The chosen battlefield of the political arena has changed throughout history. It used to be a simple matter of which side had a more effective army, and all political ideologies required a militant backing in some form or another. These very typically rallied around a central power structure. The biggest, baddest kid on the playground was the one who dictated the social and political hierarchy – in essence.
In the context of human history, this was only our very recent past and ideological discourse has developed and evolved exponentially, over the course of just a few centuries. And in this time up to the present, the political and governing power of a state began to devolve away from a single centralised leader.
King John’s signing of Magna Carta in 1215 marked the first time in political history that lawmakers were made to concede power to a lower class of man. This trend has continued in waves from there-on-out and has ultimately led to the constitutional democracy that we can see today – albeit at the point of a sword.
Today, though, the days of large-scale and combative revolution are over – you’d hope. Modern political movements instead engage their ideological enemies on more gentrified grounds – for the most part. Language and linguistic ‘spin’ is chief among these. Political slogans are one of the most fascinating aspects in modern political history. With specific linguistic choices – those that so perfectly encapsulate and catch the rising tide of public opinion – politicians may use words to elevate themselves or bury their rivals.
For the past few centuries, the successes or failures of politicians can be measured in their ability to actualise their linguistic spin – carefully crafting their images with lexis selected by committee.
The positive or negative views that ‘stick’ in the political zeitgeist can have residual effects for several campaign cycles – and even for life. In short, a catchy slogan can help, hinder, make, or break a politician’s career.
Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States is one of the first that managed to show a capability of grasping both of these concepts. In running for his first term of the Presidency, one of his main campaign slogans was simply ‘Honest Old Abe’ – and this ameliorative nickname became a common title and Lincoln has gone on to become one of the most fondly remembered Presidents in history.
In a shorter-term effect of the same phenomenon, Lincoln won a landslide in his 1864 re-election by appealing to the immediate worries of the day; running on a platform of: ‘Union, Liberty, Peace’.
As aforementioned, for every positive effect that political spin can have, the same is equally true for negative effects. Demeaning and defamatory language was very familiar to the late Baroness and Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher – arguably the most divisive and controversial Prime Minister in history. Lady Thatcher experienced both sides of the more offensive use of political language (in the most literal sense).
‘Maggie Thatcher: Milk Snatcher’ was a major campaign slogan for Labour’s Harold Wilson’s 1973 general election campaign – criticising Thatcher’s actions as Education Secretary in the previous government. This was a nickname that remained popular among Thatcher critics even beyond her death.
Conversely, though; Thatcher also managed to preside over one of the most effective acts of political defamation of the modern era.
Britain in the late 1970s was reeling off the back of the ‘Winter of Discontent’ (in itself an example of expert political spin), and unprecedentedly sharp rises in union strike action and unemployment. The Conservative Party in 1978/79, led by Margaret Thatcher, ran a hugely effective advertising campaign that depicted long queues outside job-centres with the simple slogan: ‘Labour Isn’t working’.
The success of this campaign was unheard of and unexpected even by the Conservatives themselves, but the long-term effects continued to defy expectation. The incumbency of Thatcher in 1979 – with ‘Labour Isn’t Working’ acting as a major catalyst for this – served to mark a huge crisis of confidence in the Labour Party among politicians and voters alike.
In fact, it was only when Labour managed to return fire with a targeted ad campaign, running with the slogan ‘Britain Deserves Better’ and the accompaniment of D:Ream’s popular 90s hit: Things can only get better, that Tony Blair led the Labour Party to victory in 1997.
Language had such a profound effect on contemporary British politics (as just a targeted example) that its significance should not be understated. The point is that an 18-year period of Conservative government, and a subsequent 13-year period of Labour government in the UK, can trace its linguistic roots back to a few simple ad campaigns and a catchy slogan or two.
For a more macro look into more overriding instances of specific semantic shifts in political terminology, join us in part two while we explore and examine how political discourse is affected by the usurpations of political definitions.
By Aaron Dellapina