‘Expert commentary’ on a volatile, contentious process

I was somewhat bemused to be asked, as a linguist and someone who has written about government communications and messaging, to comment recently, this time on the self-presentation of the candidates vying for leadership of the Conservative Party, hence also for the role of Prime Minister of the UK (in a series of back-and-forth slurs and clumsily staged photo-opportunities characterised today by Cabinet Office Minister Johnny Mercer as ‘puerile’). My first observations concerned Foreign Secretary Liz Truss’s identification with an earlier political icon.*

These were my comments in answer to the Daily Mail‘s questions on the performance of Lizz Truss and Rishi Sunak in the latest and final stages of the contest…

  1. Both candidates seem to me to be reaching for very simple and basic images and messages – not complex or ‘deeper’ concepts and as a linguist I suspect that they are both trying to avoid having to demonstrate the ‘oratorical’ skills that Boris Johnson’s supporters claimed for him. In other words they are going for visual over verbal as neither of them is renowned as an inspiring public speaker.  
  2. In terms of oratorical skills or lack of them Liz Truss has been gaffe-prone and can come across as hesitant while Rishi Sunak, though articulate, has to avoid the impression of an over-eager schoolboy in his attempts to convince.
  3. In  terms of the core messages, Rishi Sunak is very obviously trying to counter the sense of him as someone removed from the concerns of ordinary people because of his privileged upbringing and his great wealth. Thus he emphasises the (quite authentic) role of the family man, devoted to wife and children, at the same time countering Truss’s projection of herself as an assertive ‘lone’ female – the image Margaret Thatcher conveyed in her exercising dominance over male colleagues. Thatcher also kept husband and children in the background and emphasised her own gravitas and steeliness above all else.
  4. Pulling pints is another attempt by Sunak to demonstrate that he is not wholly out of touch with the ‘common man’, but this sort of posing does risk backfiring as when he fumbled in his attempts to use a bank debit card to buy fuel for a humble, borrowed car.
  5. I’m surprised that Sunak does not more strongly emphasise his financial background and expertise gained as a financier/fund manager (the sort of professional experience that Liz Truss would have trouble competing with), but he may rightly sense that public perceptions of hedge fund manipulators are far from entirely positive.

Both candidates are attempting to focus, as they must, on the universally understandable issues of taxation and immigration/refugee management, subjects on which those entitled to vote for them (a very small number of key individuals incidentally) are already likely to have very firm views.

I added the following…

I don’t wish to seem contentious or uncharitable, but their messaging – in both cases – really does leave much to be desired, beginning with the campaign slogans, ‘Ready for Rishi!’ and ‘Liz for Leader.’

On Rishi Sunak’s part, his public postures belie the fact that he is, among many other things, a teetotaller…

And as for Ms Truss…

Which approach, I was asked, was likely to play out better with the 1600 party members entitled to vote in the leadership contest?

I think it’s very difficult to predict: I suspect that many Tories will still instinctively prefer the certainty and strength of purpose that Margaret Thatcher represented – the steely glare rather than the eager-to-please smile. But perhaps on reflection they may come to decide that someone at ease with financial manipulations (public or private!), and someone who is not really encumbered with ideological baggage could be more convincing in the long run and a safer pair of hands? It’s perhaps reassuring and worth noting that those two ancient bugbears of British political life, ethnicity and gender, probably are no longer barriers to advancement.

This is how my remarks were incorporated into the Mail’s front page of July 25 2022…


More evidence if you need it…


At the Conservative party conference in October…


Another recent buzzword highlights the impacts of commercial innovation upon urban infrastructure and on the lifestyles of both rich and poor in the metropolis…


 Image result for empty luxury apartments


In 2015 I wrote about the fact that estate agents, journalists and grassroot activists were using the phrase lights-out London to describe the phenomenon whereby parts of the UK capital, especially those super-prime districts in the centre, have been deserted by ‘real’ people and are in the hands of absentee landlords (the government’s term is non-resident landlord, NRL) or absentee owners. There were then around 700,000 empty properties across the UK: in London 75% of buyers of new-builds are foreign, many of whom practise not just the buy-to-let tactics favoured by a generation of small domestic investors, but buy-to-leave. Wealthy non-doms are keeping around 20% of accommodation unused (units referred to colloquially as empties or more formally as vacant assets) in the knowledge that their investment will simply grow in value; other properties are unoccupied for most of the year, meaning that local economies in these areas are suffering a triple whammy. Spiralling house prices prompt private individuals to sell up and move out, at the same time the cost of office space is driving businesses further and further from these prime locations: once thriving shops and restaurants find themselves half-empty.

