Talk is cheap. We’ve all heard that saying, and probably used it ourselves many times. And in one sense, it’s true. It’s much easier to say something than to do something. But that doesn’t mean we should think any less about the things we say or write than we do about our actions, because words are extremely powerful.
Words can evoke our strongest emotions. A bully’s jibe about your appearance; the first ‘I love you’ from the person you know you’ll end up marrying; harsh criticism of the way you’ve performed a task at work: all of these things can make us feel hurt, happy or angry. But to trigger these emotions – to have real power – those very different words must have one thing in common. We need to trust the person saying them. We choose what value to give to the words of the bully, the person we love, or our manager – if we should pay them any attention – based on our assessment of whether or not the person in question is saying what they mean.
That’s why it’s so disappointing to see politicians and campaigners forever making wildly exaggerated claims and prophecies, because when they don’t come true, we stop trusting them. Take Andy Burnham, for example, Labour’s Shadow Health Secretary. In October 2011, during the passage of the Health and Social Care Act, he said that parliament had 72 hours to ‘save the NHS’. Then in March 2012, a week before the Act received Royal Assent, he claimed there were just 24 hours to do exactly the same thing. And in September last year, at the Labour Party Conference, he said the ‘coming election is a battle for the soul of the NHS’.
Now, whether the behind-the-scenes providers in the NHS are private or not, if people are still able to see their GP, have an emergency operation or give birth to a child in hospital without being asked how they’re going to pay (which of course they can) the idea that the NHS is dead just won’t ring true to ordinary voters.
But Andy isn’t the only one guilty of this kind of hyperbole. Take this parody of the latest Conservative campaign poster, recently retweeted by a Labour councillor:
Thankfully, Rosemary Healy was later suspended by her party, but there were many other similarly exaggerated sentiments shared on the #RoadToRuin on Twitter which do nothing for their cause, because only the naive and the hot-headed will be taken in by them. The rest of us can clearly see that a comparison between the Conservatives and the Nazis is as bonkers as it is stupid, so to claim that there is a similarity destroys any credibility the campaigners may have had.
Of course it’s easy to see why we’ve got ourselves into a situation where politicians and pundits have to out-exaggerate each other in ‘a style at once military and pedantic‘. People often say ‘it doesn’t matter who you vote for, they’re all the same’, and though there are undoubtedly differences emerging between the Conservatives and Labour, ‘pragmatism’ and ‘evidence-based policy’ don’t leave much room for clear blue water a lot of the time.
In our ‘post-ideological’ age, political battles aren’t fought between big ideas and grand visions. It’s taken for granted that we all pretty much agree on the direction the country is heading in (despite the rapid growth of idealistic minority parties on both ends of the political spectrum).
But those battles still need to be pitched to win votes, so it’s not surprising that so many people resort to turning Chicken-licken, shouting about the sky falling down in an attempt to get us excited about our often samey Westminster politics.
The truth is, as long as politicians are afraid of being labelled ‘dogmatic’ and refuse to speak in openly ideological terms, these exaggerations and distortions of the truth will be the only thing that is seen to separate the major parties by your average Joe, which does nothing but give the impression that they are both stuffed with liars.
When parliament is full of MPs talking in dreary circles, using bland jargon words with no heartfelt moral persuasion, these fits of feigned righteous indignation over trifling matters will be the only thing that stands out. So claims that can’t and won’t be believed will continue to be made, rendering what was once cheap talk absolutely worthless. I hope that we will see a change before that point is reached.