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David Cameron 'rudest prime minister', politeness conference hears

David Cameron, right, seen here with the front runner for next prime minister, Boris Johnson, made rudeness one of his main contributions to British political discourse Picture: Yui Mok/PA Wire
David Cameron, right, seen here with the front runner for next prime minister, Boris Johnson, made rudeness one of his main contributions to British political discourse Picture: Yui Mok/PA Wire

David Cameron was the rudest prime minister in recent memory, and Theresa May ignored or refused to answer four out of five questions put to her during the first 15 months of her premiership, the audience at a politeness conference at Anglia Ruskin University heard this week.

Professor Peter Bull, one of the presenters at the three-day 12th International Conference on (Im)Politeness, outlined a study he is conducting on politics in the UK - beginning with the House of Commons.

“The study started with an assessment of Prime Ministers Questions when the new technique of sourcing questions from members of the public was introduced by Jeremy Corbyn,” Prof Bull says.

The analysis, conducted with fellow academic Maurice Waddle, looked at 20 sessions of Prime Ministers Questions - PMQs - after the 2016 format change. Its used two metrics: ‘reply rate’ - the percentage of questions to which the PM gives an explicit reply - and ‘personalisation’, which is a personal attack on a fellow politician.

Of the last five Prime Ministers before Theresa May - Margaret Thatcher, John Major, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron - the authors found that in the 1980s, when Mrs Thatcher was premier and Neil Kinnock was leader of the opposition, the two leaders “were answering 45 per cent of questions in political interviews”. By the time of David Cameron (2010-2016) the rate had gone down to 21 per cent. With Theresa May - until the snap general election in late 2017 - “just 11 per cent of questions were answered”.

Outgoing prime minister Theresa May in the House of Commons
Outgoing prime minister Theresa May in the House of Commons

And that’s just the reply rate - meanwhile the personalised attack rate was going up.

“David Cameron in office made significantly more personal attacks on opponents than other prime ministers,” Prof Bull notes. “The highest rate was on Ed Miliband: 62 per cent of responses to Ed Miliband at the time he was leader of the opposition included personal attacks. The personalised aspect of politics has always been there, the question is: has it got worse, or was David Cameron just very rude?”

Avoiding answering questions takes many forms - indeed 36 avoidance strategies were identified by the researchers.

“We devised an equivocation typology,” Peter says, “which considers different ways of not answering questions. We applied the typology to Theresa May from the start of her premiership to the general election in 2017, and looked [more closely] at two categories: one acknowledges the question without answering it, the other is not answering it at all.

“An example of the first is when the politician says: ‘So that’s a very interesting question, may I say that in fact…’ and they then talk about something else entirely. When it comes to ignoring questions, in the 1980s and 1990s that’s pretty rare. Totally ignoring the question was May’s second most popular response to a question from Jeremy Corbyn.

“Ignoring a question is implicitly rude, however, and I think that meant she was faced with an awkward question about her own responses, and to get round that she just pretends the question hasn’t happened. She just carries on as if the question hadn’t taken place. She wanted her own way and wasn’t prepared to countenance opposition. The broader political outcome today is that we still don’t know what is going to happen with something like Brexit. But repeating something over and over isn’t enough to make it happen.

“We conducted a detailed analysis of Theresa May’s premiership and the interesting feature is a complete lack of dialogue - of not entering into discussion with any other political group - which leads to the politics of ridiculous slogans like ‘Brexit means Brexit’. If I walk into a restaurant and I say to the waiter ‘I want breakfast please’ and I am then asked what I would like my breakfast to consist of and I reply ‘Breakfast means breakfast’… it’s ridiculous.

“Even in interviews on TV, Theresa May would only actually answer 20 per cent of questions.”

The conference programme also considered other forms of politeness and impoliteness. Diverse languages including ancient Greek, Thai, Parsi, Italian, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Russian and Brazilian were the focus of some of the 120 talks given at the symposium. Topics included the Trump vs Clinton 2016 presidential election; ‘Irony and banter in the Iliad’; ‘Political correctness and the right to offend’; ‘Self-denigration in 21st century Chinese’; online discussions and politeness in classrooms.

Highlights included presentations by Zohar Kampf, from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, who outlined his work in a talk titled 'Flattery helps'. Pablo Álvarez Alonso from the University of Vigo discussed the language used during the Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump 2016 presidential debates, while Somaye Akbari from the University of Bayreuth considered the importance of 'aberu' or reputation in the 2009 Iranian televised presidential debates.

Conference organiser Dr Vahid Parvaresh, senior lecturer in linguistics at Anglia Ruskin University, said: “The overall study of impoliteness and language aggression has gained unprecedented momentum in recent years, probably due to the explosion of social media such as Twitter and Instagram.

“Social media has given people an unprecedented outlet to express themselves, which is incredibly positive. But at the same time, social media has seen the rise of incompatibility, conflict, aggression, and even harassment.

“This is particularly evident in the language of politics, in which the traditional boundaries between politicians and people have collapsed, paving the way for a more polarised and aggressive use of language, both online and in the real world."

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