Unparliamentary Language

At this moment a ceasefire has been called between Israel and Palestine. The missiles being fired between the two countries has at least stopped - whether one can say that normal has been restored given some of what was occurring before and has been occurring for the last few years (or decades even), is a point I wish to leave aside. What I want to get into is something else, something that this most recent conflict has provided a prime example. What I have to say isn’t, I think, particularly revelatory, yet, I feel that when I think through the consequences of it, I cannot help but find the conclusions maddening.

I should state my position about Israel and Palestine so that there is no ambiguity - what is happening is abhorrent. While the conflict needs to stop, trying to draw a precise equivalence between Israelis and Palestinians seems deluded. There is a power differential, in terms of arms, as Israel has a sophisticated defence system and Palestine does not. It seems very trivial (as will be seen by what follows), to dismiss Hamas as a terrorist group and thus fail to see why it is that a conflict has been spawned. Moreover the UK, is far too complicit and involved and at the very least needs to withdraw its influence. I say all this, but it is irrelevant to my point. What I am about to do is almost mechanical. I think you can apply it to all political speech.

On the 19th of May, the UK Parliament hosted its talks about organising a ceasefire between Israel and Palestine. You can read the entire transcript of it here. I will be quoting from it extensively to prove my point, but I encourage you to go read through it. Because what it demonstrates to me, perhaps more clearly then anything, is the sheer emptiness of political speech.

This deficit is most apparent when a disagreement occurs:


We are witnessing the second week of horrific violence in Israel and Palestine. It has been reported that 10 have been killed by Hamas, and more than 200 have been killed by Israeli airstrikes, including 65 children. The SNP abhors all indiscriminate violence against civilians so, first, what further steps can the UK Government take in demanding an immediate ceasefire? I am incredibly proud that last month my city of Dundee voted to recognise Palestine as a nation state so, secondly, will the UK Government commit today to recognising Palestine as an equal and independent nation state?

The UN Secretary-General has accused the Israeli Government of acting contrary to their obligations under human rights law. Indeed, Amnesty International has highlighted potential war crime by both Israel and Hamas, so, thirdly, what pressures are the UK Government bringing to bear to investigate these shocking breaches? Lastly, UK arms export licences to Israel have increased by over 1,000% in the past two years. This is not neutrality, so, finally, will the UK Government immediately suspend those exports until they have been thoroughly examined?


I urge the hon. Gentleman, for whom I have a huge amount of respect, not to equate the legitimate Government of Israel with a terrorist organisation —the military wing of Hamas. As I have said at the Dispatch Box a number of times, Israel has a right to self-defence, but we have made it clear that we expect at all times for it to exercise that in accordance with international humanitarian law, and make every effort to minimise casualties. Ultimately, the best way of minimising civilian casualties is to bring this conflict to a conclusion. That is why we are working with both the Palestinian leadership and the Government of Israel, and with our international partners, both in the region and further afield, to bring this conflict to a timely end, and work towards a more permanent ceasefire and, ultimately, a peaceful two-state solution.

So there’s a lot there right? Do you see it? Let’s break this down:

I urge the hon. Gentleman, for whom I have a huge amount of respect, not to equate the legitimate Government of Israel with a terrorist organisation —the military wing of Hamas.

Note that no point did Chris Law actually do this. At worst you can say this was “implied” by Law explaining the degrees of civilian losses.

And then what proceeds is what can only be described as inability to answer the question. Or questions rather. Let me list out what Law actually asks:

  • What steps are being taken to secure a ceasefire?
  • Will the UK recognise the state of Palestine?
  • Are the human rights abuses supposedly committed by Israel being investigated?
  • Will the UK suspend arms trading with Israel until the above allegations are investigated?

I think you can say that the first has somewhat been answered: They are working with both governments and people internationally, to draw this to a close. Its sort of an answer. There’s no explanation as to what that actually looks like or what tangible material steps are being taken, but it is at least an attempt at an answer. The rest however, are side stepped.

Isn’t this weird? Or perhaps it isn’t? Let’s keep going. Here’s another example:


The sad aftermath of a tragedy in which children who are pulled from the rubble are considered lucky among a three-figure death toll is—the Minister said it himself—people newly displaced from their homes, double refugees and destroyed schools, hospitals and cultural centres, all at a time when we are cutting our aid contribution internationally. Does he agree with his two recent predecessors, Alistair Burt and Alan Duncan, that although UK Government policy is against illegal settlements and for a two-state solution, our long-standing lack of proactivity sometimes makes it look as if we do not really mean that? The only real victor in all this is Netanyahu. Until recently he was a caretaker leader after an inconclusive election; he has now well cemented himself.


