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Mind your language

Why ‘respect’ is the last thing we should want from politicians

If Mr Miliband knew about life ‘down in the street’ he’d realise that ‘respect’ is the gangland correlative of honour

29 November 2014

9:00 AM

29 November 2014

9:00 AM

‘Respect!’ cried my husband, drop-kicking a cushion with a picture of the Queen Mother holding a pint of beer on it (a present from Veronica) across the drawing-room. I might as well be married to Russell Brand and be done with it.

His little satire was set off by Ed Miliband’s remarks about Emily Thornberry’s notorious Cross of St George tweet. ‘What is going through my mind is respect,’ the Labour leader said. ‘Respect is the basic rule of politics and I’m afraid her tweet conveyed a sense of disrespect.’ This seems to me deranged.

If Mr Miliband knew about life ‘down in the street’ he’d realise that ‘respect’ is the gangland correlative of honour. Weaker members of gangs are required to show respect to the top dogs. Those accused of showing lack of respect suffer violence. This is hardly how we want politicians to behave.

Respect in a menacing sense arrived from the Caribbean in the 1990s. In 1985 the Gleaner had announced Hugo Barrington’s release of ‘Respect Is Due’. I think it was actually called ‘Respect Due’. The discography is complicated. I’ve heard a version by Charlie Chaplin, the ragga DJ, to the folk tune ‘Muss i denn’, popularised by Elvis as ‘Wooden Heart’. Anyway, in the 1980s respect in Jamaica still meant ‘considerateness’. The rot set in with gangsta morals, influenced by American music and eventually ridiculed by Ali G on Channel 4from 1998.

The gangland sense of respect made it ludicrous for Tony Blair in 2005 to name his social order initiative the ‘Respect Agenda’. He might as well have called it the ‘You looking at me?’ agenda. Oddly enough, Blair’s Respect Agenda came a year after the founding of the Respect party. Its name was said to stand as an acronym for Respect, Equality, Socialism, Peace, Environmentalism, Community, and Trade Unionism, and its members were soon at each other’s throats. It is now best known as a vehicle for dear old George Galloway.

All this is a long way from the old senses of the verb respect. After the referendum on Scottish independence, the Queen said: ‘It is a result that all of us throughout the United Kingdom will respect.’ If only.

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