Martyn McLaughlin: Ministers’ cheap political trick

It is possible the word marauding was used to direct Tusken Raiders.It is possible the word marauding was used to direct Tusken Raiders.
It is possible the word marauding was used to direct Tusken Raiders.
The increasingly toxic phrases used by the government to address the migrant crisis fuels hate and masks a lack of policy, writes Martyn McLaughlin

THERE is a secret tome which has become an indispensable reference guide at cabinet meetings on those occasions when our government finds itself lost for the words to articulate the extent of its contempt and loathing for the most desperate members of our species. Much like the tax arrangements of George Osborne’s family firm, the genesis of this slender volume remains shrouded in mystery, speculation and denial.

Some say it was compiled under duress by Daily Express leader writers forced to imbibe military grade hallucinogens while watching grainy VHS episodes of Roots, redubbed to portray Kunta Kinte’s oppressors as the good guys. Others insist its creation was down to a computer algorithm fed a broad diet of datasets, including old Vince Powell scripts for the second series of Love Thy Neighbour and graffiti etched crudely over the flocked wallpaper in the gents of Enoch Powell’s local.

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Whatever the truth behind its inception, the product is a specially abridged thesaurus expunged of any reference to outmoded notions such as compassion and tolerance. Whenever a minister’s language is deemed insufficiently callous, its well thumbed pages are ready with an incendiary phrase or two to throw into the froth-specked abyss that passes for Britain’s national conservation on migrants in 2015.

As is befitting his station, Prime Minister David Cameron was the first of the cabinet to draw on this hallowed book’s toxic teachings when, a little under a fortnight ago, he gave a passable impression of an apiarist trying to win a private bet on live television, blaming the situation in Calais on “a swarm of people coming across the Mediterranean”. Privately, Mr Cameron is understood to have expressed regret to senior aides, given the way his use of the word, “people”, may have been perceived as an uncharacteristic show of empathy.

Fortunately, his foreign secretary, Philip Hammond – a man who looks like he spends his downtime listening to the audiobook of MR James’s Collected Ghost Stories while roaming the cobwebbed corridors of abandoned orphanages – was on hand to restore the party line. On Sunday, he hit upon a stoater in the thesaurus and employed it to good effect in an interview with the BBC, cautioning against the millions of “marauding” Africans threatening security while seeking a new life in Europe. With just three syllables, a government minister succeeded in showing more concern for a vandalised fence in northern France than persecuted people fleeing war, extremism and humanitarian tragedy.

Asked yesterday whether Mr Cameron agreed with Mr Hammond’s description of the migrants, the Prime Minister’s official spokeswoman for pithy comebacks declined to address a chorus of criticism led by Amnesty International, insisting she would not be “commenting on every single word that a cabinet minister does or doesn’t use”.

It is unclear when the word, marauding, was last uttered in public, and by whom, but sources have suggested it may have been Charles Laughton during a 1935 matinee performance of Mutiny on the Bounty, or possibly 1976, when George Lucas was giving directions to a group of extras dressed as Tusken Raiders during filming of Star Wars.

Either way, the choice of such words is telling. Mr Hammond and the government are relying on a conveniently archaic language which has fallen so far out of use that no one can be certain what it means in practice, but they know its emotive power remains capable of projecting an air of threat and menace. For all their obsolescence, terms like marauding have a dormant energy waiting to be whipped up by the political class when it finds itself engulfed by crisis. They suggest a purposeful aggression, giving the impression that a drastic course of action must be followed in order to counter it.

For a government wholly lacking in the vision, moral courage and humanity to find an alternative to xenophobic scaremongering when addressing the issue of migration, rhetoric is a cheap trick rolled out to buy more time while further stoking the fires of outrage. But when the Ukipish reserve of words run out and there is no more bile to be drawn from old Katie Hopkins columns, what then?

Perhaps the least credulous of the foreign secretary’s remarks – a close run race, granted – was his insistence that these violent hordes are endangering our “standard of living and social infrastructure” in Europe. Coming from a senior member of a government intent on systematically dismantling Britain’s welfare state and placing millions more families in poverty, the issue of living standards would appear to be subjective, and one better suited in any case to countries like Lebanon and Jordan, home to some of the highest numbers of refugees per capita anywhere in the world.

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Britain’s modest share of these forsaken people has not ripped apart the seams of our social fabric. At the time of writing, the price of a 500ml bottle of Filippo Berio organic extra virgin oil remained at £5.99, but stability on the shelves of Waitrose should not encourage a complacent reception for Mr Hammond’s warning. After all, with only a £134,000 salary to supplement a personal fortune of £8.2 million built up through his interests in a private healthcare firm and consultancy work with – irony klaxon – the Malawi government, he knows better than most the importance of maintaining a comfortable living.

In the meantime, the only hope that can be gained from this politics of hate is by setting up an office sweepstake to second guess the next dehumanising linguistic oddity to emerge from the cabinet’s thesaurus and into a ministerial speech or press release. “Pillage”, “ravage” and “plunder” are all red hot favourites. “Strategy”, “understanding” and “aid” are conspicuous by their absence.

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