It’s ironic. The word parliament comes from the verb ‘parler’, meaning to speak, but our politicians seem unable to communicate effectively.
In fairness, there’s a good reason why it’s so hard to get their points across these days. The need for clarity has never been greater, but the Adult Literacy Trust tells us about 15% of the adult population in England is ‘functionally illiterate’. That is to say:
Over 5.1 million adults in England would fail an English GCSE today. Their literacy levels are at or below those expected of an 11-year-old.
Suddenly, Hansard looks like hard work…
If our literacy levels really are dire (they are), then perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised at so much digital fraud: people with lower reading ages are likely to create simple passwords, ones they can easily remember. It’s also no wonder so many people live in fuel poverty: the average energy contract in Britain is 8,000 words long and written in galloping legalese.
In point of fact, it should be no surprise that today’s political dialogue leaves so many people feeling ostracized and overlooked, as the galvanizing, emotive rhetoric of Churchillian yesteryear has long since been replaced by turgid, complex and determinative political, linguistic obfuscation.
You’re intelligent. You don’t have to work on (or listen to) Radio4 to be qualified as such. But the 15% of the population that struggles to pay its bills because it doesn’t understand them is the same 15% of this country’s voting populus who cannot understand that previous paragraph. (You did, I hope.)
These are the same people who couldn’t make head nor tail of the blurbs purporting to explain the consequences of that last all-important vote – yes, you know the one I’m talking about: the Referen-dumbassed decision to ask a question but not provide enough context to decide on the right answer, do not get me started.
<… and breathe out.>
However, the state of our nation’s literacy levels is well worth considering if you’re promoting yourself, now, as a working man’s politician intent on making any kind of progress in this idiotic debacle.
An ability to communicate is, you would hope, a pre-requisite for engaging in debates that shape local, national, or international affairs. It’s true, holding your own at a despatch box is different to preparing a White Paper or jousting with the press. But we are being done a great disservice by members of the House of Commons on both sides when they show no respect for the language of the common man in explaining What The Hell Happens Next.
For those who scoff at the arguments coming from Eton’s front benches (because, thank goodness, the art of rhetoric is a well-taught discipline in Berkshire, one that’s held in high regard), there’s been little solace in the lack of verbal dexterity shown by the Leader of the Opposition recently. Those same critics are, however, incorrect in their floccinaucinihilipilification of the Member for Islington North (heaven forfend, there comes a day when a word like that finally has a purpose).
Revel, for a moment, in the painful absurdity of an example that proves this point beyond doubt. Like him or loathe him, many have made the leap to interpret Donald Trump’s linguistic austerity as a reflection of his capabilities.
We have all the best words
Consider “very,” “great,” “the best,” “losers,” “dumb,” “morons,” “stupid”. These are the common building blocks used by someone with a lower than average reading age; someone who has less than an ideal grasp of facts, context and consequence. Like a primary school student, Trump uses bite-sized words to create bite-sized sentences. Bite-sized paragraphs, bite-sized politics.
Estimates abound that Trump’s everyday vocal dexterity ranks alongside that of US third grade students – youngsters about 8 or 9 years old – which explains a lot.
Working, mid-town voters like a man they can understand. A man or woman whose words actually resonate with the heartland? Gets. Their. Votes.
It’s not the ideology they warm to, it’s the rhetoric: speeches they can remember, words they understand. Sentences that are as short as the ones they learnt in second grade, and that’s a grading system that seems hell-bent on going backwards, over there, just as it is over here.
Much has been said about the appalling state of our education system, and rightly so. It is a shambles on several fronts.
When it comes to fronted adverbials, adjectival clauses, digraphs, Oxford commas … whatever. There’s a whole lot of nonsense spouted about what is or is not a vital component of a GCSE, these days, and our schools are not helping students to read and write well enough before they go out into the world.
It is little comfort to discover the youngsters driving today’s farm machinery don’t have to read or write anything of substance to pass a tractor test.
I’m serious. I’m digressing slightly, but I’m serious. The car test is slightly different thank goodness, but for tractors, it’s still ‘know your road signs, do a three-point-turn, and spend 30 minutes with an examiner who may or may not know the difference between a John Doe and a John Deere’, – and that’s it. You’re allowed out, on any road in the country, with a quarter of a million pound’s worth of farm kit thrumming away between your knees.
We give them a license to kill, but we don’t bother teaching the language skills to read and check the clauses of the farm’s vehicles’ insurance policy.
How, bizarre, is that.
That said, insurance policies are a good example of where we’ve all lost the plot. The FCA, the regulator of the British financial services industry, dictates that transparency, clarity, and fairness should be observed in all things – but even that bastion of rigour is ignoring the fact that commercial organisations still publish paperwork that’s all but incomprehensible for the common man.
Is it any wonder, so many people are disengaged from politics in general, and the machinations of parliament in particular? It does mean ‘talking place’. But the common man has to heave a sigh and work really, really hard to understand what’s being said in government these days, as the old order of Labour responds to the Conservatives and Unionists – and vice, vice versa.
In government today, and in connection with the Referen-dumbassed decision in particular, it has become a case of he who cannot articulate debating she who demonstrates an astounding ability to pontificate.
The language of politics must change. We need a new type of rhetoric, one that’s understandable and clear: words that engage with, and fairly represent, the voice and language capabilities of the man in the street.
The ability to use appropriate language should be a point of honour and a matter of urgency if your raison d’etre is connecting with or serving the population.
What a shame it is, then, that while most of the population do not care for our politicians’ recent opinions, too many people still cannot understand what it is those politicians just said…