Political Tortiloquy

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


Whom Would you Want as a Dinner Guest?

I’d choose a 30 year old body over a 30 year old mind.  That’s not because I’m a physical fascist, nor because I believe in some kind of ideal of the body-beautiful being a reflection of my being.  On the contrary, I despise the social construction of beauty and the commercial exploitation of the resulting psychology of inadequacy.

There is an assumption inherent within the dichotomous choice that at the age of 90, a 30 year old anything would somehow be a preferable state of being.  Why devalue age?

Karen McComb and her team investigated the adaptive value of age in African elephants.  They found that “age affects the ability of matriarchs to make ecologically relevant decisions in a domain critical to survival—the assessment of predatory threat“¹.  Sensitivity to predator threat increased with age.  Human longevity may be similarly adaptive because as social creatures, the greater experience of elders may aid the survival of the entire social group.  If this is the case, then why is it that age has ceased to be valued (at least in western societies)?  It could be hypothesised that one reason is that social evolution is a faster process than biological evolution.  Cedepof reports “Older individuals face career development challenges such as growing health limitations, skills obsolescence….“²  Occupational skill sets have rapidly changed since the advent of computerisation and technological progress.  The experience of older members of society no longer has relevance in current environments.  However, the Cedepof report suggests that age has a value in organisational settings, experience being one facet of merit.  Hence, I reject the 30 year old mind; I embrace the continuing development of the one I have.  But, I would like the 30 year old body in order to give the mind its fullest expression.

A dualist assumption also resides within the choice of body or mind.  Are they separable?  Could I have a young mind in an old body or vice-versa?  Like Ryle, (in a book whose name I forget – oh dear, must be my ageing mind), who challenged this assumption, I believe the notion contains many flaws.  How can a material object, i.e. the body, which can be observed from a third person perspective, which is believed to exist in space, and therefore subject to physical laws, interact with immaterial minds, which are not in space, are not subject to mechanical laws, and are inaccessible to external observation?  As Ryle states, the assumption is that of a ghost in a machine.  The choice between a younger body or a younger mind is a meaningless one.

Perhaps you’re wondering why I’m challenging a choice that seems to be so arbitrarily conjured?

Aron et al (1997) created 3 sets of personal questions that strangers could use to establish mutual disclosure about details of their lives and their unobservable minds.   Each set of 12 questions increased in their degree of probing intensity.  Their results suggest that interpersonal closeness is enhanced by the use of the questions compared to other interactive tasks³.  One question in the first set was: “If you were able to live to the age of 90 and retain either the mind or body of a 30-year-old for the last 60 years of your life, which would you want?”   The New York times, light-heartedly suggested the 36 questions could lead to love.  You may ascertain why it took me 49 years to find someone who could cope with my intellectualisation of bipolar questions.  Thank goodness for a Verdant mind!  But then, older minds may need a completely different set of questions to induce love, given that the sample was comprised entirely of undergraduate psychology students.

So onto another question: “Given the choice of anyone in the world [at least not a dichotomous choice], whom would you want as a dinner guest?”

Why spoil the surprise?


1. http://rspb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/early/2011/03/10/rspb.2011.0168

2.  http://www.cedefop.europa.eu/en/publications-and-resources/publications/5544

3. http://psp.sagepub.com/content/23/4/363.full.pdf+html

The idea for this post came from The Blacklight Candelabra weekly writing challenge.

The challenge was to ‘forge your own chain”.  It entailed writing 10 questions, each with an answer.  I based my questions on a selection drawn from Aron et al’s interpersonal closeness study cited above.  The post then entailed using the first question in the chain as the post title.  The fifth answer is the first sentence of the post.  The tenth answer is the last sentence.  And the final part of the challenge was to write coherently.  You can let me know if this goal was achieved or not!