Tony Blair, challenged to produce "a performance contract for Government Britain plc", duly came up with a 10-point plan at Blackpool to show that Labour means business. But he didn't use business language. "I vow...", he declared, that his party would do this and that. By the time he had made his tenth "vow" the word had become a mantra. We were no longer in the Winter Gardens ballroom with its frivolous architecture. We were in church. "This is my covenant," he told the worshippers. (He rather spoiled the Messianic effect by adding "The buck stops with me", but never mind).
Tory party conferences have always been revivalist meetings, and here was Mr Blair again, beating them at their own game. comes from the Latin word for a solemn promise made to a deity, the word from which we also get votary and devotion and, from its earliest days in English, it was impossible to use it without a reference, spoken or unspoken, to the Almighty. People, when vowing, tended to "call heaven to be their witness". Today, even atheists, forgetting their austere creed, sometimes say they "swear to God". It is true that the cooler sort of Regency hostess might say things like "I vow this gown is monstrous handsome" or whatever, but she was just talking sloppy, vow here being short for avow, or "declare", which came from an entirely different Latin word.
was never a regular part of the vocabulary of the People's Party. You didn't often hear the brothers vowing that they were going to catch the last bus. But circumstances alter cases. And Tony Blair knows what too many modern liturgists forget, that any religion needs a language separate from that of every day. Perhaps he also knows that vow derives from the same word as vote.
Nicholas BagnallReuse content