Corbyn, Brexit and Trump: Where Does Political Hyperbole Take Us?

Twitter is an extraordinary place. “All human life is here,” as Anthony Burgess said. Within hours of Virgin Trains releasing video footage showing Jeremy Corbyn walking past empty seats before finding an uncomfortable spot of floor to sit on, the incident had acquired the notorious ‘gate’ suffix. Traingate was perhaps the most extraordinary phenonomen of the silly season: politician caught bending the truth to make a political point.

It could be argued that a more competent politician would not be caught out in such a ruse. Something similar happened to David Cameron when it was discovered a car followed him with his papers as he bicycled to work as opposition leader. Neither incident tells us anything fundamental about either man. Whether we choose to believe they do depends on preconceived notions of both.

Equally, attempts to say that leadership challenger Owen’s Smith’s lunatic gibe at his opponent reveals something revealing about his personality or his politics are wide of the mark. It does, however, demonstrate how coarse our political language is. Politics was never for the faint-hearted. Any fan of the barbed wit of the late Denis Healey will understand that. Twas ever thus? Perhaps. Technology means that language, once confined to political conversations down the ubiquitous Dog and Duck, has become mainstream.

language has a limited half-life. Soon it catches up with the accuser

The predilection of politicians to denigrate their own vocation as unworthy is now common place. One of the reasons for Jeremy Corbyn’s success is that he is not seen by his band of supporters as an ordinary politician. His “straight-talking” slogan encourages this. It is also much easier to attack motive that it is to attack their ideas. Think ‘Dodgy Dave’. Or attacks on Ed Miliband for standing against his brother in 2010.

Both feed into a time-old narrative that politicians are more concerned for their own advancement than for the greater good. It is opportunistic and easy but ultimately self-defeating.

More worrying is the way we hurl terms such as "liar" and charges of extremism so readily that they have become meaningless. Theresa May’s new government was greeted by Angus Robertson as the most right-wing since Thatcher. One does not have to be a card-carrying member of the Tory party - one can even fundamentally disagree with Theresa May - to see that this is a simplification. It is to ignore that the Conservative party has adopted positions (on say gay rights, race relations and international development) which are left-wing. Even Liam Fox, who is far from perfect, has spoken intelligently about the neglect of mental health in the NHS. Every Conservative leader has been condemned for “lurching to the right” as frequently as every Labour leader has been accused of “loony leftism”.

Owen Smith has recently accused the government of ‘covering up’ a privatisation agenda, now an almost mystical rite of passage for senior Labour politicians. One does not have to agree with Tory policy on the NHS - indeed one can fundamentally disagree with it - to see that it is not “privatisation”. The public does not buy it, as is demonstrated by the fact that they vote for Conservative governments. Such language has a limited half-life. Soon it catches up with the accuser.

Why should anyone believe politicians when they have said the same thing year after year and it has proved incorrect? Hyperbole. Where does it get you?

The EU referendum campaign was widely criticised for its low tone. Nigel Farage (Dulwich College, former commodities broker), Michael Gove (Oxford, late of The Times) and Boris Johnson (Eton and Oxford) used the language of ‘the other’ to denigrate a supposedly untrustworthy establishment.

They ran a rather disreputable campaign, based on - to my mind - borderline racism and misinformation. Only time will tell whether Project Fear was, in fact, Project Understatement but these warnings and Remain accusations of Brexit campaigners’ lies were ignored: a sign of the low regard in which people hold politicians, it also shows the dangers of continued, hyped prophecies of doom. In ancient mythology Cassandra warned Troy of the dangers of “Greeks bearing gifts”. Her fellow citizens did not believe her and ensured their downfall. She at least had the excuse of a curse from Apollo. We have only ourselves to blame.

It is unlikely that Trump will win but it is scary that it is even conceivable

Remain seemed the most probable outcome of the EU referendum. Hillary Clinton is a safe bet to win November’s election. If Trump wins - and there are many more reasons to believe he will not rather than he will - then one of the reasons will be the debasement of political language. During his term of office, George W Bush was regularly compared to Hitler; 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney was called the “most extreme” candidate on immigration ever. Trump’s populism, and maybe even the man himself, really is extreme. Democrats’ rhetoric now sounds unfortunately hollow. It is unlikely that Trump will win but it is scary that it is even conceivable.

Traingate was a bit of silly season nonsense. Owen Smith probably misspoke when he called his leader a lunatic. The relationship between public and politician is a two-way street. Politicians take their cue from voters as often as voters often take their language - and actions - from politicians. The rise in hate crimes post-Brexit is a demonstration of this. Very often when people indulge in excessive language they actually mean it. Sometimes it is disingenuous. There is no easy solution. There is no way we can restrain politicians or stop news sites publishing uninformed clickbait. We are responsible for ourselves though.

And those who do not learn from the lessons of their mythology are doomed to retweet them.

More about the author

About the author

Educated at Durham University and UCL, Graham is Disclaimer's editor and a regular contributor. He has written for numerous publications including Tribune, Out Magazine and Vice. He has also contributed to two books of political counterfactuals for Biteback Media, Prime Minister Boris (2011) and Prime Minister Corbyn (2016).

A democratic republican lefty, he struggles daily with the conflict between his ingrained senses of idealism and pragmatism.

Follow Graham on Twitter.

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