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WORD OF THE WEEK: polemomania

(n.) an obsession with war or warlike imagery

(n.) an obsession with war or warlike imagery

From losing a live staring contest with Will Self to crowing about “signing the death warrant” of a pro-EU protestor, deputy chairman of the ERG, Mark Francois, has never been one to miss an opportunity to utterly debase his tiny self in public.

And perhaps it’s that bankability that explains why he keeps being given air time on national current affairs programs. 

Case in point, just last Thursday – when the Tory Party’s answer to Captain Mainwaring was invited onto BBC2’s Newsnight to shine a light on precisely what Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s negotiation position with the EU might prove to be. 

Perhaps still sore from not landing a role in a Cabinet so bereft of talent that even Nadine Dorries has now been offered a job, Francois was in even more pugnacious a mood than normal. So, when challenged on how the Government might respond should the EU refuse to budge on the Brexit negotiations, he came out fighting: evoking the dying days of the Second World War, he glibly referred to President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker as ‘Herr Juncker in the bunker’. 

Mr Juncker, let’s not forget, is Luxembourgish. His father, Joseph, was forcibly conscripted into the German Wehrmacht (while still a teenager) during the Nazi occupation of Luxembourg in the early 1940s. And, indeed, Jean-Claude himself famously broke down at an EU summit in Ukraine in 1997, when he recalled his father being wounded during the Siege of Odessa, fighting for a cause and an army he unreservedly abhorred. 

Given a context like that, Francois’ comment proves staggeringly offensive; perhaps only the most battle-scarred of war-weary veterans could get away with making so uncompromising a statement – though in fairness, according to his own website, Mr Francois did serve in the Territorial Army “during the Cold War”. 

But this isn’t the first time Mr Francois has crassly and jingoistically evoked the language of war to address Britain’s ongoing negotiations with the EU. Far from it, in fact.

Back in January, he memorably declared live on BBC News that his father “was a D-Day veteran” and that because “he never submitted to bullying by any German… neither will his son”. He then tore up a letter by the German CEO of Airbus, warning that a ‘no deal’ Brexit would force his company to close factories in the UK. 

Two months later, he was at it again. Asked by Sky’s Beth Rigby why he and his fellow ERGers did not just accept Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement and “bank the win”, Francois explained that the deal wasn’t a win at all. “It’s a lose,” he commented, adding: “I was in the army – I wasn’t trained to lose.” (Seemingly in the heat of the moment he forgot to add the “territorial” in there.) 

There is a word for an obsessive harkening back to wartime and warlike imagery like this, and that’s polemomania

Coined in 1874, it derives from the same root as polemic and polemicist – namely the Greek word for ‘war’, polemos. For all you cryptic crosswordists out there, that’s also the origin of the polemoscope, an early form of periscope, so named because of its usefulness in naval warfare; Polemonium, the horticultural name for the plant Jacob’s Ladder (which according to folklore alludes to two kings of antiquity who took one another to war over who had discovered the plant first); and polemarch, an old-fashioned word for a warmongering leader. 

Which bring us to Boris Johnson.

On Monday, the Prime Minister was in Scotland. So intent on letting us know he is now the Prime Minister, he even wore a special jacket with “Prime Minister” sewn onto it. And so intent on letting us know he means business, he was photographed wearing his special “Prime Minister” jacket as he inspected a Trident nuclear submarine. And so intent was he on making sure those pesky EU negotiators know that he means business, he then held an impromptu press conference to discuss Brexit on Faslane dockside, with Britain’s nuclear fleet ominously by his side. Because, as any good diplomatic leader knows, nothing says “open and friendly negotiations with your closest neighbours and trade partners” like intoning “the Withdrawal Agreement is dead” beside your country’s nuclear weapon repository. 

It wasn’t the subtlest of messages, certainly, but it was nevertheless clear: Blustering Boris, is now Belligerent Boris, and he and his new government are preparing – nay, spoiling for a fight. 

As if to hammer that point home, news began to filter out of Number 10 that Johnson has now arranged his very own cabal of ministers – namely the ferocious fivesome of Michael Gove, Sajid Javid, Dominic Raab, Geoffrey Cox and Steve Barclay – with whom he plans to convene every Monday until Brexit is delivered (in one form or another) on 31 October. The name of this all-male band of Brexit heavies? The War Cabinet.

Time will only tell who Johnson and Co.’s opponents in this ‘war’ will actually be, of course. With the EU still steadfastly maintaining that the Brexit negotiations will not be reopened, Johnson’s sparring partner as he hurtles the country towards a ‘no deal’ might just prove to be the British Parliament, or even the British people – more than a few of which are already making their opinions of his leadership heard. 

Either way, it seems the only battle that the UK is currently waging is against itself. Which makes that war over the ownership of a flower seem completely sensible. 

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