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Boris™ blusters

Posted by Thersites on  UTC 2019-07-27 13:14

Never in the field of Prime Ministerial speechmaking was so much pompous rubbish spouted in such a short time as during the new Prime Minister's speech before the door of Downing Street on 24 July. In saying that, let's not forget that we are the walking wounded who can still remember Major, Blair, Brown, Cameron and – may God preserve our minds – May.

A dog's breakfast? Now the petfood business is booming, it is certain that in the morning no dog ever faces a breakfast as messily inedible as this speech was, otherwise the RSPCA would certainly get involved.

We would expect a speech at this historical moment to be programmatic, setting the tone for what is to come. Johnson's speech in Downing Street was just as chaotic as his acceptance speech, thus setting the programme and the tone for his period in office as being an all-round shambles.

Shambles is the word, since the structure of the speech is impossible to detect, both by the first-time listener and the hero who is having a subsequent go at it. In the end the speech is just a jumble. The listener's task isn't helped by its stream of consciousness style.

A stream of consciousness from the wine-stained sofa

As an indicator of this stream of consciousness we note that in the 1,696 words of the speech the conjunction 'and' is used around 100 times. Around a dozen of these 'and's appear to start sentences or paragraphs – insofar as these structural units can be identified, since the loose articulation of the clauses and the erratic stopping make it impossible to be exact. The whole resembles a chain of sausage links looping across a butcher's window, rather than an orderly tray of pork pies.

Even in its written form we find no indications of structure. The text of the speech from the government website is a long toilet roll of double-spaced lines with no perceptible syntactical or grammatical organization – on paper it still looks like a stream of consciousness ramble. If this is what Johnson was reading out loud, we may understand what a stumbling, cack-handed job he made of reading it.

If we look at it analytically, insofar as it has a structure, that structure seems to consist of four shopping lists interspersed with three paragraphs of bombast, introduced, interspersed and concluded with bits of waffle.

By their words shall ye know them

'What is the point of all this tedious analysis of nonsense?' the reader asks. Our readers have better things to do with their time.

It may be dreary, but it is important, though, because Johnson trades on some kind of Churchillian aura. But this is all an illusion – perhaps, more accurately, just a parody.

From Theresa May no one ever expected anything but nonsense. We validated this once on the basis of a speech she gave two years ago in Florence.

In contrast, Boris™ Johnson is regarded as an orator of the first chop. It is part of his brand, which we refer to with the ™-sign we now apply to his name in order to signify brand Boris™. But, when his outpourings are read carefully and examined, it turns out that he is not an orator – he is a mangler of language and thought whose posh accent and affected delivery blind many into thinking that they are in the presence of a first class mind. Like his degree, his mind is not first class at all.

Far from being an oratorical triumph, the speech had many defects. One of these was its strange amalgam of high-sounding turns of phrase jarringly combined with colloquialisms. He clearly doesn't understand the need to use a single and fitting language register during the whole of a speech. In the following the the pompous phrases are marked in blue, the colloquialisms in green and the general oddities in yellow.

Few in the media have looked at his first prime ministerial speech in an analytical spirit. We need to keep on his case in the future and we start right now.

Introduction

Good afternoon

I have just been to see Her Majesty the Queen who has invited me to form a government and I have accepted

The inelegance of the opening statement is a surprise – we expected better than this. Its effect is to leave the listener rather unsettled. Compare this with an easy rewrite, avoiding the ugly relative clause: 'I have just been to see Her Majesty the Queen and have accepted her invitation to form a government'.

I pay tribute to the fortitude and patience of my predecessor

Perhaps the effect was intended, but the lack of any verb of personal will makes the statement sound coolly insincere – a warmer tone would have cost nothing, for example: 'I would like to pay tribute to…' .

and her deep sense of public service

The pessimists, doomsters and gloomsters

but in spite of all her efforts it has become clear that there are pessimists at home and abroad

who think that after three years of indecision

The 'that' in 'think that' is out of place here, since it is repeated in the next two clauses.

