Englishmen don’t say ‘folks’

I’ve long suspected one of the problems with our politics is an excess of humanities graduates slouching through the corridors of power, as well as skulking outside with a microphone or waving placards on the other side of a heavy gate.

This intuition puts me in the same camp as Dominic Cummings, renegade eye doctor and occasional advisor to the prime minister. Unlike Cummings I lack a history degree from Oxford, but had I bothered to go university there was no risk of me studying a science. We are both humanities children criticising the humanities.

Earlier this year Cummings wrote on his blog: “What SW1 [Whitehall and Westminster] needs is not more drivel about ‘identity’ and ‘diversity’ from Oxbridge humanities graduates but more genuine cognitive diversity.” (Emphasis his.) The advisor is keen on hiring more science graduates, which he thinks will make for better governance.

Humanities graduates have dominated politics in part because such degrees test your ability to synthesise information and present it attractively. In theory science is less about the packaging: architects are graded on looks, but for civil engineers what matters is whether the building stands.

Such fundamentals being against him, I suspect that Cummings will fail in his attempt to reorient recruitment in Whitehall. But he’s right to connect the “drivel” about identity and diversity to Oxbridge humanities graduates, who are by nature obsessed with interpreting the meaning of things.

The thought struck me as I was listening to David Lammy chat to Matt Forde on the latter’s podcast. Lammy has recently resurfaced as the shadow justice secretary, having made his name as a campaigner for racial equality but remained quiet during Jeremy Corbyn’s time as Labour leader.

Many have found Lammy’s recasting himself as a man bridging the divides between various political ‘tribes’ – the title of his latest book – quite amusing. The MP previously attracted attention for erroneously spotting racism in BBC coverage of a papal appointment, calling Stacey Dooley a “white saviour” for her charity work in Uganda, and for saying his comparisons between a pro-Brexit group of MPs and the Nazis were “not strong enough”.

Some of Lammy’s asides during the podcast suggest he’s not entirely past a cheap shot. He’s as entitled to this as any politician, but such comments are unlikely to appeal to those on the other side of whatever divide he’s preaching across.

What was also notable is that Lammy has picked up an odd verbal tick, referring to ‘folk’ or ‘folks’ throughout the interview instead of the ‘people’ preferred in British English. Given that he’s an Englishman, the usage suggests he’s been imbibing from social justice types. A piece from New Discourses traces the use of it at some length, but in short it’s considered less tainted with whiteness than ‘people’.

That I’ve bothered to write something down about this confirms I also suffer from the humanities disease. From a practical view it hardly matters what specific word Lammy uses so long as his meaning is conveyed (even if it can be grating to hear somebody crowbar in unfamiliar vocabulary to their speech).

And yet, the last few weeks have been all about symbols. Words matter inasmuch as they provide some indication of how a person thinks (or, if used haphazardly, that they don’t).

I can only speculate as to how conscious Lammy’s shift is: if you read a lot on a subject you often pick up certain words, if only for a time. But taken with everything else, it suggests the hapless partisan has not been tamed yet.

Jimmy Nicholls
Writes somewhat about British politics and associated matters. Contact jimmy@rightdishonourable.com

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