Britain has changed forever. The Europeans are not laughing now, are they? And Captain Cameron will no longer steer the ship, albeit already sinking. But the dreary language of this country’s politicians and broadcasters prove that some characteristics of our island race will slouch on into eternity.
This past week, their words only matched the miserable state into which the (supposed) United Kingdom has collapsed.
Brexit was an “utter earthquake”, a “seismic moment”, a “seismic shock”, “volcanic”, or merely a “wake-up call”.
The first two came from Labour MP Keith Vaz, the “wake-up call” (twice) from former Labour business secretary Chuka Umunna. And just about everybody, from Tory MPs to the BBC’s Northern Ireland correspondent , told us that we were entering “uncharted waters” or (mistakenly) “unchartered waters” or “uncharted territory”, without explaining just why these end-of-the-world oceans and undiscovered lands had not been mapped out long ago by Cameron, Johnson, Osborne and Farage – not to mention the BBC, whose own David Dimbleby announced portentously 12 hours after Brexit day that “a new day has dawned”.
Well of course it bloody well had. But what makes us utter these inanities in the face of tragedy or farce?
Take Diane Abbott, Jeremy’s amanuensis. She identified a “roar of defiance against Westminster”, but then lapsed into how we had entered “an extremely challenging situation” and “a very challenging situation” in which – heaven spare us – we had to “rise to the challenge”.
When I heard this, I reached for my trusty copy of Watson’s Dictionary of Weasel Words, Contemporary Clichés, Cant and Management Jargon, the Australian-authored manual of verbal sewage, published in Sydney 12 years ago and essential reading for all readers and listeners.
And sure enough, there is “challenge”, on page 61: supposedly a call to fight or “things to do” – like defeating Osama bin Laden or solving a crossword puzzle – but in reality a cliché of politesse and big business. As in, “fiscally challenged” (which the UK certainly is), or something to be done to meet “challenging customer requirements”.
Corbyn, who has a lot of challenging customer requirements right now, moved inexorably into this horrible language when he talked, in his first reaction to the Brexit vote, about immigrants’ “skill sets”.
Who wrote this twaddle into his silly speech? People may have “skills”, Watson’s Dictionary informs me, but they do not come in “sets”; and Watson quotes a consultancy document urging staff to “develop wider skill sets than they have now”.
It was almost a relief to hear poor old Jeremy banging on about the need for the poor to get “a fair crack of the whip”. But why didn’t he just say “equal chance” or, if he wanted to be inventive, use that wonderful Australian expression “a fair suck of the sauce bottle”? Anything rather than whips.
Clichés, of course, are insulting because they suggest that we, the “general public”, are too dumb to understand anything unless it is fed to us in a slick of watered-down over-used mush that lacks all imagination.
Thus I noted – 40 times on 24 June alone – that politicians of all parties, from Cameron on down (or perhaps up) announced that they were “absolutely” sure, certain, appalled or overwhelmed by events. The original winner of the Absolutely Award, of course, was Lord Blair of Kut al-Amara who always combined it with “completely” (as in I am “absolutely and completely certain” … that the intelligence/weapons of mass destruction/45 minute warning is real). We must, in fact, absolutely and completely distrust anyone who uses the word “absolutely”.
When the awful result became clear, we were treated to a collection of talking heads who decided (if they were pro-Brexit) that the vote was “exciting” and that “people have had enough”.
The Bank of England’s Canadian governor popped up to tell the world that his institution had “tools at its disposal” to deal with the crisis (which he could not, of course, call a crisis) and thus brought Watson’s wrath back into play. “Tool” is another consultant’s word, a machine-crafted implement made for a successful purpose (digging up weeds in the garden, for example) which is bound to succeed. As long as it is accompanied – and I heard this at least 12 times – by “calm, measured reflection”. We must “move forward” (our beloved Foreign Secretary) and find “the right way forward” (Corbyn again).
The BBC’s correspondent in Warsaw said that Poles were suffering from “a palpable sense of unease” – as well they might, but why “palpable”? – while Dr Sarah Wollaston (Tory MP for Totnes, who had the good sense to leave Leave for Remain) sought a “very positive way forward” after a “divisive campaign”.
Divisive? Why, you could have fooled me. Our partners (that is, the Europeans we had just told to get lost) would have a “key [sic] say” in the outcome which would send “a very clear [sic] message” to 130,000 NHS workers. It was left to former Cabinet secretary Gus O’Donnell to inform the world that “it takes two to tango”.
This childish, tired expression, used by Reagan when he claimed the Russians wouldn’t talk to him and by Ehud Barak when he tried to persuade the world that the Palestinians didn’t want to negotiate peace, is usually uttered by those who have never danced the tango in their lives (though I feel sure Baron O’Donnell knows every step).
We owed it to Liberal Democrat Tim Farron to explain how “utterly gutted and heartbroken” he was – how much better “heartbroken” would have sounded without the twaddle before it – and to conclude that “now is the time for unity”.
And time now, no doubt, for all good men to come to the aid of the party. The BBC’s David Eades even told us that Brexit would provide “a huge lump in the throat” – a cyst, perhaps, or a gland problem– for many Europeans, although it would surely be Brits who would be suffering from “the worst case scenario” (Eric Pickles).
In time, we were to hear about “real people, ordinary people, decent people” – Farage-ese at its most sublime, along with the same man’s sneer at “big merchant banks, big business and big politics” which sounded faintly like the little corporal chappie with the moustache before he won power for himself more than eight decades ago.
There were other worrying moments, especially when post-Brexit politicos described how “passionately” they felt about their own views.
But my absolutely and utterly non-cliché reporter’s Eloquence of the Year Award goes to Laurence Lee, al-Jazeera’s London correspondent.
Outside Downing Street, he furiously referred to “the mess he (Cameron) created himself” and then announced exultantly to the camera after the captain’s pathetic resignation speech: “Well, he’s off, isn’t he?” Bloody right too.