The last three Brexit years have not been 'years of indecision' but three years of inability to agree. Plenty of decisions have been taken, but none of them have found majority favour either in Cabinet, in Parliament, in the party or in the country.

that this country has become a prisoner to the old arguments of 2016

and that in this home of democracy we are incapable of honouring a basic democratic mandate

And so I am standing before you today to tell you

the British people

that those critics are wrong

The doubters, the doomsters, the gloomsters – they are going to get it wrong again

The people who bet against Britain are going to lose their shirts

because we are going to restore trust in our democracy

The composition of Parliament has not changed, the EU is still intransigent and the electoral mathematics are still as refractory as they were under his predecessor. If democracy is considered to be Parliament – admittedly a big 'if' – restoring trust in it is not within Johnson's remit.

Assuming that 'the critics' means presumably 'the pessimists', we are told they are wrong. Fair enough. Then we are told that they 'are going to get it wrong again'. We are not told when this future 'again' is and to what it refers – perhaps he means the crunch date of 31 October. We are then told that the pessimists, critics, doubters, doomsters and gloomsters are mysteriously 'bet[ting] against Britain' and that in consequence they will 'lose their shirts'.

It's a strange form of braggadocio, mildly reminiscent of the threats based on historical inevitability that certain sinister German and Italian gentlemen used to employ all those years ago.

Brexit promise

and we are going to fulfil the repeated promises of parliament to the people and come out of the EU on October 31

It would take a Jesuitical mind to work out what precisely these 'repeated promises' were. The departure on 31 October will occur as a default arising from the failure to agree on a withdrawal process. The two are chalk and cheese: how crashing out with no deal 'fulfils' the 'repeated promises of parliament' is a mystery. Once again we find 'and' drafted in to provide the needed ambiguity, where 'to' would have been much clearer; 'come out of the EU' is a fine euphemism for the reality of a no-deal exit.

no ifs or buts

and we will do a new deal, a better deal that will maximise the opportunities of Brexit while allowing us to develop a new and exciting partnership with the rest of Europe

based on free trade and mutual support

I have every confidence that in 99 days' time we will have cracked it

This segment lays two statements side by side, presumably in order to attempt an equivalence by association. Once again, plucky little 'and' has to serve as the hinge between them.

The emphatic departure date – 'no ifs or buts' – has a welcome ring of certainty to it. We warm to that.

The second statement is much less certain – highly unlikely, in fact – since the agreement on a 'new deal' with the EU within three months brings us into tooth-fairy territory. The deal will offer 'free trade and mutual support'.

The phrase 'will do a deal' suggests determination, but neglects the fact that another's acquiescence will be necessary to make it reality. It's a fantasy. Anyone with the slightest acquaintance with the EU and the purpose of its existence has to conclude that Johnson is a deceiver or simply deranged – possibly both.

Time to act

but you know whatwe aren't going to wait 99 days

because the British people have had enough of waiting

The time has come to act,

to take decisions

to give strong leadership and to change this country for the better

We battered listeners have to give our brains an outing in order to ponder the question of the '99 days' that the government has available in which to find an agreed Brexit withdrawal arrangement, but which are no longer necessary because the government is going to act immediately.

In the midst of this logical shambles we have to cope with that 'because'. A full stop would have been sufficient ('wait 99 days. The British people'), but this speech shuns such devices. A dash would have been acceptable, too.

For the grammatically sensitive, in this context the word 'because' has quite the opposite effect to that intended. If I say 'I took my umbrella with me because rain had been forecast' the meaning would be clear. However, if the preceding clause is a negative, then usage expects the following structure: 'I didn't take my umbrella with me because rain had been forecast [but because it made me look rather dapper]'. Negatives in both clauses would also have saved the meaning: 'I didn't take my umbrella with me because rain hadn't been forecast' – that is: 'We aren't going to wait 99 days because the British people don't want to wait.'