The outcome of democratic elections in the state of Israel is for the Israeli people. We will continue to work with the Governments elected by the Israeli people. It strikes me, however, that that is an important but fundamentally different issue to the subject of the urgent question. We will work with international partners, the Israelis and the Palestinians to bring peace to the region, both in terms of this specific conflict, which we seek to resolve as quickly as possible, and, ultimately, for a sustainable prosperous two-state solution. That remains the UK Government’s policy.

Note how Cleverly focuses on Huq’s point about Netanyahu, in order to avoid the actual query in her statement: by doing nothing we seem to not believe in our own policies about the two state solution. There is admittedly a fair amount of rhetoric around that question. Huq is trying to score points about the foreign aid budget and pointing out that Netanyahu is the only real winner of this (irrespective of whether you agree with her, scoring points is what she’s doing here). These are also points of contention that Cleverly can exploit. That muddying allows Cleverly to evade quite easily. Huq in a sense, deserves this answer or lack there of.

Let’s see someone do this with a bit more skill:


The images of death, destruction and loss of life all over the region are horrific. The targeted bombing of buildings in Gaza, the tanks on the west bank, and the destruction of education and health facilities is absolutely appalling. Will the Minister explain exactly what is the nature of Britain’s military relationship with Israel? What is the nature of that co-operation with Israel? Can he tell the House whether any munitions sold by Britain to Israel have been used to bomb places in Gaza, and whether any drone equipment supplied by Britain or bought by Britain has been used as a surveillance method on either the west bank or Gaza and followed up by the destruction of civilian life and the death of many people, including the tragedy of the deaths of whole families and children? Our public need to know exactly the nature of that military relationship with Israel. Of course, the Minister rightly says that the occupied territories, which are occupied by Israel, are the places that suffer as a result of this bombardment.


The UK has a robust arms export licensing regime, and all export licences are assessed in accordance with it. I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that the UK takes its arms export responsibilities very seriously. I would also remind him that Israel is responding to rockets fired at it from an organisation closely associated with Iran. We would urge all nations to take their arms export responsibilities as seriously as the UK does.

This statements starts with two rhetorical statements (the images of death… the targeted bombing…), both of which are hard to disagree with and then a litany of direct questions. Corbyn ends with a precise moral argument for why such information is necessary (Our public needs to know…). There is little room to manoeuvre. Note that the question’s asked still haven’t been answered! This is possibly the best you’re going to get. An assurance that the responsibilities in arms trading licenses are taken seriously is meaningless when that is in fact the problem in question. No actual information is offered. A rather strange statement (in terms of relevance to Corbyn’s statement) is offered that Israel is dealing with an organisation tied to Iran.


There are many underlying reasons for this most intractable of conflicts, most notably 54 years of occupation of Palestine and 14 years of the blockade of the Gaza Strip, but the most recent violence and devastating damage and loss of life has been inflamed by Israeli violations of the fourth Geneva convention in occupied east Jerusalem and the rest of the west bank. While I welcome the Government’s long-term focus on peace and the two-state solution, can the Minister tell us specifically what consequences the UK is advocating to the international community to deal with Israel’s illegal actions? What steps is he taking, beyond raising it in bilateral talks with Israeli Ministers, to ensure the end of all settlement building and the cancellation of all forcible evictions and demolitions in Sheikh Jarrah and elsewhere? He has been asked this before but has not given any concrete details in his response. I would be grateful if he did so now.


The hon. Lady implies that bilateral conversations with partners are somehow invalid, but that is how diplomacy is done. Speaking with our friends and partners around the world and in the region is how we bring about positive change. The UK’s position on settlements, evictions and annexation is well known, and we have been vocal at the Dispatch Box and indeed in our conversations directly with our Israeli interlocutors. That is what we will continue to do. We will continue to work with friends in the international community to seek peace in the region.

Actually Lucas did no such thing as dismiss “bilateral conversations”. Again, a valid question is dismissed by taking an interpretation of what was said that allows for easy dismissal of it. This looks like a pointed question, but its very easy for some Cleverly to waltz through this.

Why am I doing this? You’re not really surprised that Politician’s are very good at obfuscation and dodging being held responsible for their words. I’m attempting a few things. One is that I think, that analysis of this, of what people actually say, and trying to parse out whether or not someone provided a fair response to a question or criticism, is lacking [1]. We’re often told that politician’s lie, or use weasel words, or are ambiguous in how they talk, but given that’s true, its really crucial to have receipts, examples, etc. Challenging skilled manipulators of language means showing throughly where it is they manipulate language and how.

Moreover, the actual nature of this kind of analysis is fairly objective, as demonstrated above. You may very well disagree with my position on things and you might well sympathise with Israel over Palestine. But be honest, read back what I wrote, read the transcripts of what was actually said - you cannot honestly assert that Cleverly is actually answering questions in anyway that is satisfactory. Let’s go back to Law’s questions. I’ll be charitable and grant that he answered the first question. Imagine now if Cleverly answered as such:

  • Will the UK recognise the state of Palestine? No, because of X.
  • Are the human rights abuses supposedly committed by Israel being investigated? No, because we have Y reason to believe that these aren’t a problem.
  • Will the UK suspend arms trading with Israel until the above allegations are investigated? No, because Z.

