (3) increases in income inequality producing supra-national winners (a non-state/international oligarchy) and left-behind nation-state losers, a process validated by; (4) the reification of self-worth (expressed as possession of power or property) as the pre-eminent social value, leading to; (5) national and sub-national contests among the left-behind for diminishing assets, necessarily producing; (6) the internal deterioration of nation-states. As none of these came about overnight, are not uncommon in the arc of human empires, and are now entrenched it is unlikely (to put it mildly) that any one approach or actor can reverse or reduce these trends. What I would suggest is necessary is a sufficient number of people who have the patience, intelligence and resilience to turn their faces away from much of our current culture and to start-not by returning to the unreachable imperfect past-developing something newer with an inclusive rather than exclusive vision, and on the premise that in the 21st century, tinkering with 18th-century political and economic principles will not suffice. Whether those people can manage all of this plus what climate catastrophe will bring about is I think an open question. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.

  13. “Words had to change their ordinary meaning and to take that which was now given them. Reckless audacity came to be considered the courage of a loyal ally; prudent hesitation, specious cowardice; moderation was held to be a cloak for unmanliness; ability to see all sides of a question, inaptness to act on any. Frantic violence became the attribute of manliness; cautious plotting, a justifiable means of self-defence. The advocate of extreme measures was always trustworthy; his opponent a man to be suspected. To succeed in a plot was to have a shrewd head, to divine a plot a still shrewder; but to try to provide against having to do either was to break up your party and to be afraid of your adversaries.” – History of the Peloponnesian War
    All this stuff seems to be the basis of “neuro-marketing”, propaganda, and the current British government. the Law and Policy Blog is a defence and we need more like it and pitched at the level of The Daily Mail and Murdoch’s venom.

    1. I couldn’t agree more. But the deeper we sink into this political, legal & economic mire the more difficult it becomes to extricate ourselves. To me it feels like fighting a battle we can’t win. This is compounded further when family & friends see what’s going on through a totally different lens. I used to think that they didn’t know and/or care about being lied to but it must go deeper than that.
      I can only conclude their ambivalent attitude is due to continued exposure & spoon feeding of ‘apparent’ reality & facts by MSM. This is compounded with them having utter respect for those in positions of power & authority.
      Our current breed of politicians have a seemingly innate ability to lie/misrepresent the facts without compunction. They have us fully stitched up – they know that thanks to vested (or often conflict of) interests, few brave souls will attempt to expose their falsehoods & misrepresentations. I suspect that for the altruistic (or otherwise) individuals who do try to take on & expose those in power, they become incredibly vulnerable & may sadly pay a heavy price career or personal life wise, again thanks to government ability to control the output of MSM through leaked/targeted stories & press briefings aimed at discrediting the individual who has taken them on.
      In the end it all comes down to Representation & Reality and at present the two are sadly blurred.
      Brace, brace.

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