Belfast Telegraph

Fionola Meredith: Brexit is a proxy war between political tribes and the chosen battleground is our vocabulary

It's as if Northern Ireland sneezed and has given Westminster a case of toxic rhetoric, argues Fionola Meredith

Speeches: Boris Johnson
Speeches: Boris Johnson

The health of a political system can be measured by the words used by its politicians. Our own insular, tribal and embittered little set-up has always been characterised by lavish use of hyper-emotive words like surrender, betrayal, treachery and traitor.

There is often a swagger and a bravado that accompanies violent language and imagery.

It's frequently done for show and to evoke a visceral reaction.

In other words, it's the kind of talk that gets people in the guts, and gets them reacting from their guts, rather than from their heads. That's why it's so dangerous.

Now Westminster has caught the bug, too. It's as if Ulster sneezed and the toxic old sectarian germs flew over and landed on the UK parliament.

Westminster has become infected with a mass outbreak of highly inflammatory language, festering with images of violence and war.

This is all the more reprehensible against the back-drop of death threats and other foul abuse received by many MPs, particularly female representatives, during the current Brexit-induced frenzy.

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It's even fired up a posse of Church of England bishops - see, this fighting talk really is contagious - stirred out of their contemplative torpor to complain about the horrible tone in Parliament.

They want politicians to remember Jesus's plea to love one another. Hmm. It may be a little late for that despite the fact that some senior political figures have now signed up to a pledge to be less febrile in their choice of words. The Prime Minister himself is unrepentantly "martial".

The main focus has been on Boris Johnson's importunate use of the slogan "surrender bill" to describe the Benn act, aimed at forcing the Prime Minister to seek a Brexit extension.

Outrage over Mr Johnson's choice of words - including a rebuke from former Tory minister Amber Rudd, who said that such language "legitimises a more aggressive approach and sometimes violence" - has merely had the effect of encouraging the Prime Minister to use it even more bullishly, in his customary yah-boo-sucks manner.

Both Johnson and his sidekick, Dominic Cummings, know that this kind of war-talk plays extraordinarily well with the hardcore Brexiteer faithful.

Which is why, on last Sunday's Andrew Marr Show, Johnson invoked the word surrender 16 times.

This is a man who has learned a thing or two from Ulster politics. He previously told EU leaders not to give the UK "punishment beatings" for Brexit, and accused the EU of "extortion" over the financial settlement.

Johnson may be a mannered Old Etonian, but at heart he's not so many steps removed from the deranged-sounding woman who screamed 'No Surrender' through the broken back door of Belfast City Hall during the flag protests.

It's not just Empire-nostalgic Tories who are playing fast and loose with excessive language and using it to score cheap points.

Labour MP Emma Hardy prissily reprimanded the Attorney-General, Geoffrey Cox, for referencing the classically unanswerable legal question 'when did you stop beating your wife?' I'm happy enough to see Cox's pompous windbaggery punctured, but Hardy's rebuke would have had more weight if she'd not used the self-same phrase herself a couple of years ago.

Similarly, Jess Phillips's critique of Boris Johnson's language would have had more moral authority if she hadn't cheerfully remarked, shortly after her arrival in the Commons, that she'd knife Jeremy Corbyn "in the front, not the back" if he was wrecking Labour's electoral prospects. Nice.

Meanwhile, Tom Watson described the recent attempt to oust him as deputy leader of the Labour party as a "drive-by shooting". It was a cynical, rancid move, for sure, but why did Watson have to liken it to an episode of random gun violence?

Politicians are not the only culprits. Prominent members of the media establishment in London - perhaps infected through inhaling the toxic air of the Westminster bubble - are also prone to violence-inflected language. There's frequent talk of weaponising, annexing, sticking the knife in, and entering the killing zone. MPs or Cabinet ministers who might resign are said to be 'on suicide watch' - a particularly distasteful analogy.

BBC Newsnight presenter Emily Maitlis recently asked a Lib Dem MP if she and her colleagues were willing to "pull the trigger" and call a vote of no-confidence in the Government.

This is more than irresponsible self-indulgence.

Brexit has become a proxy war between tribal factions and the weapons of choice are words.

And as we have so often seen in Northern Ireland, the more extreme the language, the more debased and dysfunctional the politics.

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