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Tuesday, August 11, 2009

I think it’s wrong...

Have you noticed how many times senior UK politicians start any statement, however anodyne, with the words, “I think it’s right”? Listen closely the next time you hear one of the distinguished representatives of our Government answering questions and you’ll see. It’s trotted out all the time, whatever the subject. The Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, himself is the chief proponent of this tedious and lazy turn of phrase. Cabinet colleagues also use it ad nauseam. The question is, why?

It’s long been recognised that, with a very few notable exceptions, most politicians don’t have any intention of answering questions directly. Sir Humphrey Appleby pointed this out in Yes Minister years ago. The fictional Westminster mandarin said a good politician should answer questions from journalists with something along the lines of, “I don’t think that’s the question; the real question is…” and then make a statement of their own. “I think it’s right” is the latest manifestation of this verbal slight of hand. But there’s more to it than this: a breathtaking degree of cynicism that would make even Sir Humphrey blush.

The reason senior politicians are using the phrase “I think it’s right” is to sound like they are saying something definite and powerful but without actually promising anything - or even stating where they stand. It gives them plausible deniability when they inevitably change their position. So if a politician is asked, “Do you like baked beans?” expect the answer to be, “I think it’s right that tomato sauce covered seeds, or pods of various climbing plants, can be eaten as part of a balanced diet.” Okay, but do you like them? “I think it’s right that beans, whether baked, or perhaps boiled or steamed, are served to people who choose to eat them and this Government will endeavour to continue to allow people to make that choice.” But would you make that choice? “I think it’s right that the choices politicians make in relation to canned food products are ones they can formulate as individuals, and I don’t think the contents of cans, or other packaging, are relevant or move this debate forward against the backdrop of a modern dietary setting.”

You get the picture. Our politicians are deliberately refusing to communicate with us but trying their best to hide it. The real culprits are the communications and PR ‘experts’ who advise the politicians and tell them what (not) to say. This trend of non-communication is not just confined to the political arena, however, and it’s spreading. Already the Government, public bodies and corporations are infected but it won’t end there. Straight answers are already a thing of the past; soon, answers of any description will be.

And I think that’s wrong.

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