25% of investors coming from Gulf states to buy property in London planned purely to gain from rising prices without living there, according to the Guardian in 2016, who also reported that a quarter of all those who planned to buy a property in London were targeting capital gains rather than looking for somewhere to live or to let out. Even those buying second or third homes for their own families did not reveal how often or for how long the properties would be occupied.

The Grenfell Tower fire in June 2017 has refocused attention on the issues arising from absentee landlordism and official laxity – or possibly official collusion: many of Kensington and Chelsea Borough’s councillors are themselves landlords and active in the ambivalent regeneration projects which are supposed to provide both public and private housing, but which many see as vehicles for gentrification and, when housing poorer tenants, guilty of poor safety standards. 72 of the Conservative MPs who voted against a parliamentary motion to make homes ‘fit for human habitation’ were landlords; one was the newly appointed Police and Fire Minister, Nick Hurd.

Regulators haven’t been completely inert: the Bank of England’s Prudential Committee intends to crack down from September 2017 on portfolio landlords – those with four or more mortgaged buy-to-let properties – subjecting their businesses to stress tests to ensure that they have income streams and business plans in place.

Global, and local turbulence goes on, however. The company – a consortium of Malaysian investors – redeveloping the huge and iconic Battersea Power Station site on London’s riverside (‘the Everest of real estate’) promised in 2011 to include 636 affordable homes among its final range of ultra high-end housing units. In Summer 2017 it reduced this number to 386, saying the original commitment was based on lower construction costs and a seemingly unstoppable boom in newbuilds which since the Brexit vote has calmed considerably. At the Greenwich Peninsula site on the other side of London Hong Kong-based Knight Dragon have reduced the number of affordable homes from 35 to 21 percent.


Image result for empty luxury apartments


At the beginning of August 2017 The Labour Party condemned as ‘simply unacceptable’ the revelation, stemming from the accidental disclosure of council data following the Grenfell Tower fire, that 1652 properties were unoccupied in the London Borough of Kensington and Chelsea.  A Guardian report drew on the same information to publish the names of owners of vacant properties, among them oligarchs, foreign royalty and business speculators. This prompted the Liberal Democrats to demand increased surcharges on long-term empty homes, and London Mayor Sadiq Khan to promise to tackle the issue before the end of the year.


You can find more examples of the official jargon used in the field of development and regeneration here (I was particularly struck by one of the listed entries: 

Community Cohesion

There is currently no universally accepted definition of this.’)



…and the latest from Battersea here, courtesy the Telegraph:





A word that is bandied about – recently by Boris Johnson among many others – yet rarely examined closely. I have tried to unravel its connotations in two different contexts, once fairly flippantly, once a little more seriously…

Image result for the balkans

Once used to describe the weakness of tiny, mutually hostile nations with changing borders, this invocation of the troubled Balkan region is now fashionably applied to the banking sector. Balkanisation refers to, in the words of the FT‘s Patrick Jenkins, “the breakdown of cross-border banking as nervous lenders retreat… from the more troubled parts of the Eurozone.”

It is part of the trend towards deglobalisation, financial fragmentation, renationalisation and domestication of debt caused primarily by economic turbulence, prompting banks to introduce more effective safeguards against cyclical changes, aka buffering (another buzzword du jour), but increasingly also due to tighter official regulation. National regulators may now stop banks using deposits in one area to fund debts in another (the ability to shift capital or asset-swap from country to country is known as fungibility), and regulatory intervention can result in the breaking up, or Balkanisation, of the big, diversified financial entities themselves.


