“The English vice is not buggery, but humbuggery” was the Continental jest of long ago. It has not been heard for some time, perhaps because opinion is divided on the several assertions in the line. The key word—not that one, but the other one—has now come to the front in Boris Johnson’s speech to the Commons. The Labour Party, especially the women’s wing, had been complaining of the language he used, accusing him of stoking up hatred of MPs with words such as “betrayal” and “surrender.” Boris responded “I have never heard such humbug in all my life.” He was then assailed by Goyaesque furies, and refused to withdraw or apologize (a word often on Left lips). The interesting word is “humbug,” associated with “fraud,” “sham,” “trickery,’ “deception.” Wellington thought that Napoleon had “humbugged” him by launching the Waterloo campaign at Charleroi. Boris had in mind “hypocrisy.” For him, language is a means of piercing to the truth, by whatever linguistic means, and not masking it. He scorns the Labour Party for their addiction to emotive language that has cast off the tow line to reality.
As ever, the aim of the Left is not to win debates but to close them down in advance. You cannot debate if your vocabulary is denuded of words that the Left deems offensive. And since the giving of offense is a free sport these days, there are more opportunities for the ever-sensitive Left to express its outrage at the mis-spoken word. Like the men of Gilead interrogating an Ephraimite, they would ask him to say “Shibboleth,” and if he said “Sibbolleth”—wrong pronunciation—he was slain (Judges, 12:6). What in our own day are termed “shibboleths” are making a stirring comeback, and these are challenging times for latter-day Ephraimites.
The correct response for the Right is to fight back. This is happening, to the disquiet of the Left which fears that Boris’s colorful language will play well with the electorate. But Boris’s talisman is free speech, and he refuses to be bullied by the Left. He repeated his “Surrender Act” charge half-a-dozen times, against waves of counter-attack. The death of Jo Cox, MP, murdered by a madman and much honored by the Labour Party, is not sancrosanct. Boris said that the best way of honoring her memory would be to pass Brexit and drain the toxic elements from the system. The Salisbury Review took a less elevated approach, carrying a current headline: IS JO COX BURIED IN THE CHURCH OF CHRIST THE REMAINER? That’s inflammatory but not an incitement to violence, the claim made by Labour vocalists against “provocative” language. But then the Bolsheviks invented provocatsya, a useful tool for events or words that get in the way. Their spiritual descendants thrive in the Labour Party, as well they might. Last week these romantic idealists sang the Red Flag in the Commons, the first lines at least. After that they forgot the words and desisted. But they remembered the tune.
Ralph Berry writes from England.