Caught out by his own catch-phrases

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The Independent Online
LAST WEEK, John Major achieved an unprecedented success. This view may surprise you, amid the current Whitehall sex farce, but it is true.

After the death of Brian Johnston, the great cricket commentator, the Prime Minister issued a statement. 'Summers,' he said, 'will never be the same again.'

The sentiment was filched by grateful sub-editors and laid across the nation's front pages. This was reasonable, as the words expressed what a significant cross-section of the country felt on that day. Yet, for these two reasons, the seven simple words were revolutionary. Nothing John Major has said in his political life has come close to the combination of elegance, accuracy and media pick-up achieved by his eulogy for Brian Johnston.

What should we conclude from this? That John Major has a new press secretary for 1994? That his instincts for cricket are surer than his instincts for politics? The former is factually true, the latter argumentatively plausible. But, whatever the explanation, the sudden success of the Prime Minister's Johnston comment focuses attention on his previous verbal failures.

Politicians are often compared to comedians - more so, perhaps, with every passing day - but the professions do have one obvious similarity: the importance of a catch-phrase.

All the top-of-the-bill performers have had them. We think of Churchill's 'Never in the field of human conflict . . .' and 'We shall fight on the beaches . . .'; Kennedy's 'Ask not what your country can do for you . . .'; Luther King's 'I have a dream . . .'; Reagan's 'It's morning in America again . . .'; Thatcher's 'The lady's not for turning . . .'

From these, we can deduce a series of rules for the political catch-phrase. The best aim high: using hyperbole, poetic inversion, words such as 'dream' and metaphors such as 'morning'. Even Churchill's words, spoken in gloomy days, are uplifting in spirit. They are also usually not true - America in Reagan's time was really a few strokes short of midnight; Margaret Thatcher's administrations wriggled with U-turns - but encapsulate something in the political persona of the orator. Last, they are unambiguous and not disprovable. (George Bush's 'Read my lips, no new taxes' was, as a factual promise, always an albatross waiting to land on his presidential neck.)

Let us bear these laws in mind as we look at John Major's long search for a catch-phrase.

'If it isn't hurting, it isn't working.' This piece of juvenilia, born during his period as Chancellor, was a reference to Major's tough economic policies. Poetically, this catch-phrase is respectable enough, employing rhyme (though an imperfect one) and rhythmic swagger. Politically, it was a rare, and probably reckless, attempt to pioneer the downbeat soundbite. 'Hurting' is a word with a bigger kick than 'working', and the latter word was a hostage to the Opposition at a time of high unemployment. With this catch-phrase, Major identified himself with inflicting distress on the electorate, rather than the possibility of deliverance. It is as if Churchill had begun 'Millions have died . . .'

'Classless society': This was born in 1990 to rub the faces of his leadership rivals - the toffish Douglas Hurd and multi-millionaire Michael Heseltine - in the dirt. Major's mistake was to raise a clever campaign smear into his administration's first big idea.

Scoring zero for language, this phrase also fails to appreciate that a leader's general aspirations must be uncontroversial to the majority of supporters. Luther King was not a national leader, but a sectional one, expressing what all his listeners longed for. Nationally, 'peace' or 'low taxes' have a high take-up rate, But much of the British electorate and the Tory party want a classless society just as white South Africans want President Mandela. Riskily sub- Socialist for a Conservative, the words have been easily turned against the Prime Minister over such issues as the honours list and his attempts to shore up the Royal Family.

'Citizen's Charter': The second big Major idea, given manifesto prominence in 1992. It follows the verbal rules of catch-phrases - alliteration, archaic language (neither 'citizen' nor 'charter' is in daily use) - but made the fatal mistake of attaching practical measures to rhetorical ambition. The bathos of what Major meant by his phrase - complaints about British Rail, more lavatories on motorways - rendered the phrase comic. The pettiness of scope identified him with peevish small ambitions. Specifics kill catch-phrases. Note that JFK did not say: 'I will now indicate six small things, listed in this pamphlet, that you can do for your country.'

'Back to Basics': Launched last October at the Conservative Party conference, it initially seemed to be a catch-phrase born for greatness. Taut and alliterative, unambiguous in its message of a retreat from social and educational trendiness, it appeared to be a brilliantly cynical echo of the gut cries of Tory middle England. Three months later - as Major's ministers leave office every few hours, either because of press revelations about their private lives or to forestall them - it seems destined to be remembered as the second most disastrous catch-phrase in modern political history, after Bush's 'Read my lips . . .'

The odd thing is that Major did not obviously make Bush's mistake of offering a quantifiable promise. The error he seems to have made is being unaware that 'back to basics' was a known code among moralistic right-wingers in Britain and America for chastity, discipline and denial. He also apparently believed that catch-phrases can be renegotiated to suit later events. Hence his ludicrous suggestion that 'back to basics' implied no element of moral censure. But the point of a catch-phrase is that it is simple and it sticks.

The mystery remains of why the Prime Minister got it verbally so right with a dead commentator and so wrong with everything else. The answer is that his comments on Johnston were elegiac. But politics allows no admission of loss. You have to suggest that each summer will be better than the last. The only possible application of the Johnston tone to politics would, perhaps, have been a warning to Tory MPs as part of 'Back to Basics', that 'nights out will never be the same'.

A solution offers itself. BBC Radio's Test Match Special must find a new chief commentator. The obvious candidate is the Prime Minister, whose first name would even allow him to take on the commentary box nickname of 'Johnners', in symbolic continuity.

This arrangement has many attractions. Unlike his grasp on politics, Mr Major's grip on the statistics and history of cricket has never been questioned. True, Major as a commentator would lack the poetic intensity of John Arlott or the vocal brio of Brian Johnston, but this could become his commentating trademark: 'And a not inconsiderable quantity of seagulls hovers over the nursery end . . .'

'A 'not inconsiderable quantity', Johnners?'

'Oh, yes, Fred. And the run-rate required is . . .er . . .er . . .er . . .'

'Tha' nivver was very good with figures, Johnners . . .'

Subsequent summers might be better all round, under this application of his talents.

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