For the historian, all this talk of 'time to act', 'taking decisions', 'strong leadership' is eerily reminiscent of times in the not-so-distant past when 'leaders' arose to save their countries by following what they chose to interpret as the people's will, in this specific case that 'the British people have had enough of waiting'. Democracy takes a back seat in such situations.

But we are pretty sure that Boris™ Johnson doesn't mean it in that way – it's just his usual bombastic waffling.

First servant of the people

and though the Queen has just honoured me with this extraordinary office of state

my job is to serve you, the people

because if there is one point we politicians need to remember it is that the people are our bosses

Now while the gears in our heads are still grinding on the period of '99 days' which has turned into 'not waiting', we have to cope with an excursion into political theory.

The assertion that Johnson is the servant of the people (a lie that goes back to that old Austrian despot Joseph II and further) and that the people are the politicians' bosses is breathtaking effrontery. It is not true and never has been true. Ask the Labour party or the Liberal Democrats whether they are the servants of the people and see what answer you get. In a completely populist sense, there are many things for which the mob might wish, but these are things that Johnson, his government and Parliament will never implement.

Furthermore, in the previous section we had to cope with all the trappings of the authoritarian: the 'strong leadership', the 'time to act', 'taking decisions'. Now we are confronted with the humble servant carrying out the will of his 'bosses', the people. Shameless.

Shopping list the first

My job is to make your streets safer – and we are going to begin with another 20,000 police on the streets

and we start recruiting forthwith

My job is to make sure you don't have to wait 3 weeks to see your GP

and we start work this week with 20 new hospital upgrades, and ensuring that money for the NHS really does get to the front line

Syntactical chaos: 'make sure' [GP] and 'start work' [hospitals] and 'ensuring' [money]. The Oxford comma before 'and ensuring' is a half-hearted and ultimately futile attempt to impose some sanity on the syntax. That it was an emergency fix is clear: there are only 31 commas (Oxford or otherwise) used in the entire speech – they are precious and only to be used in extremis. The commas have it easy compared to the full stops, though: there are only two of them in the whole speech.

My job is to protect you or your parents or grandparents from the fear of having to sell your home to pay for the costs of care

The use of 'or' is bizarre: [you] OR [your parents] OR [grandparents]. Choose one. The error is completely unforced, since the simple formulation would have been much better and made even logicians happy: 'My job is to protect you, your parents and grandparents…'. But then, of course, one of those 31 commas would have had to be used up.

and so I am announcing now – on the steps of Downing Street – that we will fix the crisis in social care once and for all with a clear plan we have prepared

What the 'steps of Downing Street' have to do with the case is a puzzle. As is the fact that Johnson is neither physically nor figuratively 'on the steps of Downing Street' anyway. Perhaps Johnson is preparing the ground for the coming rhetorical masterstroke 'behind that black door'.

to give every older person the dignity and security they deserve

My job is to make sure your kids get a superb education

wherever they are in the country

and that's why we have already announced that we are going to level up per pupil funding in primary and secondary schools

A policy shopping list worthy of Theresa May or Amber Rudd. Crime (police 'on the streets'); NHS (God help us); Care costs (why should the taxpayer pay to allow old people to make their children rich?); Old age dignity and security (the Government has been promising that since 1945 and has yet to deliver); 'level up' school funding.

Responsibility

and that is the work that begins immediately behind that black door

and though I am today building a great team of men and women I will take personal responsibility

for the change I want to see

Never mind the backstop – the buck stops here

So touching that he takes responsibility for the things that are his responsibility anyway. At least we now know who to blame – although we knew that all along. If you claim absolute authority to take decisions then you bear the absolute responsibility for them. Given all the unforced errors in Johnson's personal life and public career, we are still waiting for some taking of responsibility for those.

