To my astonishment and delight, the phrase ‘virtue signalling’ has become part of the English language. I coined the phrase in an article here in The Spectator (18 April) in which I described the way in which many people say or write things to indicate that they are virtuous. Sometimes it is quite subtle. By saying that they hate the Daily Mail or Ukip, they are really telling you that they are admirably non-racist, left-wing or open-minded. One of the crucial aspects of virtue signalling is that it does not require actually doing anything virtuous. It does not involve delivering lunches to elderly neighbours or staying together with a spouse for the sake of the children. It takes no effort or sacrifice at all.
Since April, I have watched with pleasure and then incredulity how the phrase has leapt from appearing in a single article into the everyday language of political discourse. One of the first journalists to pick up on the phrase was Liz Jones in the Mail on Sunday on 3 May. Not long after, Libby Purves used it in the Times (11 May). Janan Ganesh in the Financial Times (20 July) wrote about Labour party leaders for whom ‘Europeanism is just a virtue-signalling gesture like wearing a charity ribbon’. Two days later, Helen Lewis used it in the New Statesman, saying ‘a lot of what happens on Facebook, as with Twitter, is “virtue signalling” — showing off how right on you are’.
This month, use of the phrase has gone through the roof, appearing in newspapers almost on a daily basis. It has been deployed by Nick Cohen in a Spectator blog, Antonia Hoyle in Stella magazine, James Delingpole on Breitbart, Catriona Stewart in the Glasgow Herald, Memphis Barker in the Independent and Allister Heath in the Daily Telegraph.
Nicky Campbell, the best-known presenter on Radio 5 Live, tweeted to his 102,000 followers (13 September), ‘There is much virtue signalling going on at the moment.’ A search on the Guardian website reveals that contributors there have used it 241 times. Good grief, it has even appeared in West Ham Online.
The migration crisis gave the concept a boost. One person on Twitter wrote, ‘There must be a special level in hell below rapists and killers for anyone that uses twitter & a migrant crisis to #virtuesignal.’
I bumped into Dominic Lawson, former editor of The Spectator, who remarked that my life is now complete: I have added to the English language and can retire from the scene, perfectly satisfied. I have reluctantly given up hopes of ever appearing on Desert Island Discs — a pity considering I have been preparing for it for some 35 years — but at least I can comfort myself that I have coined a phrase. I thus join, admittedly at a low level, the ranks of word-creators such as William Shakespeare (‘uncomfortable’ and ‘assassination’ and many others) and Thomas Carlyle (‘dry as dust’ and, most famously, ‘environment’).
I guess the reason that ‘virtue signalling’ has been used so much is that it fulfils a need. For years, people have noticed the phenomenon but did not have a word or phrase to describe it. One person tweeted, ‘Love it when you find out something that’s irritated you for years has a name #virtuesignalling.’ The lack of a phrase obstructed open discussion of what was going on. Newspeak, the fictional language created by George Orwell in his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, limited the number of words people used with the intention of restricting the ability of people to express themselves and even to think. New phrases and words are the opposite of Newspeak. They make expression and argument easier.
It is slightly frustrating that some people have credited Libby Purves with creating the phrase. Unlike Liz Jones, she did not mention where it came from. But I forgive her. I am a fan of hers and the way she presents Midweek on Radio 4. We were contemporaries at Oxford and I’ll never forget seeing her walking in front of me wearing hot pants. That sort of thing creates a special bond.
It has been a pleasure to see the phrase used in all sorts of contexts from environmental policy to dating. One person on Twitter claimed people were using virtue signalling ‘to get laid’. Another wrote, ‘If you find yourself using corn chips to signal your virtue, you’re trying too hard.’
The phrase came to me after years of trying to come up with the something. Researching my previous book, The Welfare State We’re In, I came to realise that the Victorians and Edwardians gave vastly more money to charity than people do now. It was normal even for the working and artisan classes to give as much as 10 per cent of their income. That compares with donations of less than 1 per cent for the general population now. Among many other things, they gave money to help charitable hospitals through the King’s Fund in Saturday workplace collections. They also took it as normal to look after their aged parents and other relatives.
I compared them with people I met who thought they were virtuous merely because they voted Labour once every five years and expressed hatred of right-wingers. That is not virtue. That is lazy, self-righteous and silly.
James Bartholomew is the author, most recently, of The Welfare of Nations.
Give something clever this Christmas – a year’s subscription to The Spectator for just £75. And we’ll give you a free bottle of champagne. Click here.