It seems barely a week goes by without some public figure invoking the spirit of 1930s Germany and the spectre of European fascism. Members of the conservative Tea Party movement loudly denounce Barack Obama as a fascist, while the normally sedate Church of England recently saw a senior bishop get himself into hot water by comparing the row over the ordination of women bishops to the mood of January 1939.
This week it was the turn of Godfrey Bloom, the UKIP MEP who was ejected from the European Parliament on Wednesday for calling Martin Schulz, the President of the European Socialists a, wait for it, ‘undemocratic fascist’.
Many people argue that Bloom’s expulsion was the right course of action – particularly when such an egregious use of offensive language is committed in the Chamber. Perhaps. But, as Daniel Hannan notes, while Bloom was out of line, Schulz himself has form when it comes to denouncing political rivals for being less than democratic and NOT suffering any consequences, also prompting strong feelings by influential bogger Jon Worth.
In messaging terms, the inconsistency of the European Parliament is a problem. If you want to send the signal that certain words are unacceptable then you have to punish anyone who crosses the line, irrespective of political affiliation.
The lack of equal treatment dolled out to Bloom and Schulz suggests that for many, politically offensive language is not the issue… provided you are on the same side as the person who’s using it.
Furthermore, the theatrics and hysteria stemming from Bloom’s outburst are the oxygen which feeds UKIP’s PR efforts. In media training we talk about ‘hyper-sizzle’ which is when you pick language that is so over the top that it cannot fail to have an impact (either good or bad). Bloom knew exactly what he was doing when he called Schulz a fascist, much as Nigel Farage did when he called EU Council President, Herman Van Rompuy, a ‘damp rag’. What amazes me in all this is the willingness of other politicians and the media to play straight into their hands. For UKIP, all this extra attention must be like shooting fish in a barrel.
The genuine losers in all of this are not insulted politicians – but language and meaning, not to mention the victims of genuinely unsavoury political regimes. The overriding impression from the most recent European Parliament episode is one of semantic disarray where words are thrown about like daggers in the hands of privileged toddlers who don’t know what they are doing.
As fellow Brussels watcher Hugh Barton Smith put it (as a suggested title for this blog), a sharp wit should not need such a blunt instrument. This is certainly true. But, and perhaps more pressingly, if our MEPs are prepared to use these kinds of terms to insult each other now, what arsenal will they be able to draw on when faced with an external situation or threat where language really counts?
And who will take them seriously then?