Language and politics: May in the abstract

Amid the torrent of news gushing out from Britain’s barely functioning government, the worldwide community of prime ministers and presidents, and students of political linguistics, might not have had their attention drawn to an exchange between Ms May and the chairman of a House of Commons select committee.

The prime minister, reminded of her Lancaster House Brexit speech in 2017, was asked last week if she would contemplate Britain leaving the European Union without a divorce agreement.

“I stand,” she replied, “by the references I have made in the past that no deal is better than a bad deal.”

After which, she added a helpful elucidation: “When I first made that reference, I was talking in the abstract.”

It’s possible to imagine now Thomas Jefferson, chief draughtsman of the 1776 Declaration of Independence being questioned today by a US senator.

This stuff, he might be asked — and we paraphrase — about all men being created equal, with unalienable rights including life and liberty.

Leaving happiness out of it, where did that leave women and slaves?

“Ah,” says Jefferson helpfully, “when I wrote that, I was writing in the abstract. Didn’t I make that clear?” 

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