Houses of Parliament with scaffolding and Westminster Bridge, late 20th century (credit: Bikeboy, Geograph

Circumlocution. The use of many words where fewer would do, especially in a deliberate attempt to be vague or evasive.
— Oxford English Dictionaries

There’s a old adage about how you can tell when a politician’s lying: when their lips move.

Well, that’s quite a cynical take on politics and those who are involved in politicking, but we often have a premonition that this adage has the ring of truth, don’t we? We’ve listened to and watched enough ministerial statements, panel discussions and live interviews to make that judgement; and we don’t always need their explicit body language to confirm it — whether from tone of voice, stumbles over phrases, shifty looks or too much unasked-for detail, these can all give the lie to many public utterances.

And in the era of fake news we cynics note with increasing frequency the evasions, the contradictory tweets, the prevarications and, above all, the smugness that such high-flying lowlife bestow on us with a complete and utter disdain. A recent interview with the British defence secretary on ITV merely underlined such disdain as the interviewee three times gave bland circumlocutions to a frustrated interviewer. Would that more of these cowardly entities that avoid accountability for their decisions and actions could, along with the interview, be similarly ‘terminated’.

In the absence of sensible, honest and truthful answers, and bearing in mind these kinds of people are usually difficult to remove except at the end of their fixed term, there is a crucial question always to be asked: what’s in it for them?

I’d like to be clear about this: politicians put themselves up for office for a number of reasons. It can be from political conviction, or a desire to serve their constituents and a larger public, or indeed both. What’ll be in it for them is job satisfaction, a sense of duty fulfilled or even a genuine desire to enable voters to improve their lives. It’s hard to be critical about such self-sacrifice and public service if done for selfless reasons.

For many, however, what motivates them is a pursuit of power coupled with raw ambition. These are common human traits, to be sure, though I find it unpleasant to observe such naked impulses in public servants. (To be honest, it’s unpleasant in anyone.) But we see too many examples of these individuals, drunk with power, lording it over their departments, their constituents, maybe even the country, sneering at anyone who questions them or what they see as their god-given right.

Finally, concomitant with power usually comes financial reward. The love of money is the root of all evil, wrote St Paul, and in this he was particularly correct where politicians are concerned. We see this cupidity in those who see high office as a certain gateway to further monetary gain; for however much they may be expected to renounce lucrative rewards when in office — though in secret many are prepared to take bribes, often in kind — they know commercial interests are keen to promise them directorships, speaking engagements and advisory roles once they have left office, inevitably for outrageously huge sums. Some hypocrites are even happy to take substantial pensions from institutions like the European Parliament which they reviled when they were elected members of them.

I cannot say what motivated the defence secretary to become a politician, though I’m prepared to concede it may have been from conviction and desire to serve. But we may remember another famous adage: power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Once elected — or perhaps gaining power by other means such as heredity — the ambitious politician is likely to slough off accountability whenever possible (unless, by happenstance, they achieve good or positive things). Which is why so many of us are dubious of candidates who declare their good intentions by implicitly invoking a famous personage who said “Read my lips!” — for we know that, once in the corridors of power, pragmatism and compromise and party politics will probably eat away at any principles they may have previously flagged up as promises.

The scaffolding placed around a crumbling building could be there for any number of reasons. It could be there prior to restoration or rebuilding; it might be in place in advance of demolition; occasionally it is there to shore up an edifice until a decision is made about its future. What’s not in doubt is that it mostly hides whatever is behind it.

This last reason is symbolic of the scaffolding many elected politicians put up around themselves, along with a hoarding exhibiting campaigning slogans, blandishments and terminological inexactitudes. That’s why we always have to ask them, whenever possible, What’s in it for you?

And we have to be prepared to keep asking until we get the unvarnished truth.

24 thoughts on “Circumlocations

  1. The Circumlocution Office was (as everybody knows without being told) the most important Department under Government. No public business of any kind could possibly be done at any time without the acquiescence of the Circumlocution Office.
    Charles Dickens Little Dorrit

    Liked by 3 people

  2. I think there are true public servants who need our gratitude and appreciation. But they tend not to be at the higher levels, where the pressures and temptations do become exponentially greater. Not sure how to deal with this dilemma, except as you say to keep exercising our conscience and calling out injustice and hypocrisy whenever we see it (including in ourselves).

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Absolutely, Lory, there are true public servants who need to be acknowledged and commended. Often, though, they come across as mavericks who refuse to toe the party line if they see injustice happening, and nuance is not something that party politicking does well, is it.

      Not that I’m being holier-than-thou over this. We all prevaricate to some extent — and there will be both good and bad reasons why we might — but what we hope for in a person in authority is honesty about that prevarication, even if we might contest its basis. Downright evasion is usually a symptom of something shameful they wish to hide. And the evidence is there daily, whichever country we happen to be in.