Appropriating Harry S. Truman's bright slogan 'the buck stops here' is in itself a sign of intellectual poverty. One can get away with purloining good phrases if you mention the source. But aligning it alliteratively with 'the backstop' to make a completely meaningless phrase is a sign of infantile stupidity; introducing it with 'never mind', presumably in some long dead allusion to 'never mind the quality etc.' makes it all worse.

Shopping list the second

And I will tell you something else about my job.

It is to be Prime Minister of the whole United Kingdom

and that means uniting our country

answering at last the plea of the forgotten people

and the left behind towns

by physically and literally renewing the ties that bind us together

so that with safer streets and better education and fantastic new road and rail infrastructure and full fibre broadband

we level up across Britain

with higher wages, and a higher living wage, and higher productivity

we close the opportunity gap

giving millions of young people the chance to own their own homes

and giving business the confidence to invest across the UK

because it is time we unleashed the productive power not just of London and the South East

but of every corner of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland

Enough political unicorns here to open a zoo. It's all nonsense, however. We wonder how higher wages etc. will close the 'opportunity gap'. Giving 'millions of young people the chance to own their own homes', homes that haven't even been built yet, seems like a recipe for house price inflation – which will have just the opposite effect.

British bombast the first

the awesome foursome that are incarnated in that red white and blue flag

who together are so much more than the sum of their parts

and whose brand and political personality is admired and even loved around the world

for our inventiveness, for our humour, for our universities, our scientists, our armed forces, our diplomacy

We began with the 'awesome foursome' (='it' or perhaps 'they') and now stumble across 'our'. Given the current shaming military problem with Iran, perhaps it would be better not to mention 'our armed forces'. Given the leaking of Sir Kim Darroch's un-diplomatic opinions about President Trump (currently the biggest ally of the UK) perhaps we ought not to mention 'our diplomacy', either.

for the equalities on which we insist – whether race or gender or LGBT or the right of every girl in the world to 12 years of quality education

and for the values we stand for around the world

Everyone knows the values that flag represents

It stands for freedom and free speech and habeas corpus and the rule of law

and above all it stands for democracy

This bombastic display of British exceptionalism implies that the other developed countries in the world are somehow defective: their corrupt legal systems, their missing freedoms, their lack of free speech, the imputation that they have no habeas corpus principle and a questionable rule of law.

At best tasteless boasting. Unfounded boasting, too, coming from the leader of a country which has just given two men suspended prison sentences of four and eight weeks and various costs and compensation for calling an MP names; the country whose police force ruined the reputations of upstanding citizens by branding them paedophiles on no evidence whatsoever; the country that brought us the Windrush scandal; the country with the completely undemocratic House of Lords; the country that brought us the HS2 and Hinckley Point fiascos; the country whose currency has been in almost permanent decline since World War II and so on. This offensive humbug just invites a list of all the things that have gone wrong over the years. It would be a long list.

Contra EU

and that is why we will come out of the EU on October 31

because in the end Brexit was a fundamental decision by the British people that they wanted their laws made by people that they can elect

and they can remove from office

and we must now respect that decision

and create a new partnership with our European friends – as warm and as close and as affectionate as possible

People 'that they can elect and they can remove from office'.

His own elevation to the office of Prime Minister came as a result of the votes of only fifty-one percent of Conservative MPs and some ninety thousand Conservative Party members. No one asked the UK electorate on this point – so the true day of reckoning with them has yet to come.

If he is bumbling on about the proletariat's ability to choose its MPs, they are not elected to office, nor can they be removed from office by the electorate. They are appointed to office by the patronage of the Prime Minister and only by the Prime Minister. In that decision the electorate has no say whatsoever.

Before that, though, comes the day of reckoning with the grammarian, who might correct the text as follows: 'their laws made by people whom they can elect to office and whom they can remove from office'. That is still a lie, but at least it is a grammatical lie.

