Pillow talk: how politics embraced the language of love

Anne Perkins
Theresa May … a counselling approach to politics. Photograph: Andy Buchanan/AFP/Getty Images

Don’t call it a divorce, Theresa May said in Commons exchanges last week, as if somehow not calling the separation of Britain from the rest of Europe a divorce could strip the event of all its bitterness and grievance. She’s right about one thing, though. The naming of things always matters, and it matters more in politics than almost anywhere else.

Politics is like any complex relationship where the locus of power is perpetually under negotiation – except it’s more difficult because, while it is always about power, what the power is for can also shift. For years past, it has been predominantly a chilly, transactional business where voters were assumed to decide political affiliation by consulting their personal advantage. The language used was the language of economics.

But the prospect of leaving the EU has flicked a switch on a stale and unrewarding standoff. Voters and politicians are in a relationship on fire. Like the aftermath of a monumental family row where some long-buried truths have been spat out, it is seething with newly exposed nerve endings, quivering with outrage. The years of chill have been replaced by an unfamiliar level of emotional engagement that is reinforced by a sense that part of the trouble has been a catastrophic failure to listen to one another. There is a deep rift in the national family.

So there could be some advantage in May’s relationship counselling approach to politics. Maybe we’ll be kinder to each other. Perhaps we might be more positive about the future.

Politics often evokes the descriptive language of the intimate relationship, but usually only by politicians who want to describe the antics of other politicians, many of whom have that sense of sexual entitlement that comes from some distant association with power. They love the mildly transgressional inference of bedroom metaphor and the way a certain kind of language conveys membership of an exclusive club.

But the more beguiling operators apply it to the voters, turning the relationship into a kind of courtship. In the Thatcher era, Michael Heseltine was widely deemed to know where to find the Conservative party’s erogenous zone. For a spell, Tony Blair appeared to know how to make love to half the country.

They are memorable, these politicians, because politics is not usually like that. Usually, it is a business pitch defined by cash and assets. It might appear to be personal, but that’s only because it is using optimisation algorithms to fake the qualities of intimacy.

Perhaps May is trying something different. She is inviting us to make something human out of an abstract event. David Cameron did something similar with his “hug a hoodie” attempt to destigmatise the nasty party (©T May), which at least confirms that language is not all that matters. All the same, keep listening. And think positive.

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