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Home / News and Insights / Blogs / Public Affairs / 318: Political language: the careful choice of words

There can seem to be occasions when politicians are not thinking carefully about what they say or tweet. That may be true for some but is rarely the case when it comes to ministers or prime ministers. They carefully choose what to say and how to say it. That comes with implications for public affairs.

It is very easy to get outraged, especially on Twitter, when a politician says something you don’t agree with. But many people seem to be deliberately looking for a misstep or something to get outraged about. Politicians, especially senior ones, know that they need to watch themselves.

That makes it even more confusing when the likes of the Secretary of State for Health, Sajid Javid, makes a ‘mistake’ when he tweeted that people have been ‘cowering’ in the face of COVID-19. He apologised for the poor choice of words and deleted the tweet. That didn’t stop him from being berated, but attention moved on.

This was certainly a short-term storm but one that seems to have two explanations. The word ‘cower’ comes with certainly connotations which seem to fit with the minister’s robust approach to opening the country. So, either he didn’t really think about the choice of that word or it was a deliberate choice of word which reinforced his hawkish position. Even though the tweet has been deleted, his political supporters will remember his robust line.

Similarly, when the PM was announcing law and measures he made sure to slip in a reference to ‘fluorescent-jacketed chain gangs’. But there were no such plans, few believe that introducing them were a real possibility and officials soon put the comments to one side. But still, the phrase dominated the coverage and left the impression that the PM and his team doubtless wanted.

A more light-hearted example was provided by the Summer Reading List For Parliamentarians compiled by the Publishers Association in which MPs and others provided their recommendations. Such lists are always a mix of the clever, arch, over thought, genuine and self-deferential but nothing is down to chance. A recommendation will always tell us something about the way the person wishes to be viewed.

Let’s take a couple of examples:

  • Sajid Javid – Destined For War, Graham Allison – on relationships between the US and China – seems serious and is thinking about the big challenges;
  • Rishi Sunak – Twelve Yards, Ben Lyttleton – all about taking penalties on football – obviously a man of the people; and
  • Boris Johnson – Scoop, Evelyn Waugh – the story of ‘being mistaken for a competent journalist’ – not taking himself or his image very seriously (a double bluff?).

Politicians, especially at a senior level, are very aware of their reputations. I am sceptical about the idea that politicians accidentally use a word, make a comment, or let us see into their lives without first having thought about the potential consequences. Maybe unless you are John Prescott swinging a punch.

What does all this mean for us in public affairs?

  • try not to over-react to comments;
  • think about the overall picture, and what the politician is trying to convey, rather than thinking about comments in a standalone manner; and
  • don’t lose sight of what is said about any actual announcement.

In politics, accidents rarely happen.

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