Grammar ain’t a class issue

Angela Rayner’s inverted snobbery helps no one

Artillery Row

Politicians are not by nature conflict-averse. Indeed, they would hardly be where they are if they feared a scrap from time to time. Withal, some less gun-shy MPs will even go out of their way to generate a fight out of nowhere, if it seems to be to their advantage.

Against a cabinet of millionaires, the image of hardscrabble simplicity can be a powerful weapon

Such a politician is Angela Rayner, deputy leader of the Labour Party, shadow first secretary of state and lord high everything else. This week she told a think tank that she refused to let Hansard, the record of parliamentary speeches, correct her grammar. “The reporters for Hansard have a bit of a nightmare sometimes transcribing the way I speak in Parliament into their house style,” she said. “But I don’t compromise on it — because it’s who I am.”

This is not out of character. Much of Rayner’s brand is built on her image as a plain-speaking woman from a working-class background, in stark contrast, one might think, to the polished, Oxford-educated QC who leads her party. Authenticity is a highly prized quality in British politics, as MPs — though not necessarily voters — think it is attractive to appear “ordinary”, equating as it does to being in touch and down to earth.

We need to be clear on two points. The first is that this is absolutely a deliberate move by Rayner. Against a cabinet of millionaires led by an Old Etonian who apes Wodehouse at his most grotesque, the image of hardscrabble simplicity might be a powerful weapon. She must know that she will not thrive on her persuasive oratory or her policy chops, and so she doubles down on her personal circumstances. There is nothing particularly dishonourable in this: ask yourself how often the current mayor of London has referred to his father’s former profession.

The second point is more technical. Hansard — strictly speaking, the Official Report — is not, as many believe, a verbatim record of what is said in the House of Commons. Indeed, until the early part of the twentieth century, Hansard was produced in reported speech. What the reporters seek to do is present a broadly accurate but scrupulously intelligible record of what our elected representatives say. They regularly edit for sense, and many MPs are grateful for the way they gently “tidy up” speeches, though they will not, of course, make any substantive changes, and corrections are strictly circumscribed.

If Rayner makes grammatical mistakes, then Hansard would naturally correct them unless it represented a major change to what was said. This would be done automatically and without fuss, without specific consultation with her, because reporters want the text to flow. For Rayner to make an issue of it, therefore, is a deliberate act.

The example which was adduced in support of her argument was her use of “less” rather than “fewer”. She was presented with a suggested change to maintain grammar, but declined the change to preserve what she called a “natural delivery”. Now, there is no question of her right to insist on the original word, though it might strike some people as odd to focus on it. Odd it may be, but it was certainly performative: she wanted to say that she was honest and straightforward, without any pretensions or evasions.

Rayner is saying there’s no point in learning because it only diminishes your true character

The argument she is making, in essence, therefore, is that “proper” grammar is not natural to the working classes. Observing grammatical and syntactic rules is somehow rarified and effete, the preserve of the privately educated and privileged. Indeed, she told the Institute for Public Policy Research that “the professionalisation of politics can be corrosive because it results in politician speak”.

This is a preposterous argument. Unless you are a linguistic anarchist like the Times’s Oliver Kamm, who seems to believe that all iterations of the English language are equally valid and current usage is an argument which trumps all others, you probably believe that there are rules of grammar and syntax. It may be that these are not always honoured in speech: purists wince at split infinitives and terminal prepositions, but sometimes it sounds odd to avoid such instances. 

Following such rules has nothing to do with social class. Or, at least, it is not directly related: the argument could be made, though I would be reluctant to make it, that “proper” English is more often taught in more academic and/or selective schools, which are less likely to be attended by working-class pupils. But that is a broad generalisation, and a crude one. The best way to learn “good” or at least stylish English is to read as widely as possible, and that is open to anyone. One should not deprecate autodidacts.

There is a deeper and more corrosive implication in Rayner’s stance too. She is effectively saying that there is something artificial, something pretentious and something ultimately deceitful about those who speak or write more formally or with greater adherence to grammatical norms. That argument has a number of unpleasant consequences and ought to be rejected firmly.

What a terrible message it sends. What poverty of ambition it displays. Even if we shy away from the idea of grammar being “right” or “wrong”, she is saying that preserving exactly what comes out of your mouth is the authentic and honest way to be. She implies, indeed, that it can benefit from no improvement. At its furthest extent, Rayner is saying there’s no point in learning because it will only serve to diminish your true character.

Do not imagine that there was anything snobbish or snooty about the gentle guidance of the Official Report. This was an offer, which would be made to any Member of Parliament, to smooth out some minor linguistic bumps in the lasting record of her speech. She was not instructed to change it; she was not forced to do anything. Instead, Rayner chose to make it a class issue, to wrap herself in the poverty of her upbringing and proclaim its moral superiority to the backgrounds of others.

This is not how politics should be conducted. It is not how politicians should treat each other. It is certainly not the way we should deal with the English language. It was, when you boil it down, a cheap shot. Angela Rayner is better than that. But it would be nice to see her show it.

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