Like the three chord song of legend, the three word slogan is the catchy riff that can storm the charts, sweeping aside the ponderous and the earnest, and lodging like an ear worm in the head. Take Back Control! Get Brexit Done! Build Back Better! Gordon Brown’s ‘Neo-classical endogenous growth theory’ is like a heavy dose of Tangerine Dream in comparison with the Gerry Goffin/Carole King numbers the other side dreamt up. Do the Locomotion, indeed.
The three word slogan is deceptive. It seems simple, but it really isn’t. ‘Hope Not Hate’ has three words. ‘Black Lives Matter’. ‘Coal Not Dole’. Short isn’t necessarily either sharp or sweet. The first of these slogans is typical left liberal abstraction. Hope, hate, are words that describe feelings. But often the most powerful feelings are the ones that are evoked by political rhetoric, but crucially are not named.
BLM is another unsurprisingly moral demand. Sadly many people have been primed to be impervious to morality in politics, or to see it in relative rather than absolute terms. The ‘All Lives Matter’ retort is political homeopathy, in which the power of the injustice named by BLM is diluted to nothing in a sea of vagueness.
‘Coal Not Dole’ a relic of the 1980s Miners’ strike, is elegant, a synecdoche in which the simple product, coal, denotes the dignity of labour, and the popular name for unemployment benefits is its rhyming opposite. But the slogan is slightly wistful, elegiac even. It isn’t just hindsight that makes it feel more than a little desperate.
For these short slogans to work, the powerful three words ought to be imperative, with a strong, active verb. That’s the genius of ‘Take Back Control’. Action is there, in the first short, simple word. But we’re not being urged to ‘take’ anything that requires effort to imagine, something new, or different. We are told to take ‘back’ something we used to have, but which, by implication, has been stolen from us. It powerfully combines nostalgia with resentment. The final word is an abstract one, in some ways, but not a difficult or challenging abstraction. All people like to feel they have some control over their lives, but there’s also a slightly gendered feel to ‘control’, implying power and even coercion. The point is that ‘control’ is open to different interpretations, depending on the disposition of the individual. But the real power is in the taking back.
Interpreting things doesn’t change them, as Marx once almost said. Does this mean that we must accept that the Right will always have the best three word tunes?
I’m inclined to recommend a bit of ironic plagiarism. The three words on my light box at the moment read ‘Lock Him Up’, and I’ll certainly be yelling them at the PM when the Public Inquiry finally starts. The never ending Brexity chaos makes ‘Take Back Control’ the ideal Remainer revenge taunt. But I’m not sure we’re looking in the right place if we waste our time trying to create a tribute act. As another three word slogan went, on a placard at an AUT rally long ago, ‘Rectify the Anomaly!’ It’s never going to work.
Short slogans and misleading analogies have been weaponised by the right in an age dominated by retail politics, in which bigger visions of the world we want to create are swapped for popular, but disparate policies, as tested to death by pollsters and focus groups. These are the techniques of Madmen, applied to democracies, and they are, ultimately, as we now see, corrosive.
Progressive politics can be popular, but not by being simplistic and manipulative. The periods in which the left has thrived have been times when a combination of practical policies and a clear vision based in action on the ground have taken root. These have usually been times of radical and unsettling change, like the Great Depression in the USA, of the Second World War here.
We are in such a period right now. The pandemic, climate change, fire and flood and pestilence, anyone who thinks that the 21st Century is going to ‘go back to normal’ hasn’t been paying attention. This is a time for big visions, and for dissolving borders. It’s a time to mobilise people for action. And we need leaders who are bold and brave enough to be honest about the future we face, and the actions we can take to make it better than the past.
Now how can I get that on a tee shirt?