Britain doesn't have 'European friends'. European governments have very limited freedoms of independent action within the EU. The opposite partner for the UK is the EU and it is certainly not your friend (as Switzerland is currently discovering).

and the first step is to repeat unequivocally our guarantee to the 3.2 m EU nationals now living and working among us

and I say directly to you – thank you for your contribution to our society

thank you for your patience and I can assure you that under this government you will get the absolute certainty of the rights

to live and remain

Four benighted 'and's do their best to hold the bits of what should be a simple statement together. A couple of fullstops would have been more useful. It is a blessing that the sentiments disappear in incomprehensibility, otherwise EU nationals might get the idea that they have been given a right 'to live' – so no pograms or firing squads at least. Johnson's government might even let them 'remain', though in some unspecified place.

It will be interesting to see how the UK courts deal with the right of residence of existing EU residents in the UK and those of would-be EU residents. This issue is much more complicated than Johnson makes out.

And next I say to our friends in Ireland, and in Brussels and around the EU

I am convinced that we can do a deal

without checks at the Irish border, because we refuse under any circumstances to have such checks

and yet without that anti-democratic backstop

'We refuse under any circumstances to have such checks'. Johnson is looking at borders only through British eyes. Borders, by definition, have two sides. After Brexit the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland will change from being an internal border (that is, almost non-existent) into being an external border of the EU with a third country, the UK. The EU has no interest in softening that border, because that will create a precedent on all its other external borders.

Johnson can huff, puff and 'refuse' as much as he likes about the UK side of the border – but the EU alone will decide what happens on their side.

The syntax of the last statement 'I am convinced that…anti-democratic backstop' is impossible to unravel. Did anyone read this speech before he delivered it?

We might try changing 'we can do a deal without checks at the Irish border, because we refuse under any circumstances to have such checks' into 'we can do a deal on the Irish border, but it must be a deal without checks, for we refuse under any circumstances to have them'. It's still political nonsense, but at least that part make sense now.

Preparing for no-deal

and it is of course vital at the same time that we prepare for the remote possibility

that Brussels refuses any further to negotiate

and we are forced to come out with no deal

not because we want that outcome – of course not

but because it is only common sense to prepare

and let me stress that there is a vital sense in which those preparations cannot be wasted

and that is because under any circumstances we will need to get ready

at some point in the near future

to come out of the EU customs union and out of regulatory control

fully determined at last to take advantage of brexit

because that is the course on which this country is now set

This section of the speech makes absolutely no sense at all – read it as often as you wish. It contains no comprehensible syntax or sequence of ideas. Once again, 'because' is called in to do the orator's dirty work – in this section four times: 'not because we want'… 'but because it is'… 'and that is because'… 'because that is the course'… . The listener completely loses track of which string of words – not to be confused with a clause – is dependent on which other string of words.

We wonder why the UK is leaving the 'EU customs union' and not the Single Market. Perhaps Johnson doesn't know the difference. We wonder, too, how the UK is moving 'out of regulatory control' but into the regulatory control of the same WTO rules that also apply to the EU itself. Perhaps Johnson doesn't know this either.

Dr Pangloss, redux

with high hearts and growing confidence we will now accelerate the work of getting ready

and the ports will be ready and the banks will be ready

and the factories will be ready

and business will be ready

and the hospitals will be ready

and our amazing food and farming sector will be ready and waiting to continue selling

ever more not just here but around the world

and don't forget that in the event of a no deal outcome we will have the extra lubrication of the £39 bn

and whatever deal we do we will prepare this autumn for an economic package

to boost British business and to lengthen this country's lead as the number one destination in this continent for overseas investment

A remarkable twelve 'and's hold this rant together.

