The Boris Johnson 'partygate' fiasco has revealed some linguistic deficiencies in political reporting and commentary. Admittedly, it has also brought to the surface ethical and political practices of a more serious nature, but Orwell taught us about the power of political jargon, polluted or clean.
What is required today is a new vocabulary to discuss new styles of nefarious conduct. The very term 'partygate', a tacit act of homage to President Nixon and Watergate, is now somewhat dated but is an instance of a coinage which meets a need. The age of government by scandal has arrived, but commentators, even when reporting on specific events, struggle to convey its inner nature. Everywhere, except in Westminster where the quaint and dated etiquette of 'unparliamentary language' holds sway, Johnson can be described as a liar, and everybody knows he dare not sue.
We may have 24-hour news coverage but its reporting system is not equipped for the behind closed doors deals now routinely done. A term like 'stitch up' does not really cut it, while 'conspiracy theory' is now a term of derision applied to QAnon believers: folk who are convinced that J F Kennedy was assassinated by Abraham Lincoln, anti-vaxxers and the like. So how do we talk about actual
Much more than the expenses scandal and the lobbying scandals, the Johnson regime takes us into a new climate of underhand deals, half truths, downright lies, dark innuendos and false words spoken in dark corners. This was conduct that we Brits believed was perpetrated only by lesser breeds without the law, but we are now in a new age where laws are obviously for the little people while the powerful sneer in their clubs.
The baffled discussion about the late intervention of the commissioner of the Metropolitan Police into 'partygate' is a symptom of the new age. Did she act on her own? Was she in fact 'persuaded' to give Boris a hand? Were she and Sue Grey involved in some conspiracy? Did men in grey suits play a part? Where does power lie? Who calls the shots behind closed doors? How to describe this new culture?
The key word is 'behind'. Here we can look to Italy for guidance and clarity. A political culture that dates back to Machiavelli, that includes mafia in cahoots with politicians, not to mention governmental agreements reached and broken among the multiplicity of parties and internal factions, has led commentators to develop a suitable vocabulary.
One word of great value and obvious relevance to current UK politics is dietrologia
, a recently coined word in common use in political commentary. It is a play on the word dietro
, which means behind
, so dietrologia
would be behindology
, or behindism
, or behindery
and stands for the belief that unnamed forces are at work behind
the facade of democracy.
Skulduggery is perpetrated behind
the scenes. The forces who command language wield power, but the elite who operate behind
the scenes in a behindist
manner must be revealed. The Italian word has a greater musical lilt, but the reality it describes is as sinister as anything unearthed in the current fracas involving Boris Johnson and his entourage.
The UK is now at a point in history where open democracy is in peril and power is in the hands of mysterious, behindist
Joseph Farrell is Professor Emeritus of Italian at Strathclyde University. His most recent book is 'Honour and the Sword' (Signal Books), a study of duelling.