Here is a more detailed consideration…(long read) 

Click to access Thorne.pdf


Image result for balkanisation



A propos of nothing in particular, some thoughts on doubletalk, hypocrisy and evasions…

Image result for weasel

In 1982, during negotiations on a peacekeeping force for the Sinai peninsula, the British Foreign Secretary of the time, patrician Tory smoothie Lord Carrington, was damned by then US Secretary of State Alexander Haig, (using an adjective so rare as to cause some to doubt its existence) as ‘a duplicitous bastard’, and it’s fair to ask whether duplicity, in its various manifestations and like its better-known sibling, hypocrisy, is not a very fundament of the English way of life. Again, it is by our language that ye shall know us and for our language that we are – nowadays – regularly taken to task. For the frequently foulmouthed Haig, this was a mild imprecation; what Carrington had been saying has never been revealed, but ‘the British lied through their teeth’ according to Haig’s aides’. As serious practitioners of the art of insult, the British probably dismissed Haig’s testy comment on Carrington as hardly in the same world class as the invective of Lloyd George, who said that Winston Churchill would ‘make a drum out of the skin of his own mother in order to sound his own praises’; of Haig’s namesake, the World War I Field Marshal, that he ‘was brilliant to the top of his army boots’; or of Lord Derby that he was ‘like a cushion who always bore the impress of the last man who sat on him.’ Devastating ad libs and insults are carefully crafted in Britain; Haig’s was an impulsive throwaway.

One way of characterising language which is self-serving, empty and/or evasive is by damning it as ‘weasel words’. As Plain English Campaign veterans Chrissie Maher and Simon Cutts assert, ‘…in step with managerial thinking, opinion polls and an impossibly demanding media, our political leaders employ this new language of clichés, jargon, platitudes and weasel words to hide or twist the truth.’

Weasel words is an expression that appeared in the USA in the late 19th century, and in print in Stewart Chaplin’s short story Stained Glass Political Platform (published in 1900 in The Century Magazine), deriving not from the furtive sneakiness of Mustela nivalis, but from its habit of sucking out the contents of eggs, hence draining words of their real meaning. Weasel itself comes from an extremely ancient Indo–European word denoting a slimy liquid or poison which may also be the origin of ‘virus’. More recently it has featured in popular metaphor: ‘weaselly’ meaning devious and evasive with overtones of malice, while in the slang of the 1950s a ‘weasel’ could refer to a railway porter’s tip, an amphibious military vehicle or in rhyming slang to one’s coat (from ‘weasel-and–stoat’); weak tea in Yorkshire was ‘weasel-pee’ and wits replaced Shell’s petrol slogan of 1965, ‘Put a Tiger in Your Tank’, with ‘Put a Weasel in Your Diesel.’ Poor Willy Weasel didn’t listen to the advice given by the Tufty the Squirrel and was hit by a car when he tried to buy an ice-cream: as the voiceover (Bernard Cribbins) reminded us, in those poignant road safety cartoons of the 1970s, ‘Now Willy has been hurt. And all because he didn’t ask his mummy to go with him to the ice cream van.’ But what is it that makes it so very clear that Willy Weasel is bad news? You just know that he’s going to come to a nasty end. Is it because he’s a weasel, a by-word for a sneak? Is it because his neck is so long and he doesn’t therefore look quite as cute and human as a squirrel? Is it his stripy jumper with its connotations of criminality? Today in cyberslang weasel can designate both a penis and a home-made hashish pipe.

More pertinently, our then Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, in 1990 used Weasel Words as the title of a sonnet skewering the political cynicism of the Thatcherite era by parodying parliamentary rhetoric as reported in Hansard:

Let me repeat that we Weasels mean no harm.
You may have read that we are vicious hunters,
but this is absolutely not the case. Pure bias
on the part of your Natural History Book.
(Hear, hear).

We are long, slim-bodied carnivores with exceptionally
short legs and we have never denied this.
Furthermore, anyone here today could put a Weasel
down his trouser-leg and nothing would happen.
(Weasel laughter).

Which is more than can be said for the Ferrets opposite…