Andrea Leadsom: caught out by context

“Close attention not only to what is said but the order in which things are said, however, shows that it may not be the utterance itself that causes the difficulty but the context in which it is uttered.”

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It is possible to feel sympathy for Andrea Leadsom. After a lifetime, no doubt, of having to convince people that it is possible to combine professional responsibilities with those related to childcare, her career now seems to have been damaged by those same arguments.

But what did Ms Leadsom actually say, why did it lead to such an outcry, and how is it that she can claim to have been misrepresented if she was quoted directly? According to the Times transcript of the interview, she said:

“But, genuinely, I feel being a mum means you have a very real stake in the future of our country, a tangible stake.”

What we have to bear in mind is that utterances are interpreted based on what precedes them – what the context is. In particular, what the answer to a question means depends on what the question is. For example, ‘It rained a lot’ in answer to ‘Did you enjoy your holiday?’ means ‘No I didn’t’, and ‘I was in a meeting with twenty other people’ in response to ‘Where were you at 2 o’clock?’ means ‘I did not commit the crime and I have an alibi to prove it’.

The questions immediately preceding Andrea Leadsom’s utterance were ‘Does your family inform your politics?’ ‘Do you feel like a mum in politics?’ and ‘Why and how?’. Answering these questions as Angela Leadsom does is not obviously objectionable. We could criticise the journalist for defining the female politician in terms of her family, but as Ms Leadsom herself has raised the topic this would hardly be fair. Ms Leadsom’s answer itself is innocent enough, if a little cheesy.

It is the first question in this part of the interview, though, that provides the context that causes the problem. This question is ‘What is the main difference between you and Theresa May?’. Andrea Leadsom gives two answers: ‘in terms of the country’ she understands the economy; and ‘in terms of personal qualities’ she is part of ‘a huge family’. The context, then, is about an evaluative judgement – who is the better candidate for leader, and why? Everything that follows is interpreted in that light. When Andrea Leadsom describes herself as understanding the economy and being able to turn it around, this is interpreted to mean both ‘different from’ and ‘better than’ Theresa May is, because of the question to which this is the answer. The description of herself as part of a large family (she mentions sisters and brothers as well as her own children) is interpreted in the same way.

The questioning then proceeds to the questions about family and being ‘a mum in politics’. This could be understood as having moved on from the ‘difference’ question, so that the interpretations of being ‘different’ and ‘better’ are no longer relevant. Indeed, before her utterance about having a ‘stake in the future’ Andrea Leadsom explicitly distances herself from the comparison with Theresa May: ‘I don’t want this to be Andrea has children, Theresa hasn’t, because I think that would be really horrible’. Unfortunately, in negating the comparison, she reactivates it, makes it relevant again. As a result, the ‘a mum has a very real stake in the future’ becomes interpretable as contrastive: Andrea Leadsom is different from and better than Theresa May because she is a mother and Ms May is not. Ms Leadsom did not say this, but the context allows, or even forces, this interpretation.

Politicians know they have to be careful in what they say, particularly when answering questions that could lead them to criticise either rivals or allies. Close attention not only to what is said but the order in which things are said, however, shows that it may not be the utterance itself that causes the difficulty but the context in which it is uttered.

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