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Fri 7 May 2021

Iain Overton’s analysis of Hansard reveals a worrying shift of political rhetoric in Britain in the last decade 

How can we trace the political shifts – often gradual and imperceptible – that happen in a State? How can we, caught by the weight of the present, understand how political rhetoric and debate in Britain has changed over time? And how can we track the rise of populism and nationalism in our beleaguered Isle?

It is no easy task. But perhaps the first place to start is an examination of keywords, and the frequency of those words, used in British politics.  It would be interesting to chart the rise and fall of specific, loaded words under the shifting right-wing ideological leadership of the last 10 years, and in particular during a period marked by the threads of Brexit, rising nationalism and populism that have so defined our age.

Fortunately, such a thing is possible. The University of Huddersfield has launched a searchable database that allows you to explore the official reports of what has been said in the House of Commons between 1803-2019. It is a fascinating tool and you can lose hours looking at how phrases and words have risen and declined in popularity over the political decades.

But what do these words tell us of the way this Parliament, and the Conservative-led governments that have dominated British life since 2010, have moulded the narratives of power? And how such political cultures have, in turn, moulded British life?

As someone often asked if I came up with the ‘Overton window’ – a model for understanding how ideas in society change over time, and how politicians generally only pursue policies that are widely accepted throughout society – how political language has shifted in recent years is frequently something I’ve been made aware of. For if the ‘Overton window’ in UK politics shows a shift to the right, what might once have been considered ‘extreme’ can now become merely ‘to the right’ of a centre that has moved across.

So can Hansard at Huddersfield help us understand if, indeed, there has been a shift to the right?  

Perhaps inspiration to answer that question comes from the late novelist and historian Umberto Eco, a man raised in the thick of Italian fascism and who emerged the other side as a humane and insightful critic of the dangers of populism.

“There was only one Nazism,” he wrote in an article on Ur-Fascism in the New York Review of Books in 1995. But, he observed, “the fascist game can be played in many forms, and the name of the game does not change.” 

To try to understand the chameleon-like nature of fascism, he set out to distil what he called ‘Ur-Fascism’, or ‘Eternal Fascism’, to its key and unbending features, which were later summed up by blogger Jason Kottke.  

His is a guide that could assist us in seeing if a language of ‘Ur-Fascism’ has infiltrated our political debate. Because, by taking key words that sum up Eco’s ‘defining features’ and noting if their use has increased or decreased in the last 10 years in Westminster, we might see if the ‘Overton window’ has – linguistically and culturally – shifted closer to what Eco’s definition of ‘Ur-fascism’.


The Cult of Tradition 

First, Eco saw ‘Ur-Fascism’ as inherently aligned with the notion of tradition. He noted “one has only to look at the syllabus of every fascist movement to find the major traditionalist thinkers.” So, to what degree has a desire to revisit the past been seen recently in Parliament?  

Since the Tories took power in 2010, perhaps those two quintessential icons of Britishness – Albion and, to a lesser extent, Britannia – have both made a pre-Brexit come-back.

The utterance of ‘Great Britain’ in the House has also almost quadrupled in that time.


The Rejection of Modernism

The next signifier of ‘Ur-Fascism’ is how the modern is rejected by the far-right. 

“The Enlightenment, the Age of Reason,” Eco wrote, “is seen as the beginning of modern depravity.” And, aside from Michael Gove’s dismissal that “I think the people of this country have had enough of experts”, it seems that – of late – the appetite for reform (the hallmark of modernism) is most noticeable for its declining absence in Parliamentary debate.


The Cult of Action For Action’s Sake

‘Ur-fascism’, Eco noted, is also a dynamic force. 

“Action being beautiful in itself, it must be taken before, or without, any previous reflection,” he wrote.  

Since 2010 there has been certainly a drive by the Conservative Party to be the party of ‘doing’. ‘Action’ has become a repeated buzzword since they took office, only dropping off in 2017 before witnessing a pre-Brexit resurgence.


Disagreement is Treason

Apart from Daily Mail headlines denouncing High Court judges as ‘Enemies of the People’, treason has also become an increasing phrase that slips from the mouths of Conservative MPs. 

Eco would have worried about this. As he said: “the critical spirit makes distinctions, and to distinguish is a sign of modernism. In modern culture the scientific community praises disagreement as a way to improve knowledge.” Any dissent of traditionalism is, therefore, elevated to the rank of treason, as the rising popularity of the word in the House shows.


Fear of Difference

The next area that concerned Eco was the fear of ‘the Other’. 

“The first appeal of a fascist or prematurely fascist movement,” Eco wrote, “is an appeal against the intruders. Thus Ur-Fascism is racist by definition.”  

It is of little surprise, then, that the word ‘migrant’ has witnessed a steady upward trend in the last decade under Tory rule.


The Obsession with a Plot

Conspiracy – or the idea that they are under attack – is another hallmark of the far-right.  

“At the root of the Ur-Fascist psychology there is the obsession with a plot, possibly an international one”, wrote Eco. “The followers must feel besieged.” So it was that ‘Project Fear’ helped define much of Conservative conspiracy in recent years.  

And, against a backdrop of anti-EU rhetorid, the shadow of ‘the other’ perpetually threatened. Indeed, ‘threatens’ as a word in itself has – in recent years – been notably deployed in Parliament.


Contempt for the Weak

Another salient feature of ‘Ur-Fascism’ to Eco was a contempt for the weak.  As he wrote, “elitism is a typical aspect of any reactionary ideology.”  

So, whilst ‘scroungers’ and ‘wasters’ are not words commonly used in Parliamentary debate, the increasing use of the word ‘lazy’ and ‘claimants’ speak towards something profound in the political representation of the most vulnerable in society.


Everybody is Educated to Become a Hero

“In Ur-Fascist ideology,” Eco wrote, “heroism is the norm. This cult of heroism is strictly linked with the cult of death.”  

Small surprise, then, the words ‘hero’ and ‘veteran’ have become verbal icons of 21st century Conservatism. From Veteran Minister Jonny Mercer’s attempts to prevent the prosecution of ex-soldiers, to Boris Johnson leading the applause for Sir Tom Moore, the veteran hero is central to the modern Tory’s vision.


Selective Populism

In addition, Eco noted the importance of ‘selective populism’ in Ur-Fascism.  

“There is in our future a TV or Internet populism,” he wrote, “in which the emotional response of a selected group of citizens can be presented and accepted as the Voice of the People.”

The sharp and consistent rise of the phrase ‘The Will of the People’ then, is almost anticipated given the current government’s embracing of populism in such a selective way.

The end result of these various – sometimes competing – strands is a strong suggestion of a political culture whose ‘Overton window’ has shifted markedly to the right.  A shift that is of concern not just to those on the left, but even to moderate Conservatives who often do not recognise the party they once supported.

Within this political shift, something has entered British politics – an anger that has not been seen for a long while. Indeed, if you cross-refer the words ‘love’ and ‘hate’ in recent British political life, you can see that, the two years before last, hate was more articulated in the Commons than love was.

More worrying, if you look at the frequency of the time that love and hate have been articulated in the House of Commons since 1803, 2016 and 2017 were the only two years where hate outweighed love. 

It is perhaps this, above all, that should concern us all – including those Conservative politicians who rule over a country their words have so strongly divided. For without love in British politics, there is no hope.

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