A dictionary of contemporary politics

By Bernadette Meaden
October 11, 2012

One of the most exasperating things about politics at the moment is the way politicians abuse and twist the language to their own ends. Words lose their true meaning and mutate into what they want them to mean.

The politics of envy. Practiced by the undeserving poor, and Socialists. All people who are wealthy have become wealthy by entirely legitimate means, and are all paying their fair share in taxes. To suggest otherwise is to be bitter and negative. Curiously however, the government encourages envy in certain groups. During his conference speech, George Osborne managed to condemn the politics of envy about two seconds before encouraging working people to envy their neighbours who are on benefits.

Strivers These are one of the few categories of people who receive praise from the government. But they are referring to only a certain type of striver. They don’t mean people striving to maintain their patience whilst caring for a partner with Alzheimers. They don’t mean a mother striving to keep her children on the straight and narrow in a disadvantaged part of town. They don’t mean a sick or disabled person striving to maintain their dignity and stay independent, against all odds. No, the strivers are those striving to ‘get on’, to start a business or progress in their career and make more money. There’s nothing wrong with that, but compared to what some people are striving for, it is in human terms, pretty small beer.

Wealth creators These are the heroes of the economy. They may have made themselves very wealthy, but that is only right and proper. In the government’s eyes they seem to have done this in isolation, without any help from wider society. We must all be very grateful to them for staying in the country, and look up to them as role models. Their employees are viewed as little more than a necessary evil, and worker’s rights are an annoying hindrance to the captains of industry. Which is why we need….

A flexible workforce A workforce that has minimum rights and can be turned on and off like a tap. The ideal scenario is probably the ‘zero hours contract’, where people are employed by a company and must be available to work, but are not guaranteed any work or any income. This allows the company to pay the absolute minimum in wages whilst having a cost-free reservoir of labour to tap into should they need it. It has previously been associated with low-skilled low-paid jobs, but is now being introduced into the NHS.

Something for nothing For a Cabinet in which so many members have inherited millions, there appears to be no appreciation of the irony of condemning other people who they deem to have received something for nothing. People who lose their job or become ill can now be forced to jump through all kinds of hoops, including Workfare, to receive the meagre benefits they are entitled to.

Something for something Offered as the alternative to something for nothing, and on the face of it sounds reasonable. You get out of life what you put in, is a widely accepted maxim. But when applied to the Welfare State, it is an insidious notion. What about unemployed young people, who have not been able to even start work, and so are deemed to have contributed nothing? Are we to start questioning their entitlement to any support? Disabled people and many others who can’t contribute in a financial sense are increasingly being made to feel like second-class citizens.

A modest income This is a very flexible notion. The average salary is around £26,000, so the maximum a family on benefits can receive has just been capped at that. But Boris Johnson recently referred to people on ‘modest incomes’ of between £30,000 and £64,000. This latter sum would put earners into the top five per cent , but to Boris it’s a modest income. For most politicians, a modest income is probably just a little bit less than what they are earning. No matter how high their income, they would never admit to being rich. That might spark the politics of envy.


© Bernadette Meaden has written about religious, political and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is a regular contributor to Ekklesia.

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