“You jabber, we jab; you dither, we deliver; you vacillate, we vaccinate” . This was Johnson’s most recent well-rehearsed and grotesquely, offensively superficial response to a question about rape convictions in prime minister’s questions (but no answers…) on 23 June. The tactic has worked well for Johnson whom John Bercow recently described as having “a nodding acquaintance with the truth in a leap year.” Why? Because it kills off debate, shuts down scrutiny and sticks in people’s minds.
Governance by meaningless slogan has characterised this government’s approach to virtually everything from Brexit to the pandemic, trivialising the big issues and undermining facts, truth and democracy itself.
Of course, the use of slogans is an established campaigning tactic, with the word slogan deriving from the Gaelic for ‘battle cry’, designed to rally troops around their leader, inspire and mobilise. We all know Veni, vidi, vici (I came, I saw, I conquered). Good old Julius Caesar! Liberté, fraternité, egalité is a battle cry many of us could get behind, even without being French!
Advertising has long understood the power of a good slogan to embed a brand or product in consumers’ minds. We can all call several to mind, I am sure – ‘Every little helps’; ‘Because I’m worth it’ (that’s been running since 1971); ‘Snap, crackle and pop’; ‘Beanz means Heinz’.
Note the rule of three. Three creates a pattern and a rhythm. Short, compelling and memorable. The rule of three pops up everywhere in human life from religion (the trinity, tryptychs etc), to science (Newton’s rules of motion) to the Arts (Aristotle’s principles of dramatic unity: place, time and action).
There is nothing wrong with benign uses of the formula to help concepts to stick in our memories. ‘Hands, face, space‘ was not a bad slogan and served a positive purpose. But what happens when the tactic is used to control us or to divide us?
The slogan as a weapon of division and control
Take a look at Credere, Obbedire, Combattere (Believe, Obey, Fight): Mussolini’s National Fascist party slogan or ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer (one people, one nation, one leader), so disturbingly evoked by the recent exhortation from the department of education to get primary school kids to sing ‘One Britain, One Nation’?
Where might that take us?
Then there’s the despicable and chilling ‘Arbeit macht Frei‘ (work makes you free) above the concentration camp gates.
Remember ‘Take back control’? The ‘back’ was added later in the Leave campaign and was a stroke of absolute genius, sadly, as it conveyed so much: restoration of loss, back to glory days, reclaiming lost powers etc. Did the slogan’s authors and promoters believe that Brexit would deliver that promise? No. They just knew the slogan would work. And it did, with disastrous consequences for this country and its people.
Do we now have more control outside the EU? No. In fact, we have seen an alarming reduction in control and the ongoing removal of our individual rights and freedoms. Increasingly, the only people who exercise control are a cabal of politicians, media barons and oligarchs. Meanwhile, we also cede control over our industries and quality standards through trade deals which hand power to other countries.
Get Brexit done? Another vote-winning lie. It’s far from done with grace periods still in force and (deliberately?) unresolved issues like Northern Ireland. To cap it all, Johnson and Frost are now pretending that what we now have wasn’t what they signed up to, anyway. The EU blame game continues. So much for taking back control.
It is increasingly evident that the creators of these slogans and those using them to build and bolster their power have fully bought into the Goebbels’ playbook when it comes to messaging. The truth, the validity, the integrity of the slogan could not matter less. All that matters is that it should land in people’s minds and spread like a virus. Goebbels was quite a fan of the rule of three himself:
“You can’t change the masses. They will always be the same: dumb, gluttonous and forgetful.”
“Devotion, fervor, longing! Those are my pillars. We have to be the bridge to the future.”
But it is his most infamous piece of advice which has been acted upon so assiduously by Johnson and his gang:
“Make the lie big, make it simple, keep saying it, and eventually they will believe it.”
Get Brexit done. Our money, our laws, our borders. Build back better.
Empty, meaningless. The absolute opposite of what is actually happening.
Even benign messaging is dangerously vague: Stay alert, control the virus, save lives. What does ‘stay alert’ mean for behaviour? Control the virus? How? By not closing borders or stopping flights from India and letting the Delta variant take control?
Then there’s Eat out to help out (spread the virus); Test, track and trace (abject and monstrously expensive failure)
It’s the illusion of action and decisiveness, the notion of a plan…except that it’s a non-existent plan or a plan with absolutely no definite action or decision-making/taking at all.
The People’s Priorities
But perhaps the most disturbing slogan of all is that of ‘delivering on the people’s priorities. This insidious phrase is designed to manipulate people into getting behind some of the most hideous strategies and abuses of power. You disagree? You are against the people. You are trying to prevent the fulfilment of their priorities. The courts? Unpatriotic. The opposition? Unpatriotic. Activists? Unpatriotic. Decent people who don’t like the hostile environment, the corruption, the cronyism are also no longer patriotic. The upholding of the rule of law is unpatriotic. You are an enemy of the people.
On 22 August, Adolf Hitler told his generals:
It is a very optimistic or wilfully blind person who will ignore the signs that history does indeed repeat itself. We need to wake up, stand up and resist.