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.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10


Show comments
  • Catherine Waterman

    As well as ‘respect’, another word adopted and tainted by Caribbean gangsters is ‘vex’. The word itself sounds Dickensian and used to make me think of a rather cross elderly gent. Of course, nowadays for someone to be vexed, they are very angry indeed. “Nar mek me vex, mon! “(“Don’t make me angry, man!”) I must say that both words in the tainted sense describe George Galloway most aptly.

    • Did you mean George Galloway’s part in the recent programme of vilification of any critics of Tower Hamlets Council Executive Mayor?
      Mr George Galloway, who has for years shared with Mr Ken Livingstone certain ‘Left’ platforms, hasn’t so far distanced himself from Mr Livingstone’s confident advice that critics of the Tower Hamlets Council Executive Mayor should be targeted and their lives made intolerable
      The two former MPs for the Labour Party made their contributions
      to the condemnation of critics of the Tower Hamlets Council at a
      rally conducted by Stephen Beckett, once a Labour Party Councillor on Tower Hamlets Council

      • Catherine Waterman

        Yes indeed, that and the rest. George Galloway generally is a classic bully who demands respect, but rarely (some would say never) earns it. He’s always shouting as well – and has fierce looking eyes!

  • Stephen Milroy

    Prefer the Italian way of saying it.’ You don’t a show me no respect’ with appropriate hand gestures. Yes I have been watching too many gangster/mafia movies…

  • Mrs Josephine Hyde-Hartley

    It’s a better word than “tolerate”, which is also apparently published as a “British value”.

    Respect, to me, is about that certain settled, OK feeling one gets having reviewed and found something to be quite acceptable. Unlike “tolerate” which implies one has to merely put up with something one finds to be not really acceptable.

    In fact when taken together, as our latest published ” British values” would have it, the prospect of both respecting and tolerating something simply doesn’t seem natural and comes across as being rather affected, I think.

    Perhaps our published British values should include thinking everything is OK, instead of everything must be respected and tolerated.

    But what exactly is a “drawing-room” in this day and age?

Close