Contra pessimists

and to all those who continue to prophesy disaster

I say yes – there will be difficulties

though I believe that with energy and application they will be far less serious than some have claimed

Despite all the 'will be ready' confidence of the previous section, we now get an admission that there may be problems. Indeed 'there will be difficulties'.

but if there is one thing that has really sapped the confidence of business over the last three years

it is not the decisions we have taken

it is our refusal to take decisions

and to all those who say we cannot be ready

Our 'refusal to take decisions'. Once again we party-poopers have to point out that the May government attempted to take plenty of decisions. The reality is that those decisions (whether right or wrong) never found a parliamentary majority that accepted them. The make-up of parliament has not changed with the choice of Boris™ Johnson as Prime Minister, so we can only wait to find out in what way his decisions will be more acceptable to Parliament than Theresa May's decisions.

British bombast the second

I say do not underestimate this country

Do not underestimate our powers of organisation and our determination

because we know the enormous strengths of this economy

Once more, poor little 'because' has to serve as the hinge between two incompatible statements: 'do not underestimate' (2x) because 'we know'. Or perhaps it is the hinge between 'I say' and 'we know'? Who knows what bit is attached to what in this shambles of a text?

Shopping list the third

in life sciences, in tech, in academia, in music, the arts, culture, financial services,

Specifying 'music', 'the arts' and 'culture' in the same breath is a sign of desperation: surely the single word 'culture' would have covered the others. What is 'tech'?

It is here in Britain that we are using gene therapy, for the first time, to treat the most common form of blindness

here in Britain that we are leading the world in the battery technology that will help cut CO2 and tackle climate change

and produce green jobs for the next generation

In a rational world, this section should exclude Johnson from the ranks of the sane. In spouting the nonsense of 'battery technology' helping 'cut CO2', the lunacy of tackling 'climate change' and the pipe dream of 'green jobs' he proves to us all that he is no intellectual colossus but possesses on the contrary a superficial, weak mind with limited powers of analysis. For this part of his speech alone he should be condemned to the outer darkness for eternity.

Shopping list the fourth

and as we prepare for a post-Brexit future it is time we looked not at the risks but at the opportunities that are upon us

so let us begin work now to create freeports that will drive growth and thousands of high-skilled jobs in left behind areas

Freeports that will 'drive growth' and drive 'thousands of high-skilled jobs'. How can one drive a job?

let's start now to liberate the UK's extraordinary bioscience sector from anti genetic modification rules

and let's develop the blight-resistant crops that will feed the world

let's get going now on our own position navigation and timing satellite and earth observation systems – UK assets orbiting in space with all the long term strategic and commercial benefits for this country

Let's change the tax rules to provide extra incentives to invest in capital and research

and let's promote the welfare of animals that has always been so close to the hearts of the British people

and yes, let's start now on those free trade deals

because it is free trade that has done more than anything else to lift billions out of poverty

Good luck getting the GMO crops past the multinational Green Blob, let alone the UK's own Green Blob. The government is still struggling to get fracking going.

The business case for the UK solo development of its own GPS system has yet to be made – certainly Johnson's concatenation of cool stuff – 'our own position navigation and timing satellite and earth observation systems' – shows that he has no idea what he is talking about or the sums involved.

Ditto for the 'free trade deals' which in our globalised world are anything but free. They take years to negotiate and are highly technical arrangements involving regulatory conformity and often extensive phyto-sanitary arrangements and inspection regimes.

British bombast the third

all this and more we can do now and only now, at this extraordinary moment in our history

and after three years of unfounded self-doubt it is time to

change the record

to recover our natural and historic role as an enterprising, outward-looking and truly global Britain, generous in temper and engaged with the world

No one in the last few centuries has succeeded in betting against the pluck and nerve and ambition of this country

They will not succeed today

Just blustering, historical humbug. He should be ashamed of himself for indulging in this sort of demagogic ranting. Why can't he articulate a realistic strategic vision for the UK which doesn't involve doing other countries down?

Work begins now

We in this government will work flat out to give this country the leadership it deserves

and that work begins now

Thank you very much

Conclusion

Either Boris™ Johnson is an idiot, or he thinks we are all idiots – or probably both. Based on the evidence we have seen so far this premiership is not going to end well. He is a blustering, intellectually limited buffoon.