Words as weapons: do politicians target truckers?
By Paul Mummery, RHA Press Executive
Canadian author Manly P. Hall wrote: “Words are potent weapons for all causes, good or bad”. This nugget of wisdom came to mind this week after Kent press reports revealed that the Government wants to keep powers to fine truckers £300 for using the wrong routes when there’s disruption at Channel ports.
Ministers are said to be looking at scrapping some Brexit-related restrictions brought in to manage border chaos in January. But fines are likely to feature when Operation Brock traffic measures are activated in the future.
This won’t come as a surprise to anyone in this game, but it’s how officialdom makes the case and the language it uses that’s most worrying.
Kent Online reported that the Government believes that the fines act as a suitable punishment and deterrent.
Let those words sink in for a moment and then cast your mind back a year when Covid-defying lorry drivers were universally praised for keeping shops, chemists and online retailers stocked with all the essential – and non-essential – goods we needed.
Journalists hungry for human interest Covid stories cottoned on. A number of them gave us all-too-rare insights into the spartan realities of a tramper’s life, made more acute with service station eateries and toilets shut at the time.
Heartstring-tugging accounts of drivers struggling to find somewhere – anywhere – for a tea and a pee chimed with an empathetic Mr & Mrs Normal who’d never given a second thought how their goods got to them before. They felt the anguish and frustrations of relatable people doing a gutty old job under horrendous conditions – everyone loves to cheer on an underdog after all.
Truckers were arguably second in a grateful public’s affections to our feted NHS heroes, cheered on by a PM-led weekly doorstep clap. But the love wasn’t to last very long. With news cycles moved on we’re back to business as usual as people with power routinely characterise lorry drivers as oiks, chancers, and irritants when it suits.
Ashford Borough Council in Kent has long lined truckers up for special NIMBY treatment and once again made it clear what they think of our knights of the road. A senior official welcomed the Government’s plans saying they needed to maintain the weapons in our armoury to encourage them [drivers] to do the right thing. There will always be some difficult cases where they feel there's a better route that will disrupt residents, he added.
Truckers stuck in Kent are used to hostility and demonising from officials. The County Council is pushing to make a temporary measure banning trucks from parking on many roads in the county, permanent, despite the lack of safe and secure alternatives. Rest assured we’re fighting hard to resist it.
Transport for London (TfL) was at it too when they switched on their controversial Direct Vision Standard safety permit scheme recently.
They said it will ensure that the most dangerous vehicles on our streets have effective safety measures and would save lives by reducing lethal HGV
Our chief executive, Richard Burnett was deeply unimpressed and complained to TfL Commissioner, Andy Byford about the language his staff had used. Byford said they’d review future communications to avoid the perceived implication that all lorries are dangerous or that our industry is irresponsible.
Fair enough but the genie was out of the bottle. Officials had issued their pernicious statement laced with emotive language casting TfL as the heroes and truckers the villains ahead of the scheme’s launch in March. It hit the press and the damage was done. Suspicions linger that they knew exactly what they were doing.
Why is this such a big deal – it’s what officialdom does, doesn’t it? As Hall reminds us: words are potent – and they can shape opinion. When the public’s perception of you is poor or indifferent, politicians will ignore you and even attack you because they don’t have to worry about upsetting a detached Mr & Mrs Normal. Or voters in other words.
In the meantime, we’re tackling a crippling HGV driver shortage that threatens thousands of hauliers’ livelihoods. Our members tell us they can’t get drivers for love nor money – not even agency drivers – so they’re having to turn down jobs; that’s the last thing Covid-recovering operators need.
The shortage is nothing new but throw into the maelstrom IR35 tax rule changes (a very good thing – but causing some pain at the moment), our industry’s reliance on the overseas labour market (now closed), expensive driver training, and a backlog of 30,000 driving tests, and you’ve got a perfect storm.
We’re pulling every lever to fix the growing crisis to help keep firms and jobs afloat but the demonising language from some quarters doesn’t help.
Let’s recap some of the words officials have used to tar drivers and their trucks recently: punishment and deterrent; weapons in our armoury; them; disrupt residents; dangerous vehicles; lethal…
These aren’t off-the-cuff remarks repeated by mischievous journalists hoping to blag tomorrow’s front page. They’re carefully chosen, insidious words people with influence are using against truckers for maximum effect which makes it so much worse.
It sends a crystal-clear message to drivers – and would-be-drivers – that they’re a nuisance, unprofessional and unwanted. Dirt on a shoe, frankly. The irony won’t be lost on many that a year ago they were heroes too.
Hall got it spot on. He knew that people misuse words – sometimes deliberately, sometimes innocently. Either way the words we use are the potent weapons he described, and we should never underestimate their capacity to harm. People with power would do well to handle them with greater care.