Gestures, signs and symbols: the quest for meaning in British politics

By Peter Kardynal

A man who rose to power through showmanship, playacting and fabrications declares ‘I don’t believe in gestures’; let’s explore Boris’ relationship with gestures and their relevance in British politics.

“Meaningless! Meaningless! Says the teacher. Everything is meaningless!” [Ecclesiastes 1:2]. The book of Ecclesiastes opens with a rather pessimistic understanding as to what the essence of life consists of. King Solomon, the presumed voice of the book, had sought to understand all there is to life. In his philosophical pursuit, he concluded that, “I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind”. For Solomon, all actions in this earth-bound existence were inherently useless vapour and thus meaningless. 

“I don’t believe in gestures,” declared our very own chief, Boris Johnson. A man well acquainted with useless deeds and a vaporous tongue evoked similar conclusions to Solomon regarding the futility of certain realities. Speaking on LBC radio on the 3rd of July, the PM was asked if he would take the knee as a sign of solidary with the BLM movement. In dissimilar prose to Solomon, Boris blurted: “I…I…I… I don’t believe in gestures; I believe in substance. I believe in doing things that make a practical difference.” 

The emphasis here is on the term ‘gesture’ that Boris so assertively claims to disbelieve. The reality is that gestures, and signs and symbols are constantly used in political discourse. They act as a tool to sway public opinion, highlight social injustices or nationalistic opinions, to seduce voters and consumers, and so on and so forth. In the modern world, signs and symbols are profuse and often propagated by politicians and the media.

The significance of ‘gestures in politics’ 

For right or wrong, manipulation or inspiration, ‘gestures’, interchangeable with ‘signs and symbols’, play a powerful role in politics. Ever since the inception of Demokratia in Ancient Greece, politics has had a very public and symbolic significance. Politics meant entering the public space, where citizens can speak and be heard. 

In the public realm it is the words, rhetoric and deeds of citizens that are judged by their peers; one’s political life is identical to how they appear to others. Thus, the realm of politics is the realm of appearance. Political theorist Hannah Arendt sums this up nicely: “appearance, something that is being seen and heard by others as well as by ourselves, constitutes reality,” [Hannah Arendt – The Human Condition].

The political slogans we hear, the countless media sources we digest, the images of politicians revealing how they choose to present themselves, all these are ‘gestures’. It is something which humans find easiest to relate to; how we interpret these symbols and how they are used to appeal to the public is a complex process. 

Though, appearances can be deceptive and unreliable. The word hypocrite comes from the Greek hypokrisis meaning ‘acting-out’, consequently, the actors of the political stage must embrace its aesthetic nature to thrive. 

“The search for motives, the demand that everybody display in public his innermost motivation, since it actually demands the impossible, transforms all actors into hypocrites, [Hannah Arendt, On Revolution].

Play acting can diminish politics into a form of entertainment with catchphrases and slogans replacing real political arguments. The examples are countless. The Brexit line ‘take back control’ and the more recent ‘Get Brexit Done’ are gestures of little substance, attempting to reduce complex narratives to appeal to emotional receptors. 

Our political debate is losing the founding democratic principle of free public discussion. It is becoming a polarised shouting match reduced to buzz words where people yel, without saying anything of value, instead labelling each other as ‘snowflakes’, ‘boomers’, or the recent fan favourite of ‘Karen’

For philosopher Jean Baudrillard, there is no truth behind the lies of politicians and media. Information for Baudrillard takes on a life of its own circulating societies like commodities on the stock market, people barter and sell information, slogans, etc. “Where we think that information produces meaning, the opposite occurs. Information devours its own content,” [Baudrillard, Simulacra et Simulation]. 

Boris the play-actor 

When assessing Boris’s term ‘gesture’ from this perspective, his words turn to ash in his mouth. ‘Gestures’ are a powerful tool of an incompetent government. The false realities which Boris and his cabinet generate mask the lack of action that has been undertaken in facing recent crises. But it is something which Boris has utilised throughout his climb of the political ladder. 

Boris is a performer, he ziplined into prominence as Mayor of London off the back of stunts, gestures and TV appearances.

The power of gestures is what Boris calls upon in present times of crisis, as a tool to boost morale, divert public scrutiny and cling onto support. Yet, whatever the government’s policy may have been regarding the handling of COVID and the economic fallout, it has had the worst of both worlds, no one can afford the cake or they’re too ill to eat it. 

The government has failed hugely on a social-medical basis. The UK has the worst coronavirus death toll out of any European nation. While this has not been balanced out by any sort of economic gain, the chaos and mismanagement which rules in the cabinet have meant that the UK economy suffers the worst slump in Europe; officially entering recession with a 20.4 per cent contraction in the second quarter. 

The government has been incompetent in its approach and response, instead making itself busy employing gestures in diverting public opinion; replacing shambles with spectacles, with countless U-turns along the way.  

Claps didn’t ‘protect’ the NHS 

While Boris got stuck into ‘clap for carers’ during the peak of the pandemic. His claps did not give NHS staff the necessary PPE, equipment, or funding to deal with the crisis. This is all part of generating a hollow ‘NHS hero’ gesture which credits the idea without supporting the people behind the message. We cannot clap away destructive NHS cuts, no matter how much we profess our supposed love. 

When NHS workers marched on Downing Street in July demanding increased pay there was no broad support from the public as there existed during ‘clap for carers’. Boris would rather clap for his mates in finance, “our wealth creators, our capitalists” and propagate ideas of British exceptionalism in appealing to his support base. 

It is these ideas of British exceptionalism that are at the helm in handling the economic and social fallout. Britain has acted out of step in dealing with the crises on the international stage, rainbows outside of household windows and spitfires honouring the NHS will do little to ease this tragedy. 

Gratitude for the NHS must go hand-in-hand with direct action. Aneurin Bevan, who led the establishment of the NHS, wrote in 1952 that, “warm gushes of self-indulgent emotion are an unreliable source of driving power in the field of health organization”. Yet Boris in attempting to provide a tough show in his management resorts to self-indulgent gestures.

In a late June press conference, Boris equated strength with masculinity and in a Putinesque display of virility and power. Boris gestures again to the British public, seeking to remove any anxieties that he was not fit for public office, he explained he was “as fit as a butcher’s dog”.

Pantomime at Dover 

Priti Patel, recently made a trip down to the white cliffs of Dover to look ‘tough on immigration’. Just now ‘illegal immigrants’ are being held as potent symbols of national sovereignty in the form of hard borders. The nationalistic ‘take back our borders’ rhetoric which this government is so fond of is another ploy to direct the British public away from government failures through exploiting xenophobic fears. It is convenient that the British government and media had pivoted to hysterically reporting on refugees in side-lining government criticism. The reporting is disproportionate to the actual volume of migrants entering the country; yet media rather film people on boats than help them. 

Amidst such circumstances, one cannot blame people who feel disheartened and disenfranchised with the state of modern politics. There is a loss of genuine political organisation and operation. Through the power of gestures, politics can be reduced to a political game presented by the media in which public opinion is constantly manipulated, lines are blurred. 

Yet simultaneously, people who feel that they are neglected and forgotten by politics yearn for a narrative, even an invented fiction that will make sense of the anxiety they are experiencing, one which promises some sort of redemption. 

Our ideologies and views are constructed under the social and political circumstances within which we live. Gestures have a powerful shaping force in this, but it is up to us to decipher the meaningful from the meaningless. 

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