This is a government that is careless with words when it chooses and a Prime Minister who believes that the truth is whatever comes out of his mouth at any given moment. But it’s the even darker misuse of language and the assignment of more sinister meanings to innocent and generally positive or neutral words that really bothers me and should bother us all. It’s clear that words mean nothing to the cabinet when they are wrapped up in promises…but threats? Ah, well. That’s a different story.
Immigrant has long been annexed by those hostile to foreigners. It’s a word habitually shackled to another – ‘illegal’. Those in power who might secretly favour the term ‘illegal immigrant’ have clocked that it’s a bit of a racist flag which they aren’t quite shameless enough to wave in public. ‘Migrant’ is now the preferred term, larded by the mainstream media with great dollops of fear, xenophobia and racism; it’s deliberately used instead of ‘asylum-seeker’ or ‘refugee’, since either of these terms might actually egender a bit of much-needed empathy and we can’t have that, can we? (It’s funny, by the way, how Brits abroad are ‘ex-pats’ and anyone here from anywhere else is a migrant or an illegal immigrant. Only it’s not funny at all, is it? It’s all part of English exceptionalism.)
However, for me, the most recent and so far most disturbing misappropriation of the language is Priti Patel’s use of the phrase ‘activist lawyer’.
Activist lawyers, indeed! Her tweet was a blatant dog whistle to the far right. Comments on her tweet included the suggestion that a list be drawn up of lawyers who act for asylum seekers. There was no doubt as to the intended purpose of such a list. Thankfully, the unpleasant reactions were outnumbered by those outraged at Patel’s disregard for the due process of the law.
Here’s what political commentator Ian Dunt had to say about her deliberate and calculating misuse of words:
This attack on lawyers and the judiciary in general is straight out of the Nazi playbook*. To unite people behind their agenda, this government must have an enemy. Sometimes it’s the EU, sometimes it’s Remainers. For a sizeable chunk of the time though, it’s those evil migrants. Note how the vocabulary switches to the language of war – we are being ‘invaded’, the coastline is patrolled by Dad’s Army wannabes, looking to thwart ‘beach landings’. The mayor of Calais, Natacha Bouchart, described Patel’s plans to use the Royal Navy to stop channel crossings as ‘a declaration of maritime war’.
Now Patel is coming for the human rights and immigration lawyers, determined to add them to the list of people that true patriots must hate and wish to see blamed and curbed. Of course, it is a move entirely consistent with the government’s aim to put executive action beyond the checks and balances imposed by the courts.
As I wrote in my article Gaslit Nation, plenty of people are in denial about just how vile and malevolent this government is, whilst others revel in its nastiness. What we can do is to keep writing to our Conservative MPs to voice our opposition and our extreme disquiet at the government’s tactics.
And we must take every opportunity to set the record straight and counter the vile ‘othering’ of our fellow human beings. So when someone starts mouthing off about illegal immigrants and migrants and the ‘activist lawyers’ who step up to defend them, just ask them how they will feel when they are ruled by a government freed from scrutiny and accountability and unfettered by the rule of law. They themselves might need an activist lawyer one day. They should think about that.
*Look out for a future article on this government’s determination to escape scrutiny and the rule of law and resonances with the Enabling Act of 1933 in Hitler’s Germany.