Words matter. Every second around 6,000 tweets are sent worldwide, equating to 500m a day – that’s 200bn tweets of 280 characters every year – you can watch it happening in real time at Internet Live Stats. It’s a lorra words. And 2021 was full of them.
2021 was the year of what was said and proved not to be quite true – from the Downing Street refurb to Christmas parties.
2021 was also the year of what wasn’t explicitly said – the ‘left hanging’. Last year was a low watermark of politicians attempting to ally themselves with far-right base supporters through nods and winks.
And 2021 was also the year of things said, but ‘off the record’– the mysterious migration of government contracts; agreements and lobbying being conducted off grid, far away from official email scrutiny and, instead, via the wild west of WhatsApp – and then, of course, conveniently deleted.
Throughout 2021, once straight-forward words became weighty with associated meaning. In 2021 the word ‘Brexit’ became more than simply a naff contraction for leaving the EU. Entering 2022, the word ‘Brexit’ now brings with it predictable views on immigration, an opposition to mask-wearing, an impatience with protest, an intolerance of workers’ rights, a thin skin to any non-absolutist view, and a sudden desire to shout loudly about imperilled ‘freedom’. And then, on New Year’s Eve, we had a government minister using the phrase ‘curbs on our freedoms.’
When I read this phrase, my heart sank. Not because it was the first time this phrase or others like it had been used (it was in the Daily Mail after all). And not just because I believe passionately in my own freedoms. It hit hard because of who had said it: the Health Secretary of the United Kingdom – Sajid Javid. A man charged with the responsibility for convincing many millions within the UK to get vaccinated, a man whose prime responsibility is to support and nurture the NHS through its greatest crisis, this same current crisis that is in great part exacerbated by huge numbers of unvaccinated citizens. In short, Sajid Javid is a man with a huge responsibility to appeal to the middle ground and those harder to reach, to build a sense of shared responsibility and a consensus for society to act in and for its best interests.
Instead of ‘curbs on our freedoms’Sajid Javid could easily have said ‘restrictions.’ Better – he could have said ‘health measures’. Because that’s what they are: health measures. Social distancing, mandated mask wearing, rules on social gatherings, even lockdowns. As he well knows, they exist not to ‘curb freedoms’ but to protect health. That is their role, inconvenient though they may be.
So why this choice of language? These weren’t words spoken in the heat of exchange in the debating chamber. They were carefully chosen.
The offending phrase frames the coming agenda of 2022. If simple health measures are ‘curbs on our freedoms’, then why should a vaccine sceptic bow down before the state and accept a jab in the arm?
If simple, health-service saving measures are ‘curbs on our freedoms’,where does that leave a noisy, inconvenient protest against the closure of a hospital? Does this become ‘an attack on democracy’?
What then happens in the face of the inevitable fundamental changes to our privileged lifestyles to mitigate climate change? Do these necessities become a ‘threat to our country and way of life itself’?
If our own Health Minister chooses the words ‘curbs on our freedoms’ when talking about simple, evidence-led health measures, he is making a politically charged statement. He has consciously decided to collaborate with the ongoing politicisation of the national interests, in the interests of the few.
Javid’s words put a chilling marker in the sand at the start of this new year. A year in which the Police Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill is going to be pushed through Parliament, a year in which you, or a member of your family, might need to protest about the closure of a hospital unit, a public service, land development or a government dragging its feet over climate change. The Nationality and Borders Bill will also be pushed in 2022, a bill which does little to address the real forces behind migration or the squalid and inhumane conditions these people find themselves in, not only in transit but, disgracefully, on arrival in the UK.
One only needs to look to the USA to see the catastrophic effect that language such as ‘curbs on our freedoms’has had. Intentional, politically-calculated language such as this has drawn together nebulous clouds of conspiracists, whackos, the disaffected and politically Machiavellian. It has united their wild and inaccurate theories about Covid and the climate, fed by QAnon and belief in white supremacy. Back in Britain, where ‘Brexit Got Done’, Johnson may have hidden away over Christmas, but his Brexiteer team has been busy on the new agenda.
Javid’s ‘curbs on our freedoms’ heralds 2022 as a year of dark and dangerous words. We need to make sure the words used are chosen wisely, in the best interests of the country. We must challenge the use of politically-charged words that debase us and our nation’s interests and values.
Enough poison from 2021. 2022 needs to be the year of the antidote – whatever form that might take.