The language of U-turns

We all have to make U-turns in our lives sometimes: reversing our car when we realise we’ve gone down the wrong road; changing our opinion on some topic; wearing something we swore we would never wear.

For politicians, making a U-turn is potentially face-threatening so getting the language right to explain the U-turn to the public is paramount. It seems that these days anything that has been said in the past can be overturned provided the explanation ignores what has been said and looks only forward.

Michael Gove

Michael Gove, the Tory MP who campaigned for Britain to leave the EU, had stated very publically and explicitly before the EU referendum that he did not want to be the leader of the Conservative party (and hence Prime Minister) nor did he think he could do the job:

“I’m absolutely not” (considering a leadership bid)
“count me out”
“I know that I couldn’t do it”
“if anyone wants to get me to sign a parchment in my own blood saying that I don’t want to be Prime Minister… I’m perfectly happy to do that”

But within a few days of making these comments Gove came out and declared he was standing for the position. In his first interview at the weekend since his U-turn on the Andrew Marr show, Gove was at pains to paint a positive picture of his decision. He chose three key language terms to convey this to the public and to equivocate on his initial position:

  1. principles
  2. put country first; serving country
  3. heart (& soul; heavy)

1. Principles

Gove emphasized that his decisions was based on ‘principles’, which he put first before any personal interest.

Gove:
01: I put my country and my principles first
02: it would have been a genuine betrayal of principle
03: this is a man who sticks to his principles

He didn’t want to ‘betray’ his principles, a word which his interviewer, Andrew Marr, used but in a different context:

Marr:
04: many people see you as somebody who has betrayed your close friend, Boris Johnson, I think betrayed your close friend David Cameron

2. Country

Gove also emphasised his country, at one point saying that he ‘loved’ it. It was made clear that his decision to stand for the leadership of the party was to ‘serve his country’

Gove:
05: I put my country and my principles first
06: I love my country
07: my judgement about what is right for this country will always guide me.
08: You have to serve your country by doing what is right

3. Heart

The final line of argument emphasised that Gove was human and that he had put his ‘heart and soul’ into this agonising decision; it was not one that he took lightly. In other words there was a cost for him emotionally.

Gove:
09: reluctantly and with a heavy heart
10: believes heart and soul
11: threw myself heart and soul into it

Tag Cloud

A tag cloud of the words used by Gove provides a visual representation of his line of argument:

gove_tag_cloud

 

Interviewer

Of course with every interviewee trying to spin their way through a U-turn, there is an interviewer trying to undo the spin. Whereas the interviewee tends to look forward and talks of principles and country, the interviewer tends to look back with a greater use of more pejorative lexis, which, in the case of Marr, included:

assassination, betrayed, destroy, gamble, humiliating, stabbing, serial killer

Marr’s tag cloud contrasts significantly with Gove’s, mentioning ‘country’ only twice and each time in in neutral contexts. Marr never mentioned ‘principles’ and only once mentioned ‘heart’ – he wasn’t referring to Gove’s heart!

marr_tag_cloud

 


 

Transcripts

The transcript of Marr’s interview can be read here. (BBC, Andrew Marr Show, 3rd July 2016)

The interview can be watched here. (Slugger O’Toole)


 

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