Magazine article The Spectator

Only the Tories Can Cut the State Down to Size

Magazine article The Spectator

Only the Tories Can Cut the State Down to Size

Article excerpt

May I claim my prize? Unless I am much mistaken, and unless my internet searches have missed something, it was I who brought the expression 'dog-whistling' to British politics.

I did not invent it. For this honour - as for a good deal of vulgarly succinct modern slang - we have the Australians to thank. I borrowed the phrase from John Howard's election campaign.

It happened like this. In July 2003 two senators from Queensland contacted me to say they were shortly to visit Britain on a study-tour and would like to meet me to discuss British politics. Flattered, I readily agreed. Senators George Brandis and Brett Mason came round to my flat and the three of us sat by the Thames on a late July day, discussing our politics and theirs.

They seemed decent, clever and interesting men, both members of Prime Minister John Howard's governing Liberal party although (I sensed) a little to the liberal side of that deeply conservative politician. I asked them what their leader's secret might be, given that he seemed to have all the charisma of a stoat, and yet had a habit of sneaking through to victory at the hustings.

'Dog-whistling,' they replied. I looked puzzled. They explained.

Thus it was that on 31 October 2003, immediately before Michael Howard was elected as Conservative leader and in the confident expectation that he would be, I wrote in the Times that to explain Mr Howard's Antipodean namesake's success, Australians 'speak of his skill at "dog-whistling". Dogs can hear whistles pitched beyond the range within which the human ear can register a sound. John Howard, it is said, somehow manages to signal to the Right that he is on their side, without committing himself to language which can be turned by Australian progressives against him.

'With Oliver Letwin dog-whistling to social liberals, and Michael Howard dog-whistling to the traditional Right, this new-look Centre could prove quite formidable.'

Though open to correction I cannot find any earlier use of the phrase in mainstream British journalism, though it has now become commonplace. I do realise my achievement is of no account whatsoever save to my mother and me, and you must forgive me my little squeak of pride; but in the battle of ideas columnists cannot claim authorship of much, and whenever the term appears in print these days I feel the same thrill of ownership as lifted my heart when on the eve of the leadership contest between John Major and John Redwood, the Sun gave away a free pair of Vulcan ears with every copy. Had I a farthing for every printed instance of that Vulcan analogy, I should today be wealthy indeed.

As for dog-whistling, the expression is becoming rather shopworn and it may soon be time to retire the cliché, not least because, over immigration policy, dog-whistling is precisely what Michael Howard is not doing. His attachment to the subject owes more to the hunting-horn than it docs to the high-frequency pitch of a whistle inaudible to the human ear. And rightly. There is no need for the Conservative leader to be coy about his policies on immigration because they are neither racist, nor extreme, nor hateful.

The imbalance critics detect in the Tory campaign so far arises not from the leadership having spoken out in too forthright a way on immigration, but from its failure to have found the same confident tone on anything else. There is a need for a direct Tory appeal pitched over the heads of the media to the electorate at large - whether by dog-whistle, hunting-horn or billet-doux - but in this communications seem to have failed them. …

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