Rhetoric, metaphor and topical British politics

Although I usually bang on about politics in a different forum, today’s Guardian contains two very interesting articles on rhetoric, metaphor and the current political scene in Britain which seem worthy of comment here..

Firstly, Deborah Orr is genuinely full of praise for 20-year old Mhairi Black whose maiden speech this week ricocheted around the internet. Orr claims that, as a rhetorician, Black was perfect but concludes that she was in fact short on policy and also wrong about the need for, and merits of, a realignment on ‘the left’:

“Rhetoric is a fine thing. But it doesn’t feed hungry old men or young children… The sad thing about Black’s speech among many happy things, is that it shows you can be passionate, sincere and inspiring, but also utterly mistaken”.

Then a few pages later, Jonathan Freedland writes a super piece about the uses of metaphor in politics over the last five years or so:

“Long before Labour lost the election, it lost the war of metaphor. The origins of the defeat go back at least to the long summer of 2010, when the Conservatives returned to power and promptly took control of the national conversation. Instantly they unleashed a series of simple metaphors to explain what had just happened … The simplest and most important, repeated for years to come was: “We’re clearing up the mess we inherited.”

“The mess in question was the hole in the public finances, and it was caused by Labour because “the last government ‘maxed out’ the nation’s credit card”.  If Labour criticised any aspect of economic policy, they were “an arsonist having the cheek to criticise the fireman”. Labour did not deserve the public’s votes. They had “driven the car into the ditch: why on earth would we give them back the keys?” Labour had proved themselves fiscally incapable. They had failed “to mend the roof when the sun was shining”. The Tories, by contrast, were determined to “balance the books”, so that “we live within our means”.

“Every one of these simple, plain phrases was repeated so often and with such discipline that they settled into the collective cerebral cortex, until they seemed less like statements of political opinion than of received wisdom, even common sense”.

My own view is that running things, especially big things like governments, is a generally dull and time-consuming affair. Dull because of the time that has to be spent sorting procedural detail and forging and maintaining alliances.But I also love the creative application of language to human affairs.  And, ironically, it is rhetoric and the adventurous use of language that fires people, both into actions that I am entirely sympathetic to and into those which I fiercely oppose.




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