Colin Brazier: You don’t need to be privileged to learn to express yourself with precision, elegance and originality
The days when speaking Received Pronunciation – the Queen’s English – was a necessary condition of advancement are long over.
There’s so much to admire about Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner. Westminster may be populated by career politicians, but she’s not one of them. She left school at 16, pregnant with the first of her three kids, and thereafter worked in the care sector.
When it comes to subjects like child poverty she can talk-the-talk because she walked-the-walk. It’s an authentic back-story but it’s not unique - there are plenty of MPs and folk in public life – whose origins are every bit as humble.
How many of them would’ve posted a tweet like this one today in which Rayner said
“I've been on the media this morning so my accent and grammar are being critiqued. I wasn't Eton educated, but growing up in Stockport I was taught integrity, honesty and decency. Doesn't mater how you say it. Boris Johnson is unfit to lead.”
Many people will agree that the Prime Minister isn’t fit to lead. But what about the other, implicit idea, within that tweet.
The notion that, to understand or use good grammar, you have to be posh, or that somehow grammar is not just a mark of privilege, but pointless too.
Well, it’s not. Grammar really matters. Cue, any number of examples. Here’s one. Two sentences. Sentence one: “I’m sorry I love you.” Sentence two: “I’m sorry, I love you.”
One punctuation-mark changes the meaning entirely.
As George Orwell said: “If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.”
Or as another George, George Galloway, told me on last night’s show, there’s nothing progressive about encouraging people to speak a form of bastardised English.But that tweet by Rayner today also talked about her ACCENT as well as her use of grammar.
Kenneth Branagh, arguably the country’s most talented actor has been talking about this very subject this week, and how – within three years of living in South-East England, he’d lost any trace of his Belfast accent.
Rayner’s held onto hers, but does it matter?
Another Angela, the writer Angela Levin, tweeted her response to Rayner today with these words:
“You don't have to have gone to Eton to speak well. It's easily done. Some working class people however exaggerate their grammatical mistakes and/or their accents deliberately to make a point.”
And it’s true that the days when speaking Received Pronunciation – the Queen’s English – was a necessary condition of advancement are long over.
If anything, the opposite now holds true. The journalist Chris Mason, for instance, was recently tipped to become the BBC’s new Political Editor – partly because of his strong regional accent.
I believe what matters is what you say, not how you say it. Chris Mason talks a lot of sense, regardless of how flat his vowels are.
Rayner on the other hand is in danger of becoming a pantomime Northerner.
She describes herself as John Prescott in a skirt, and there’s obviously political advantage to being seen as a politician who calls a spade a spade, even if that means mangling the language by which such bluntness is expressed.
And that would be fine if the words made sense, but with Rayner, they often don’t. Her tweet today was an object lesson in crass class-baiting, just as it was when she described Tories as ‘scum’ last year.
She apologised for using that word, but not before she’d said that scum was a word used up north as a term of affectionate banter.
Well, I don’t know who appointed her as the arbiter of Northern Dialect and Accent, but she doesn’t speak for every working class person who cares about the language we speak.
Those of us who grew up in conditions every bit as poor, sometimes worse, but who took the time to improve the language we love by reading lots of books.
And Angela, that’s what we did. You don’t need to be privileged to drink in good grammar and learn to express yourself with precision and elegance and originality.
You just need books, and the will to read them.