6 December 2010

“The Westminster village” – the peaking of a cliché?

“The Westminster village” (or occasionally "bubble”) has become a shorthand for the overlapping worlds of politics, government and media in London, all centred on the Houses of Parliament. If the village had a physical existence, its inhabitants would hang out in the locale which runs from Trafalgar Square down Whitehall and past Downing Street, through Parliament Square and College Green and on down Millbank, with excursions along Victoria Street and across Vauxhall Bridge. But the metaphor contains an element of criticism: that those who live and work in the Whitehall village are inward-looking careerists,  are preoccupied with the dynamics of the 24-hour news cycle and have only feign interest in the concerns of the rest of us.

A recent (3 December 2010) and random example comes from the Financial Times’ Westminster blog:
Vince blows the gaff and pledges to vote for the tuition fee rise
Vince Cable has consigned the idea to the dustbin, saying he’ll vote for a rise in fees. He broke the news to the Twickenham Times. ...
Why the sudden about turn? He may have seen Danny Alexander’s mauling on Question Time, which is certainly a wake-up call for all Lib Dems who thought the negative reaction to abstaining would only resonate in the Westminster village.
(Background: Cable's interview with the Richmond and Twickenham Times was given earlier on 3 December and reported by their website as Breaking News; Question Time was on BBC1 the previous evening.)

I thought it would be interesting to trace the increasing usage of “the Westminster village” (“TWV”) over the last few years by means of search results from NewsUK and Google. The former is confined to the main national and regional newspapers and weekly magazines, while the latter covers less of the conventional media but looks across many websites and blogs. The annual results are shown in the graph below:
There are some interesting features. Firstly, NewsUK sources show “TWV” use beginning in 1994 whereas the first Google result was in 1999. It then took a few more years for “TWV” to penetrate the wider Google-searched world sufficiently to overtake its use by the mainstream media. Growth as reported by Google has been strong since then and shows no sign of abating. Google also tends to underestimate by grouping like instances under, for example, “Show more results from bbc.co.uk”.

However, the NewsUK sources show a peak in 2009 at 236 occurrences and fall in 2010 to 188. The 2010 figure is for the 11 months to 30 November, but the full-year figure is most unlikely to jump by 48 at end-December as the monthly average this year has been only 17. Interestingly, this decline has occurred in a period of extensive political coverage with the general election and the novelty of a coalition. This suggests that the conventional media led the way, firstly in originating the expression, and now in tiring of it. If so, the newer media, for all their decrying of the “dead tree press”, is perhaps more derivative and less original than it would like to think.

So who invented “TWV”? Well, as far as I can tell from NewsUK, it was the journalist Linda McDougall in her review of Edwina Currie’s novel (conceivably roman à clef) A Parliamentary Affair, which appeared in The Guardian on 19 January 1994. Unsurprisingly given that Ms McDougall is the wife of Austen Mitchell, MP for Great Grimsby, she wasn’t much enthused by a tale of political adultery and  commented wryly:
... the parliamentary novels of the nineties have taken the lives of those of us who live in the Westminster village and invested them with amazing glamour. ...
“TWV” was used on two more occasions that year and three again in 1995. The NewsUK occurrences trickle on to double figures in 1998 and then take off to exceed 100 in 2002 - a cliché was born!  It now seems to be on the wane.

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