Let's draw a line under it

Chalk line

Both Nick Clegg and Andrew Mitchell have said it's time to "draw a line" under the row over the chief whip's intemperate comments to a police officer. But why do politicians use this phrase so often?

Conservative Chief Whip Andrew Mitchell has been accused in a tabloid newspaper of swearing and using the term "plebs" to a police officer.

While denying using the words attributed to him, Mitchell has apologised to the police officer involved. He said since the apology had been accepted, he hoped that "we can draw a line under it there".

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg also suggested it was time to "draw a line" under the incident.

Draw a line under it. It's a phrase that has become inextricably associated with political jargon. It's come to mean move on, take things forward, make a fresh start, get over it.

What happened in Downing St

Armed officer at Downing Street gate
  • Andrew Mitchell, the Tory chief whip, apologised after losing his temper with Downing Street police
  • They had tried to stop him cycling out the main gates
  • He admits failing to treat the police with "the respect they deserve", but denies calling the armed officers "plebs" and "morons"

It's a phrase that politicians of all hues appear to favour. And while someone might hope that a line is drawn under an event, more often than not, this is not the case.

Former Lib Dem minister Chris Huhne, who in September welcomed a police inquiry into allegations over a speeding offence, as a chance to "draw a line under" the affair, resigned a few months later after learning he was to be charged with perverting the course of justice.

Labour leader Ed Miliband used the phrase in a plea for party unity after the fiercely fought leadership contest: "Today, we draw a line under this contest and move forward united as a team."

Former Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair even used the phrase in a different context.

In 2004, he welcomed a BBC apology after the broadcaster was criticised by the Hutton report. "What this does now is allow us to draw a line and move on," he said.

Tony Blair in Iraq Blair wanted to draw a line under events surrounding the lead up to the Iraq war

"Move on" was a phrase Blair was known to favour. He used it about the controversy over the UK's involvement in the invasion of Iraq.

At the time Frederick Forsyth took to the pages of the Daily Express to brutally mock Blair for his phraseology.

"Worst of all is the whine: 'We must all move on.' What it really means is: 'Could we please not look at the smoking rubble of what I have done and look somewhere else?'"

Phrases like "draw a line under it" or "let's move on" are often vain efforts to stop a media feeding frenzy.

"'Draw a line under it' basically means 'will you stop going on about it'," says commentator and former Conservative MP Matthew Parris. "But if you say 'please stop going on about it', it sounds like you are begging for mercy. 'Draw a line under it' is an attempt to sound more mature.

Start Quote

It may come from very early boxing fights in which the line dividing the opponents must not be crossed”

End Quote Susie Dent Lexicographer

"These phrases are useful cliches and images rise out of them, but then they are done to death and when people realise this they fall away. Tony Blair's equivalent was "let's move on". But it became discredited because of the association. 'Let's draw a line under it,' is the new take on it."

"Lines" appear to be very popular with politicians. There are the classic "red lines" in negotiations - most notably in British politicians' talks in Europe, and in Israeli-Palestinian discussions.

Then there's the "lines in the sand". In 1990, President George Bush said that he drew "a line in the sand" against Iraq invading Saudi Arabia during the first Gulf War.

The New York Times columnist William Safire suggested the idiom might be traced to the siege of the Alamo in 1836 or a clash between the Roman Republic and a Hellenistic emperor.

"There are lots of lines in the repertoire of English idioms," says Susie Dent, editor of the new Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. "Simply because the image is a pithy and powerful one for expressing limits and thresholds. It suggests that the time for questioning is over, hence its usefulness to politicians in a sticky situation."

According to Dent, the Oxford English Dictionary's first evidence for "drawing a line", defined as "to lay down a definite limit of action beyond which one refuses to go", is from a transcript of the trial of one Thomas Fyshe Palmer, once known as "the most determined rebel in Scotland". That was in 1793.

"Drawing a line under something is a useful shorthand, politically speaking, for wanting to move on. It may come from very early boxing fights in which the line dividing the opponents must not be crossed," says Dent.

"Drawing a line under it" is the type of phrase one might imagine turning up in a political satire. But politicians have other ways of diverting a question when they want to, says The Thick of It writer Ian Martin.

"I noticed Clegg on the Today programme was starting sentences with, 'Look...' which is shorthand for, 'Shut up, I'm going to answer a different question'.

"He also told Sarah Montague that he was 'not going to give a running commentary' on the Andrew Mitchell story. I remember when Cameron used this phrase last year for the first time. He'd nicked it from Obama I think. It very quickly became fashionable in political circles, even though when they say it, there's no question of their giving a running commentary.

"The meaning here is 'shut up, I'm not saying anything else in response to that question, shut up and listen to the answer I'm about to give to a question I have just asked myself'."

Now let's just move on.

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