Units of the public language

Three quite separate things happened in the past week that together seem to add up to a whole. First, I read that Gordon Brown is looking for a new speechwriter. Second, I went to a debate at the RSA about the crisis in democracy. Why, the panel wondered, do voters feel alienated from politics, and disinclined to participate? And third, I came across this passage in Michael Frayn’s 1966 novel The Russian Interpreter, in which the narrator, based in Moscow, attends a cultural event with an English acquaintance:

On the slightest pretext, at even quite small receptions, Proctor-Gould would make a speech. The phrases which came rolling so steadily and emphatically out on these occasions — ‘the cultural treasure-house we share’, ‘setting our barren suspicions and fears behind us’, ‘practical steps to increase our mutual confidence’ — were not exactly cliches. They were units of the public language.

Forty years on, replace Proctor-Gould’s words with “hard-working families”, “the broken society” or “sharing the proceeds of growth”, then wonder why voters might feel disconnected …


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