Linguistic nuance lost in Twitter age

A whole storm brewed on social media around the contention that the Prime Minister had suggested all those opposing air strikes in Syria were “terrorist sympathisers”.

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This was, frankly, an outrageous suggestion as I noted at the time (above).

However, the language is politically clever, and in their outrage those opposed to the Prime Minister fell for it.

In fact, what the Prime Minister said was not untrue. There were people with clear records of sympathy for terrorists (even specifically those who committed acts within the UK) going through the “no” lobbies. Implicitly he ties Jeremy Corbyn to these, and again the record certainly does not disprove that contention.

This is standard Lynton Crosby, although it is far from unique to him. It is standard political practice to try to pour scorn on an opposing argument by referring to personalities on the same side. We will see this by the bucket load during the EU referendum debate. Locally, it was done on Saturday by a Sinn Féin Councillor who asked on social media whether someone with his back to the camera was a “Loyalist” with a “criminal record” in order to delegitimise the Unite protest outside Sinn Féin offices, something swiftly accepted as fact by others (thus drawing understandable outrage from those protesting) even though he had been clever enough merely to pose it as a question.

With regard to the Prime Minister’s comments, the most furious local party  was the SDLP. Rightly, they responded noting firstly that they had clearly stood against terrorism when it was on their doorstep, and that actually some Conservatives had been less than clear in their opposition to it by the State. This is all true, and yet it does expose a weakness, because the SDLP has been less vociferous in emphasising the point that their historical narrative of the (peaceful and democratic) struggle for civil rights and campaign for Irish unity is at marked odds from Mr Corbyn’s and Mr McDonnell’s. Where in 1985 they were clearly on opposing sides (noting that the SDLP’s was the majority Nationalist view and Corbyn’s  the minority), in 2015 historical revisionism has left the SDLP having to pick sides between Sinn Féin/hard left on one hand and Unionists/Tories on the other. There is little room for nuance, just as the DUP and Sinn Féin locally and the Conservatives and Momentum-Labour UK-wide would have it. Only having room for 140 characters doesn’t help much either!

What matters politically here (and politics is an appallingly dirty game) is that the Prime Minister was suggesting (but cunningly not quite saying explicitly) to his own side that those opposing him were weak on terrorism – something which is irrational but has a very strong emotional appeal (and that is what counts above all else in politics). He will have judged the response to have been successful, because very few of his opponents were able at once to say that while they had concerns about Mr Corbyn’s past (and the past of his appointees) they would still be going through the lobbies with him because the balance of argument in this specific case came down on the side he happens to be on. I myself spent some time trying to adopt that nuanced position and to persuade others to (again as clear from my immediate response) and was shot down from both sides – exactly as the Prime Minister would have wanted and intended. (I make no apology for my lack of ability at dirty politics.)

Essentially, therefore, the Prime Minister was able to use a specific choice of words, which he knew would be read one way by some and another way by others, to split his opposition and at the same time motivate those on his own side in the standard “good guy v bad guy” way all successful politicians have mastered. Maybe that is one of the reasons I am a “failed politician”?!

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