Language in politics and democracy

by Bene't Steinberg, 01 January 2015

I was invited by the New Statesman to write a piece on the state of politics and democracy for their Political Studies Guide 2015 publication. Given the furore over the publication of OCR’s English Language and Literature qualifications, I decided to look at the issue of the language of politics. 

This is particularly relevant. Language has power and it is always evolving. It demands an understanding of elements such as syntax, pragmatics, lexis, and discourse. For ideas to inspire they need to be articulated. 

Failure to use language intelligently or dexterously can leave people cold to your ideas and your vision – whatever that may be. 

A better understanding of language may save our politics  

With the three mainstream political parties together polling just over half of the electorate, you might well argue that democracy isn’t working. It certainly says something about the health of the political parties, which for decades have been the cornerstone of political engagement. Slowly the word “Westminster” is coming to mean something alien and remote – just as the word “Washington” has in the United States. 

Yet this is not always an accurate reflection. As part of my work for a group of exam boards, it is my job to engage with politicians of all parties and argue out, backed by research and evidence, the best way to structure our education system. The politicians I encounter are thoughtful and intelligent and actually want the best for all our nation’s children. It is a far cry from the prevailing wisdom. 

People are not less interested in politics, they are just not terribly interested in mainstream political parties – or, rather, in what they have to say. Look at the rise of organisations like UKIP and people like Nigel Farage on to the political scene, or, for that matter, Russell Brand. 

Maybe the dysfunction and disconnect come not from what the politicians are saying, but from how they are saying it. Language has power, and it evolves with time. For words to retain their power, it demands an understanding of elements such as syntax, pragmatics, lexis and discourse. What joins Brand with Farage – whose politics are utterly different – is that each possesses what is often called the “authentic voice”. They touch a chord in people. 

Perhaps a greater understanding of how language works – and the better usage of it – might help save our politics. 

Bene’t Steinberg 
Group Director of Public Affairs, Cambridge Assessment

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