The attractions of abstractions

‘Words have power’ is a common sentiment among public life’s scribblers, as well as many of its participants. One sense in which this is true is that they give solidity to what George Orwell termed “pure wind” in his famous essay about political language.

The distinction between abstract and concrete promises is the subject of a piece in UnHerd today by the writer Zachary Hardman. Citing Orwell and others, Hardman argues that politicians’ increasing focus on the abstract has untethered our politics from people’s lives.

Both left and right talk of ‘equality’, ‘responsibility’ and ‘aspiration’: vague, abstract words with no relevance to people’s lived experience. Even when politicians try to resolve these problems, their language fails to bring ordinary people onside. ‘Social mobility’ and ‘levelling up’ are phrases almost unheard outside the corridors of Westminster.

Does ‘equality’ have no relevance to people’s lives? If so it’s hard to explain why so many people took the knee in sympathy with the Black Lives Matter movement. A demand for equal treatment is so innate in us that it can be observed in other primates we are closely related to.

Likewise, don’t most of us feel responsible at times? (Psychopaths may be the exception.) Aspiration is also real enough to anyone who has hoped for better from their lives.

It is true that normal people don’t talk about ‘social mobility’ or ‘levelling up’, but such phrases are just the industry jargon of politics. Every field of human endeavour has its own insider lexicon as shorthand for things that would otherwise take a while to explain, and you can’t expect politics to be exempt. The only hope is that its use is restricted to internal memos.

Hardman goes on to claim that more concrete language is more engaging to voters. He writes that politics has become “increasingly technocratic and distant from everyday concerns”. But isn’t the point of technocracy to sensibly run public services without reference to the abstractions that allegedly turn people off?

As for the enfeeblement of local government since the Second World War, what’s been left is about as concrete as you can get. No public service is more visible than the collection of wheelie bins, except perhaps the lack thereof. Local elections are said to be poorly attended because the winning candidate ends up with little power, but it may simply be that bins are boring.

To my eye what stirs people tends to be abstract, not least the demands for national self-determination seen in Brexit, the Scottish independence movement, and perhaps even the enthusiasm for Donald Trump in the United States. When choosing between liberty and life, the American politician Patrick Henry favoured intangible freedom to tangible existence. This may be the rule, rather than the exception.

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

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