“The key thing is that we all remember to be civil and respectful to each other in how we talk about these issues that matter greatly to the electorate,” the prime minister’s spokeswoman, Allegra Stratton, told baffled reporters on Monday.
What could she mean? The straightforward interpretation is that the prime minister believes people should use moderate language when debating important political issues. But the prime minister in this case is Boris Johnson, the man who accused Theresa May of strapping a suicide vest to the UK, he of the picaninnies with watermelon smiles, the chap who likened Muslim women to letterboxes. It’s no more likely that he believes people should be careful in their choice of words than that he believes marriage vows are binding.
Has he changed his mind? Does he now regret the turns of phrase that had got him where he is today? No, Stratton was clear that her urgings didn’t in any way relate to things that Boris Johnson had said in the past: “The key thing is political conduct and debate in the months and years ahead.”
Soon ‘civil and respectful’ will be a slogan on the side of a bus
So was it that politicians should be civil and respectful from now on? No, that couldn’t be it either, as Johnson’s office was clear it didn’t have a problem with Robert Jenrick, who as Housing Secretary has time on his hands and has decided to intervene in the very important matter of Britain’s statuary, accusing Labour-controlled councils of being “baying mobs” engaged in a “revisionist purge”. This is hardly how a government would behave if it wanted to engage in a thoughtful discussion about the issues, after all.
So she must have meant something else. Perhaps the key words were the final ones – “issues that matter greatly to the electorate”. That must be it. Let’s face it, few things can possibly matter less to voters than opposition day debates, or statues, or the question of the Irish backstop. The prime minister, it is clear, is calling for civility and respect in dialogue about the things that really matter to people.
The sketch is therefore pleased to bring you the Approved Guide For Civil And Respectful Engagement On Issues That Matter.
OUT: “Are you going to put the bins out, or am I going to have to do it again, you useless lump?”
IN: “Our household is moving to a needs-based system, with world-beating just-in-time movement of surplus product to the handover point. And I’m not going out tonight in the dark and rain, when they never turn up before noon.”
OUT: “Where are my bloody car keys?”
IN: “The likelihood is that vehicle ownership authentication devices, like other essential tools, are proximate to the location they were last observed. Have you tried your coat pocket, where they always are?”
OUT: “No one is watching anything until their bedroom is tidy, and that means socks off the floor!”
IN: “While we must acknowledge that we have in the past failed to meet floor-clearing targets, these lapses reflect a challenging global context of wanting to play Minecraft, and we feel that our performance compares favourably with that of our peers. On top of which, we’re not your slaves.”
The government’s engagement – finally! – with issues of real importance to voters, after four years arguing about fluff like borders, the wellspring of national and personal identity, True Socialism and – very much by revealed preference rather than stated design – whether we as a people are in fact fitted for the exercise of parliamentary self-government, some long centuries into the experiment, is only to be welcomed.
The sketch is optimistic that in the coming weeks it will also announce a national plan to put the milk back in the fridge when you’ve finished with it, and then urgent engagement with Netflix to prevent a fourth season of Cobra Kai, which will inevitably be a disappointment, and accelerate roll-out of Stranger Things 4, which probably won’t.
This should all be seen as growth, and lessons learnt. And not as our sins chasing after us, relentlessly, implacably, from their start to our end. It’s definitely not that. It’s just light-hearted badinage about simple good manners. This is the country we live in now. Soon “civil and respectful” will be a slogan on the side of a bus; and thank you notes will be written voluntarily by children after birthday parties; and chatbots will say please and excuse me in their pop-up dialogue boxes. And to think many of you thought our national revolution was just about fish.
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