I read Tim’s piece about the term ‘Little Englander’ with the interest of somebody who, on occasion, has used the term ‘Little Englander’ in my writing or cartoons.
My nostrils twitch whenever I read an argument that question our use of certain words. I accept that some terms are simply unacceptable (*&?# and £$%@, spring to mind) but they are few and the exceptions. There is nothing that I can see about the phrase ‘Little Englander’ which strikes me as being worth censoring or, indeed, worth comment. It is shorthand and shorthand can be useful. We use shorthand all the time and there is no difference between ‘Little Englander’ and, let’s say, the highly politicised and voguish term ‘regressive left’. People use that to describe a type of person on the hard left who holds certain hardened views. It is pejorative and often inaccurate and unfair. Yet it’s also useful because it describes a mindset that we can recognise. It aids communication both defining the object of our criticism but also, in a sense, defining who we are. In other words, you do not use ‘regressive left’ if you are yourself part of the ‘regressive left’.
Of course, we can have an argument about when it is right and proper to use these terms. Tim is right to argue that ‘Little Englander’ is perhaps an overused term but, in truth, most of these epithets are overused by critics on both ends of the political spectrum. In the current context, not everybody for Brexit is a ‘Little Englander’ and quite a few against it might well be. Boris Johnson, for example, has none of the typical Little Englander qualities. Little Englanders are governed by patriotic zeal that edges into nationalism and outright xenophobia. They tend to believe in some halcyon days of England and English values. They do not base their arguments on economic forecasts or EU politics. Farage is a Little Englander and so, I suspect, is Gove, who would force the poetry of the Romantics on every teenager in the country in the belief it will transmit some essential quality of Britishness.
Tim raises the point that given European opposition to the EU, we might need to apply the term ‘Little Englander’ to describe people in other countries. I’m not sure I see the problem with that. We could easily talk about ‘Piccolo Italians’ if they shared a concept of a golden age of Italian culture. No doubt they exist like the ‘Petit French’ exist but are no doubt called something else.
My main problem with the argument is that it amounts to saying ‘no name calling’ but, by extension, it would remove all these juicy phrases which give life to our political discourse. If you wish to raise the quality of the debate then you should at least be critical of the emotive terms we all use to describe those in the opposite camp. That leads the argument down some long and convoluted paths. Plato wanted poets banned from his Republic because, he argued, emotive language has no part in proper rhetoric. People should not be persuaded by the emotive quality of an argument but by the logic and the evidence. Yet, of course, most language is emotive and unless you really want to reduce this to the level of absurdity, you would demand that we argue in some abstract code which has always been the holy grail of philosophers such as Bertrand Russell with his logical atomism and Ludwig Wittgenstein with his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.
Political discourse is about emotive language sometimes highbrow and sometimes plain ugly. To accuse those that use the phrase ‘little Englander’ of snobbery is itself to use the emotive language that the accusation of snobbery is meant to oppose. Try to say ‘what a snob!’ without sounding like a snob. It’s difficult.
Little Englanders’, ‘regressive left’, ‘chinless wonders’, ‘liberal’, ‘progressive’, ‘revolutionary’, ‘back bench mentality’, ‘working class angst’, ‘elitist’, ‘warmonger’… These epithets are gestures and like all gestures they are sweeping and often unfair. Yet they are the language of our politics and to ask us to be so respectful as to stop using them amounts to more than a mild form of censorship but, more problematically, a prohibition on what and how we think.