Mind your language

Dominic Raab and the problem of ‘distraction’

2 July 2022

9:00 AM

2 July 2022

9:00 AM

Dominic Raab blamed distraction forBoris Johnson’s woes when the Tories failed in two by-elections last week. ‘Hehas track records as long as his arm of misinformation and propaganda and thisis a distraction from the real issues.’

Oh, no, I beg your pardon, that was what Mr Raab said aboutVladimir Putin in March. What he said about the by-elections was: ‘I thinkwe’ve had distractions because of partygate, because of too much Westminsterinternal, if you like, focus.’

Mr Raab hates distractions. They seem to drive him todistraction. ‘It’s a big distraction from the bread and butter issues,’ he saidof June’s party vote of confidence in Mr Johnson. And in May when the Toriesdid badly in local elections he said ‘We’ve got to get rid of thosedistractions’, as though the room was suddenly full of mosquitos.

It had been no better in 2020. Asked about President Trump’sremarks on the death of George Floyd he said: ‘I think all it does is create adistraction from all the things that we’re doing.’

Christian authors had long advised carefully aboutdistractions in prayer. ‘Harde it is to say one Pater noster withoutdistraction of the mynde,’ wrote William Bonde, a good monk of Syon Abbey, bythe Thames opposite today’s Kew Gardens. A copy of his Pylgrimage ofPerfection (1526) owned by the Queen bears Queen Victoria’s bookplate.

Lord Chesterfield, that stickler for manners, knew nothing‘more offensive to a company, than inattention and distraction’. Hewouldn’t have liked mobile phones at the table. But by the 19th century distractionscould be entertaining, like diversions. Yet, since distractioncomes from distrahere, ‘to pull asunder’, it could be as bad mentally asbeing dismembered by wild horses. Robert Burton confronted this in TheAnatomy of Melancholy and saw that in some cases distraction might work togood. For those with anxious or intrusive thoughts, chess could ‘distract theirmind, and alter their meditations: invented (some say) by the general of anarmy in a famine, to keep soldiers from mutiny’. There is a Chess Room in theHouse of Commons. Perhaps it should be better used.

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