Outside the marginals

A commentary on the politics that followed the UK 2010, 2015 & 2017 elections (and THAT referendum)

Language Battles

We have seen how the Conservatives have won a language battle over “Welfare” – with, for instance, use of statistics that has been condemned by the ONS and selective demonising of welfare recipients attempting to tar all welfare recipients with the label “welfare scrounger”. It has been suggested that they have set up the working poor (who do not think of themselves as “welfare recipients”) against the non-working poor.

This sort of use of propaganda is of course clever politics and we have seen it used elsewhere with similar success. At the beginning of this parliament they would not have got away with it. But by winning the language battle they have opened the opportunity for welfare cuts that will affect many to a small degree and a few to a very heavy degree. The debate now seems to be how can we solve the deficit problem by further welfare cuts (not by for instance ensuring that all pay their taxes). The deficit is “due” to excessive welfare, apparently – nothing to do with inadequate control of credit, poor regulation and massive government spending to prevent complete collapse of the world economy after the banking crisis. Osborne has said that he will not need to increase taxes in the next government – I can’t see him borrowing more, I can’t see massive growth, so presumably there are going to be further cuts. And which budget is not ring-fenced?

Given the success of this political ploy, we should ask: where is the current language battle and where will the Tories go when they have won the battle?

Europe, Migration and the NHS seem to be three areas that are now being targeted in the language battle.

The European battle has already been set up so that the word “Europe” has negative connotations; bureaucracy, bail-out, subsidy, regulation, etc.. The media are overwhelmingly hostile giving coverage to every economic problem in the minor economies and every bit of “Brussels foolishness”. By the time we are asked “the question”, most of us will find it difficult to have a single positive thought about “Europe”.

Migrants are uniformly a “drain on our resources”, not a key resource for the health service, for social care and agriculture. (And that is ignoring all those highly skilled workers in areas like finance and IT and what seems like a majority of footballers who are migrants.) The linguistic collocations are “illegal”, “scroungers”, “job-stealers” etc.. You get the picture.

The Conservatives seem to be immune from accusations that they are to blame for the problems in the NHS. The stories we see about examples of abominable care, lazy doctors, A&E crisises and bail-outs, ambulances taking too long to arrive, etc.. Comparisons are made with Tescos and B&Q or Dragons Den and Bargain Hunt. The feeling being projected is of a system that is failing because it is in the public sector –  and we know that the public sector is inefficient – don’t we? – the Government tells us so.

An editorial in the Lancet journal said such language was a “cynical” attempt to abdicate responsibility for the NHS. It says:

… reading headlines last week, such as “Struggling A&E [Accident and Emergency] units to get £500 million bailout” and “NHS managers to get price comparison website and use Bargain Hunt for inspiration in bid to cut supplies bills by £1·5 bn”, one might be forgiven for thinking that the current Coalition Government views the NHS as a failing bank or business. This stance is one of the most cynical, and at the same time cunning, ways by which the government abdicates all responsibilities for running a health-care system that has patient care and safety at its heart. Rather it expects the system, and in it each trust for itself, to be efficient, cost saving, and financially successful or else it is deemed a failing enterprise. Doctors, nurses, and health workers are readily blamed for the quality of care they provide within these constraints. And the UK’s media obligingly colludes.
The Lancet, Volume 382, Issue 9892, Page 571, 17 August 2013′

The Conservatives have learnt that you need to get the language “right” first, then you can manufacture dissatisfaction with the current situation, then you offer your little-Englander, small government, privatised alternative. The media will lap it up and serve it on to the electorate who will accept it almost without question. It’s nasty, it’s brutal, but it’s very effective.

More on Language Battles …

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6 thoughts on “Language Battles

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