I can imagine a world where Cleverly’s responses have actual reasons behind them and X,Y and Z are filled in. They could in fact be sympathetic reasons. Accountability means having to supply reasons for why you are engaged in a thing. Perhaps you have good reason to not answer a question. Accountability means explaining what that is. [2]

My second reason for doing this is to return to the question: Why is this like this? Is this not a little strange? Clearly the people in this building know that they will not receive a straight answer. That’s almost a given in politics. So why are people trading statements like this? One can suppose that by asking these things one is being represented. This is what representation comes to, the inability to get a straight answer. There’s something mechanical in it. One shows up, asks the questions that you need to ask, but the answer’s are irrelevant. [3]

That’s perhaps a bit harsh. It’s clear that at times, what people are trying to do is trap each other, to get them to commit to a false hood, or to to appear weak and evasive. And there’s clear value in that, in so much as possibly the only way to expose when someone is doing something illegal or morally wrong is to push them. But I don’t think its what we think of as essential to democracy. I think and I think others agree, that its in part deliberation, actual discussion and argument between equals. And its that last part that’s essential. There is a difference in power going on here, in so much as the Tory government has a large scale majority and (if this is true or not) believes itself to be unaccountable.

It feels to me largely like the presentation of a democracy is here, rather then its actual reality. The power invested in people is justified by such presentations, but these are hollow actions. As a day to day reality, its depressing to see. The stakes are serious, but the treatment isn’t. I don’t doubt that a lot of MP’s truly believe in what they are doing, but to my mind that makes it all the sadder. A very weird, largely empty ritual is taking place in Westminster regularly, and it’s what passes for democracy in these parts.

[1] Imagine if in newspaper’s, on top of reporting responses to questions, politician’s statements were tagged with the qualifiers: vague, deceptive, ambigious, etc. Or that simply the failure to answer a question was highlighted.

[2] I harp on reasons, but that’s because it often feels as if is there a complete lack of them in politics. I don’t mean this in the technical, scientific sense, but in the day to day moral sense. A basic element of reasoning is the ability to apply one standard in the same way equally to everyone. This is by and large how moral reason functions. I don’t contend that its the only way it functions, nor the only thing that it’s essential to it. When we try and teach a child to be a good person, one of the essential things is to ensure that people are treated rightly by the same standard, with exceptions made only in good reason.

Does Cleverly believe his position or not? I actually cannot tell. It could be that it’s not simply a weakness, a desire to not apply a standard in a way that it very clearly should be. Sometimes there’s simple pure, clear, inability to reason. One has to wonder whether being in an environment that seems to encourage abandoning all principle isn’t in itself destructive of ones ability to think clearly about them at all. A life built on sophistry is one trapped in it perhaps.

Because of this lack, these discussion are farcical and ironic and the lack of capacity to apply standards vigorously is almost comical. Observe this exchange:


The Minister’s point on the two-state solution does him great credit and it should be clear for anybody to understand. Long-range rockets at scale are not possible without the involvement of a sophisticated, malign state actor that will never be content until the state of Israel is driven into the sea. Does my right hon. Friend agree that there will never be peace in the Levant, never be a two-state solution and never be a solution of any sort until Iran ceases to be a feral bandit state, uncouples itself from its regime and rediscovers the dignity, poise and leadership appropriate to its history and its culture?


I thank my predecessor and good friend for the point that he raised. I have already said that the UK encourages Iran to be a more thoughtful and less disruptive regional player and to stop arming and supporting terrorist militia groups in the region. We will continue to work towards a two-state solution with the framework that has been explained from this Dispatch Box many times, and I pay tribute to the work that he did in this role to try to make that a reality.

Given that we’re arming Israel a statement like this:

“Long-range rockets at scale are not possible without the involvement of a sophisticated, malign state actor that will never be content until the state of Israel is driven into the sea.” can equally hold by replacing Israel with Palestine. I leave it to the reader to decide if the sentences that follow: “never be a solution of any sort until Iran ceases to be a feral bandit state”, “Iran to be a more thoughtful and less disruptive regional player and to stop arming and supporting terrorist militia groups in the region” - continues to be true if ‘Iran’ is replaced by the UK.

[3] A surprising conclusion from this is that while Free speech is an important foundation of a democracy, following the norms of speech on its own is more important. I will say, not every debate in Parliament looks like this, go read the vaccine passport debate to see that. The possible difference there is that was an idea, not one that had gained prominence or involved a lot of power being thrown around. The stakes matter less (not for the general population, for politicians).

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