Oh, foreign secretary! Oh, Mrs Beckett! Can you not see that you are letting your country down? I am not referring to your dress sense. On the contrary, you clearly dress as you do deliberately out of a proper sense of political modesty. A second-rate power, you obviously feel, is rightly represented by high street rather than haute couture.
No. I am referring, minister, to your language. Last Wednesday it emerged that on hearing from Tony Blair that you were to become foreign secretary, the first word you used, in your surprise and delight, was “F***”. Anyone can have a little lapse, of course. What made it truly, comically awful was that you appear to be proud of it, recounting the story happily last week to a journalist and posing with gravitas for a photograph. What, one wonders, would you say if the United States signed up to Kyoto: “Well, b****r me!”?
I am not for one moment suggesting that a foreign secretary should never use the F-word or the B-word, good solid English words that they are, in private. What’s startling is that she feels no embarrassment in confessing to it in public. On the contrary she must have had a reason; nobody asked her, after all.
Beckett must be aware that not so long ago top politicians wouldn’t have dreamt of using such words in public, and not so long before that most women wouldn’t have used them in private either. She must have thought that these days it would do her no harm, and maybe some good, to publicise the fact she uses slaggy prolespeak, even to the prime minister.
That may of course be because he sometimes uses it himself. He once notoriously referred to the effing Welsh. Last year in an interview with his unusual wife Cherie he saw fit to reveal to a gaggle of journalists that he is a five-times-a-night man. “At least,” he said, having affectionately warned his wife to keep her hands to herself. “I can do it more, depending how I feel.” This was corroborated by his wife, who then hinted that “size matters”. Astute politicians like Blair don’t make mistakes. They clearly think this kind of talk pays. So do the hangers-on.
So does Jonathan Ross, the BBC television presenter; it makes him £6m a year in salary. Nine days ago he interviewed David Cameron and cunningly turned the conversation about Cameron’s adolescent admiration of the Iron Lady into what Ross presumably knows is a crowd-pleasing question.
“But did you,” said Wossy “or did you not have a w*** thinking ‘Margaret Thatcher’?” Mindful of its duty, no doubt, to be inclusive in its broadcasting, the BBC did not cut out this question before transmission. Mindful, no doubt, of the temper of the times, Cameron did not object to it; he just laughed. It would not have been cool to protest.
There were a few predictable cries of outrage but surprisingly few; not many people seemed to mind about it. I think that’s because something seems to have changed radically in public discourse recently.
In a few years culture has become so hyper-sexualised that in order to speak demotic you need to talk dirty — or at least politicians and celebrities think you do. They feel the way to appeal to the voter or the punter is to pepper what you say with sexy words and sexy allusions, because that’s what most voters and punters increasingly do themselves. A touch of Tourette’s gives you street cred. Like the taboo against invading privacy, the taboo against using sexual words and talking freely about sex will soon have disappeared; it won’t be long before an archbishop starts sounding fruity in public.
I am not sure it’s an entirely bad thing. I love the freedom of English, and a lot of its richness is in its vulgarity and rawness just as much as in its subtlety. I like supposedly low humour. Manners tend to go in fashions, and spoken English has not always been restrained. But it is a remarkable phenomenon. It is also remarkably British; I cannot imagine European foreign secretaries, in the diplomatic drawing rooms of Paris, Bonn and Madrid, exclaiming “f***!” to each other.
There was a time in this country when only the working classes and the upper classes went in for effing and blinding and swearing like troopers, and not all of them. The respectable middle classes didn’t swear or talk dirty at all. Something changed in the 1960s; would-be left-wing intellectuals felt that to show solidarity with the masses they should talk like them. Hence student mockney, hence a fashion for swearing and talking dirty. Middle-class guilt made students feel they shouldn’t talk in the mannerly tones of middle-class privilege. This has persisted and spread.
Now young people of all backgrounds talk with what would once have been seen as astonishing vulgarity. As commerce has fanned the flames of sexuality into a profitable blaze, it was perhaps inevitable that at the end of this short road, we should find demure Beckett saying “f***”. However, I think she’s misguided to do it. It’s not necessary, it’s not inspirational, and it’s obliquely patronising. Cameron could do himself and his party and perhaps his country a favour by avoiding it.