The gaffe-prone former Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson MP, found himself in hot water again after he participated in a public ’phone-in on LBC radio. During the discussion, he criticised the use of police resources to mount historic abuse investigations:
“And one comment I would make is I think an awful lot of money and an awful lot of police time now goes into these historic offences and all this malarkey.
You know, £60m I saw was being spaffed up a wall on some investigation into historic child abuse and all this kind of thing. What on earth is that going to do to protect the public now?”
Johnson is a former Mayor of London, and in that capacity oversaw the allocation of resources to the Metropolitan Police Service (MPS). That force spectacularly wasted £2.5 million on the botched Operation Midland, alone. The MPS has since been sued by a number of prominent persons who were wrongly accused of historic sex offences.
The controversial Independent Inquiry on Child Sex Abuse has cost the public purse some £60 million thus far, when local authorities’ child protection budgets have been cut to the bone. There are obvious questions to be asked about the proportionality of this Inquiry in an era of austerity.
So Johnson surely has a point. Police numbers have been cut back, knife crime is soaring, and in the uncertainty generated by the Government’s mishandling of Brexit, the public mood is volatile. Surely we should make present-day victims of crime, and safeguarding today’s children, our first priority?
I have sympathy for Johnson’s point of view about the pursuit of very old offences. I have long argued in favour of a statute of limitation for criminal offences, with the possible exception of murder. Most Western countries do have such a statute: it is the British Isles which are anomalous in this respect.
Predictably, the victims’ lobby hit back hard at Johnson. The BBC reported a raft of critics, who called his comments “horrific”, “crass”, “insensitive”, “unbelievably distasteful”, “wrong on so many levels”, and so on. He was accused of using “vulgar” and “offensive” language. And, predictably, there were calls for Johnson to apologise.
The Guardian reported Louise Haigh, the shadow policing minister, as saying Johnson’s remarks were insulting to survivors of abuse. Then the Spectator reported that Johnson had been publicly upbraided by the Victims’ Minister Victoria Atkins in the lobby of the House of Commons, while MPs were voting, and that his chances as a future leadership candidate for the Conservative Party were said to be finished.
Johnson’s remarks were unquestionably off the cuff, blunt and expressed in the vernacular. The online Oxford English Dictionary (OED) does not possess an entry for the word “spaff”. I have resorted to various online urban dictionary definitions, which offer: to ejaculate, to waste, to fuck up. Somewhat ironically, Johnson’s use of the word will probably herald its introduction to the OED ere long.
Shakespeare’s Sonnet 129 refers to “th’expense of spirit”. Johnson is a classicist, newspaper columnist and published author. I suspect that he intended to use the word in the sense of meaning “waste” or doing something badly or ineptly. I doubt that he used “spaff” in a literal sexual sense, but rather as a metaphor for a futile waste of public money.
No doubt the debate will continue over the futility, or otherwise, of historic abuse inquiries and historic police investigations. But people should not be hounded for an injudicious turn of phrase, or lapse of taste in the course of an informal public discussion. As we know or ought to know, freedom of speech encompasses the right to offend, shock or disturb others.
The present-day vogue for the relentless micro-management of public discourse and ordinary speech is a Trojan Horse, which has the propensity to make certain topics off-limits all together. To adapt Wittgenstein’s famous formulation:
Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.
But the silencing of unpopular views or opinions is not healthy in a democracy. It fosters resentment amongst a silent majority. Nor should Johnson be unpersoned, in the Orwellian sense. Orwell would have been fascinated and alarmed at modern society’s tendency to suppress language in all its richness and variety. He knew – no one better – that to control thought, you first need to control language.