x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

In politics, as football, the loudest and cleverest slogans win

The Left, it has often been said, has all the best tunes. Does it also have a monopoly on the most effective words?

Jack London was an American writer who lived a short, complicated life during which he enjoyed considerable success with his novels, short stories and non-fiction, and also embraced a class warrior's brand of socialism. He was occasionally accused of plagiarism, though this is not the reason questions have been raised about his authorship of The Scab, one the most fiery pieces of rhetoric written in the history of trade unionism.

The doubts arise because of the style of language, which is considered out of character for Mr London, and also the item's absence from his known body of work. That said, The Scab is generally attributed to him. As many will know, it is a powerful diatribe, beginning with the assertion that once the rattlesnake, toad and vampire had been created, there was some "awful stuff" left over with which the "scab", or strike-breaker, was made. The resulting creature was a "two-legged animal with a corkscrew soul, a waterlogged brain, and a combination backbone made of jelly and glue".

The Left, it has often been said, has all the best tunes. Does it also have a monopoly on the most effective words? The answer probably depends on one's own political viewpoint. But whether it comes from the Left or Right, political sloganising relies overwhelmingly on snappy one-liners rather than the sustained abuse of The Scab. The left-wing slogan that comes most readily to mind when I think back over the past 30 or 40 years is "Occupy, nationalise, fight for the right to work", even though it mixes a governmental function (nationalisation) with encouragement to workers to take direct action. The chant was often heard on demonstrations in Britain during the Thatcher years, as was the cry "Maggie, Maggie, Maggie", and its inevitable response "Out, out, out".

In the United States, from much earlier, "We shall overcome" became the catchphrase of the civil rights movement, while the American Right's "Better dead than Red" removed any doubt as to its true feelings on communism. British Conservatives had "Labour isn't working" and, a little later, "Labour still isn't working" towards the end of the 1970s. Also in Britain, and from roughly the same era, there was a chant specific to the city of Birmingham, informally known as Brum. When the extreme right-wing National Front staged a march there, anti-racist counter-demonstrators chanted relentlessly: "Nazi scum get out of Brum".

Within a week or so, the taunt could be heard in adapted form on the lips of supporters of one of the big Birmingham football clubs, Aston Villa. Visiting fans of Manchester City were taunted throughout a game I attended with "City scum get out of Brum". So the process that produces memorable political slogans is not so distant from the origin of banter on the football terraces. Someone dreams up the phrase, line or verse; those of similar allegiance then learn to recite it in unison. Now that all-seater stadiums have in many cases replaced the terraces of the past, chants often start with the command "stand up", supporters being urged to their feet to declare love or hatred for this or that player or club (eg "Stand up if you hate Man U", to the tune of the pop song Go West). More sensible spectators, preferring to remain in their seats, now try to drown out the first two words of each phrase with a rival instruction, "Sit down".

A lot of what is heard, or seen on banners, at football games and on the streets during protests is charmless, infantile or obscene. And sometimes, the sentiments can seem distinctly off-message. But I must confess to a sneaking regard for the French students who, during a series of bitter anti-government demonstrations about unemployment, came up with Á bas le travail - "Down with work". Colin Randall is a contributing editor to The National and can be contacted at crandall@thenational.ae