In 43 days, the UK goes to the polling booths. Whilst I’ve decided to be a statetheist, I am watching the upcoming battle with interest. This election proves to be more interesting than the former skirmish between the Tory and Labour factions over the spoils of middle England, with the Liberal Democrats on the sidelines awaiting the fate of their own demise.
When I watch the behaviour of our representatives in the House of Commons, and observe the behaviour of my year 8 form, I believe the latter to be more civilised. I’m not sure that many would agree to a group of apparently unruly 12 year old representatives, but when they argue with each other, they do focus on the quality of the argument rather than the personal qualities of the arguer. I find them far more questioning, astute and insightful in their thinking and when reminded by the ‘Speaker of the House’ that they have crossed the boundaries of proprietary, they adjust their manner and tone appropriately.
A particularly irksome political habit is the use of tortiloquy, a technique of deceptive speech often used to undermine the opposition and consolidate one’s own political position. Citizens on both sides of the Big Pond will all be familiar with the weapons of mass destruction that never were. For example Blair claimed:
“There are literally thousands of sites. As I was told in Iraq, information is coming in the entire time, but it is only now that the Iraq survey group has been put together that a dedicated team of people, which includes former UN inspectors, scientists and experts, will be able to go in and do the job properly.
“As I have said throughout, I have no doubt that they will find the clearest possible evidence of Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction.” (June 2002 speech in the House of Commons).
And for the families of soldiers lost or injured in combat, the following statement by Tony Blair, to the House of Commons in February, 2003, is a miscalculation that would be very difficult to bear: “Stories about sub-standard military equipment are denied by the defence department.”
There has been a continuation of the use of toliloquy in increasingly inventive ways. Such was attempted in the 2010 election by Phil Woolas, former Labour immigration minister.
Woolas was concerned about his unpopular decisions as immigration minister and recognised he might very well lose his seat to a liberal democrat, Elwyn Watkins. A devious election strategy was devised…. to win the white, Sun reader vote. The smear campaign ensued. Watkins was painted as a character in league with Muslim ‘extremists’ to ‘take Phil out’. The then immigration minister exploited existing racial tensions in the constituency and the hegemonic language of the Sun to portray the opposition as in the ‘pay of Arab Sheiks’ and using illicit funds for campaign activity (the region was recovering from a series of racially motivated riots). Woolas and his team knew they had taken a risk, and one that paid off in a 103 vote win, but Woolas found himself in the courts under Section 106 of the Representation of the People Act (1983), giving runner-up, Watkins the right to challenge the outcome of the election in that constituency.
On being found guilty, the Labour party withdrew its support for Woolas. Despite this setback, the master of tortiloquy claimed:
“this election petition raised fundamental issues about the freedom to question and criticise politicians” and that it “will inevitably chill political speech.”
Weasel words, indeed.
One would hope for some democratic justice for Watkins and the people of the constituency, but a 2011 by-election renewed a Labour seat in the guise of Debbie Abrahams.
Perhaps the device of tortiloquy is so rarely used we do not need to be overly concerned about this particular variety of political shenanigans? After all, the last case to be brought before the High Court of breaching section 106 of the Representation of the People Act (1983) was in the early 1900s.
But it is election time again and enters an alleged new master of tortiloquy, Afzal Amin. Amin, a prospective candidate for the Conservative party, has been caught on camera trying to organise a fake demonstration by the far right organisation, the English Defence League (EDL), which would incite tension with the Muslim community. However, in order to win favour with his electorate, he would then step in to ‘prevent’ the demonstration, proving his powers of diplomacy and ability as peacekeeper in the community. No wrong-doing has been admitted, he claims he was using negotiation techniques he’d learned on tour in Afghanistan. Perhaps his decision to resign before being pushed is an admission of guilt?
What toliloquisms face us over the next 40 days or so? Which will the artful Jeremy Paxman expose? How many escape the watchful eye of the opposition? The 12 year olds, in question might expose the technique as an outright lie, and they would be right. The more eloquent might call it crooked speech and those who’ve undertaken the feat of hanging upside down to kiss a stone, might even call it blarney. But, I would claim that it is devoid of all its unique charm.
The Times Redbox – daily politics brief – email delivered March 23rd, 2015.
This article was inspired by the Blacklight Candelabra Weekly Challenge