Mind your language

Can politicians say ‘crusade’ again? David Cameron thinks so

15 October 2015

2:00 PM

15 October 2015

2:00 PM

One thing grabbed my attention from David Cameron’s speech, long ago in the middle of last week. ‘We need a national crusade to get homes built.’ I’m as interested in housing as the next mother with a practically homeless grown-up daughter, but it was the word crusade that astonished me. I did not think a politician could use it now.

Just after the atrocities of 11 September 2001, George Bush said: ‘This crusade, this war on terrorism, is going to take a while.’ Some listeners feared this was confirmation of a ‘clash of civilisations’. But, from the Muslim side, some objections were ill-founded historically.

English-speaking warriors who set off in the 11th and 12th centuries to free the Holy Places did not call themselves crusaders. The word is surprisingly recent. When Samuel Johnson published his dictionary (1755) he listed the word as croisade. That might have been because he disliked crusade having a bastard form, with a Spanish stem and a French suffix. Gibbon did use crusade, but it had come into English only in the reign of Queen Elizabeth.

The concept of a crusade did not seem shameful, but possessed positive connotations. In 1859, the Crusade of Rescue was started, to help destitute Catholic children; its name changed in 1985 to the Catholic Children’s Society. A Church of England clergyman, Albert Kestin, founded the Crusaders youth organisation in 1900; its name changed to Urban Saints in 2007.

Politicians wanted to profit from the associations of crusade. Lord Beaverbrook launched his Empire Crusade in 1929 to champion imperial free trade (and tariffs on goods from outside). That is why he put a little crusader on the masthead of the Daily Express, who remains there forlornly today. Beaverbrook’s initiative of fielding Empire Free Trade candidates against Tories provoked Baldwin’s jibe about ‘power without responsibility’.

On 5 October 1936, the Jarrow Crusade set off, with the blessing of the bishop (who then wrote to the Times declaring he wanted such marches discouraged in general). The men carried a big banner saying ‘Jarrow Crusade’, but I can’t see Mr Cameron unfurling a ‘Housing Crusade’ banner over newly dug foundations.

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