Girly swot

8 Sep

 Our PM Boris Johnson has been embroiled in new controversy (or should that be, ‘has got himself into a bit of a scrape’…) for calling David Cameron ‘a girly swot’ in notes on Cabinet papers discussing the prorogation of parliament. The notes were revealed by Sky News, following a Court release where the words had been redacted. It would appear that the term ‘girly swot’ had been considered embarrassing for someone in high office to use in such a memo.


This schoolboy insult does seem to tell us quite a lot about the man who used it.  For one thing, he is someone who sees no great formality in the documents of State, no reason to watch words on record – just ‘be himself’.  This attitude must have been seen as potentially troublesome by whoever saw ‘girly swot’ redacted in the first place. However, in a Trumpian political context, it could be viewed as part of Boris Johnson’s appeal, for people who go for his brand of so-called ‘anti-establishment’ ‘straight-talking’: Boris is just ‘like that’ and they (often similarly aged, or older, men) like him that way.


Meanwhile, many others have been quick to point out that the Prime Minister has form in using this type of playground language.  He first called David Cameron a ‘girly swot’ a few years ago, recalling that Cameron got a first class degree, while he, Boris Johnson, the popular Classicist extraordinaire, did not. This instance seems to underline that he means the term to be derogatory.  He’s playing to a gallery that he wants to root for him, rather than a more academically successful colleague. There’s an implication that he is the ‘real man’, and that to be ‘girly’ is undesirable.  Coupled with his recent use of the term ‘big girl’s blouse’, which he lobbed across the chamber at Jeremy Corbyn in an exchange about calling a General Election, it does imply sexism on Johnson’s part. Over on twitter, women in politics and journalism pointed out how anachronistic the language was. They wondered how being a studious woman was something to be ashamed of – ‘Girly swot is a compliment, right?’ tweeted Sky’s own Sophy Ridge.


I’m probably one of nature’s ‘girly swots’ myself, and the added issue for me in the PM’s use of the term, is that it implies that attention to detail in politics (wonkery, you might say) is a weakness.  Boris Johnson is trying to extricate the UK from the EU, unravelling over 40 years of legal and trade agreements.  If I was embarking on such an exercise, I’d want all the ‘girly swots’ I could get.  But then I’m not sure Dominic Cummings is a big fan of ‘girly swots’ either…. This morning Sophy Ridge asked the Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, what he thought of the Prime Minister’s language.  He evaded, saying ‘you can call me a girly swot anytime’. That is not something I would have in mind for someone who was recently part of ‘showing off wives and policies’ in the Tory leadership contest.  The report for this term’s Conservative men reads ‘Must try harder’ ….





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