  3. piotrek

    Sure, you’re right, beautifully expressed. It’s a joy to watch a politician being put in his place by a journalist. Sadly, most of the media is just as greedy and partisan as politicians, or subdued by the governments. In Poland – and not only here – many would be afraid to cut the off-topic drivel, and some would just help the minister spread his propaganda. I try to limit my exposure to politics to written media, as what happens on the radio/tv is mostly just meaningless theatre.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. “Meaningless theatre” — yes, that describes it very well, Piotr. And I second what you say about media being accomplices in this kind of charade. It’s also worrying, this slide to the right in so many countries around the world, and especially to a not particular benevolent rightwing style of governing.


  4. “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely ”– that’s basically it I think – while some may enter the world of politics with principles/convictions/a desire to serve, not very many can resist perhaps the effects of being in power – though I keep feeling there are fewer of this category than those that come in already willing to exploit and misuse the power that’s coming to them.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. We’re of one mind in this, I think. In Britain there are those MPs who work for their constituents, hold surgeries, sit on oversight committees, speak up for the oppressed but otherwise avoid the limelight; and then there are those who are ambitious and climb over others on their way to the top, don’t engage with their constituents after being voted in, mouth party slogans and platitudes, are in the pockets of rich party donors, claim bogus expenses and use all the means possible to promote themselves.

      It’s almost as if we need every prospective MP to take a lie detector test to ascertain through judicious questioning which category they belong to. I think it should be mandatory.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I fear they’ll have the cunning to get through those as well–as times you can’t help but wonder whether they actually believe all (or much of ) the nonsense they speak 🙂 (Or at least say it with that much conviction that they’ll get through).

        All of what you mentioned plus the fact that (at least in India) most of what politicians say has become about pulling down the opposition rather than anything constructive puts one off so badly. One party we had come up a few years ago (at the state level) seemed to promise much about being different (not that I ever liked their politicians either) but they turned out equally bad but in different ways.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. It all feels Orwellian, as with the pigs in Animal Farm: the reformists get to become what they were overthrowing. As I replied to a previous comment, Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

          Liked by 1 person

  5. Nice title!

    You describe a phenomenon that is far from unique to the UK, and you must admit we are pretty darn good at it here in the US!

    In the current era of “talking points,” what drives me nuts is when politicians repeat the same sentence five times, with slightly different wording, and this is then accepted as a complete response to the reporter’s question.

    Of course, I suppose we should be grateful that reporters ever get a cogent response at all. Press conferences, on those rare occasions when they do occur, are exceedingly hard to watch. One could turn off the sound and learn as much: such a dearth of information is being imparted.

    But it could be, that this is exactly as intended. If press conferences, or the news for that matter, are hard to watch, perhaps nobody will watch them.

    Bravo to gertloveday for coming up with the Little Dorrit quote!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I could have extended it to the US, I know, but I also knew bloggers like you would of course spot the parallels and see the similarities. At least we haven’t (fingers crossed) got to the situation that exists in other countries like Turkey, Russia or Hungary, to name just three, where journalists just wouldn’t be able to question a minister like this — unless they had a death wish. It may only be a matter of time, though…

      I know many UK politicians, especially those in high office, are offered media training to help them field awkward questions. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was actually named the Circumlocution Office!

      Liked by 1 person

    2. I meant to say something about the title, but you spotted it: initially a spelling mistake I thought I’d keep it as a reference to people talking around a subject, circling the location but never actually alighting on it. I’m not entirely convinced by it but there we are. Well noticed though! “Beating around the bush…”

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I wish more journos and reporters would shut off the mikes when this happens, so good on this guy for doing that.

    It seems to be a world-wide phenomenon that once politicians rise to a certain political status they take a course from the International Department of Obfuscation. And sadly, they all seem to pass with flying colors….

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think it takes a very gutsy and determined interviewer to terminate an interview that was going nowhere in so assertive a fashion, Laurie. But when parties are in power they perhaps feel invulnerable for their term in government and may well not care about individual car crash interviews like this, providing they can push through their often damaging agenda unopposed.


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  8. MrsB_inthehills

    The nail hit squarely on the head…and whichever group our politicians fit into regarding their motivation, it’s unusual to find one who thinks lucidly, speaks coherently and is unafraid to answer a question. Richard Madeley was absolutely right to terminate the interview, though now he’s revelling in the attention!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, Madeley has now been promoted into the same league as Paxman and Robin Day! But I don’t think he’ll last more than a season in the Premiership.

      It’s hard being a politician and having to watch how you phrase what you say (though there are some like Trump and Boris who incredibly seem to survive without this basic charscteristic) but you do wish they could own up to being wrong just once in a while.


  9. “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.” The Who’s cynical assessment of politics-as-usual has been my go-to quote since the 1970s. What’s sad is that we’re always fooled again. So, tip of my hat to any journalist (print, radio, TV, internet) who calls politicians and other power brokers on their lies and obfuscations. If only this happened more often.

    Liked by 1 person

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