“Every death of someone sleeping rough on our streets is one too many”, says a spokesman for the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. “One person dying or getting Covid in a care home is one too many”, says Nicola Sturgeon, adding that her Scottish Government was “very focused” on mitigating the risks. “One patient catching Covid in hospital is one too many”, says Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, the umbrella group for NHS trusts south of the border.
Throughout 2020 – a year dominated by illness, economic crises and social evils – the phrase ‘one too many’ has never been far from anyone’s lips. “One inaccuracy is one too many and we must not be complacent in our efforts to make further improvements,” says Greater Manchester’s Assistant Chief Constable, Rob Potts, in response to a furore over the force cancelling crime reports. “Every case of sexual violence is one too many and universities are committed to becoming safer places to live, work and study,” says a spokeswoman for Universities UK, after a report found increasing numbers of assaults on campus.
It’s pretty clear what bureaucracies and politicians are trying to achieve by using the phrase ‘one too many’: they are ‘virtue signalling’ zero tolerance of a social ill, which they are doing their utmost to eradicate. But, sub-consciously at least, aren’t they also doing something quite different? By raising the hypothetical possibility of just one death of a rough sleeper, just one campus rape or just one Covid case caught in English hospitals, they are also highlighting the absurdity of aiming for zero.
Rather than showing a sincere desire to eradicate a problem, using the phrase ‘one too many’ is also a subtle dig at those who make unreasonable demands. See this from a spokesperson for Transport Scotland, who said of cycling deaths “one life lost on our roads is one too many”, before noting that deaths make up just 1% of all cycling casualties in Scotland.
As well as politicians and public-sector spokespeople, the phrase ‘one too many’ is increasingly used by business lobby groups, not to demonstrate determination to eradicate a big problem, but to make a big problem seem smaller. “Problem gambling may be low at around 0.7%, and as the DCMS has said there is no evidence that it has increased in the last 20 years, but one problem gambler is one too many,” said Michael Dugher, chief executive of the Betting and Gaming Council, a few weeks ago. For Dugher, a former Labour MP now spinning for the gambling industry, one problem gambler may be “one too many”, but the import of his words is clear: the problem has been hugely exaggerated.
The phrase ‘one too many’ surely reached its nadir in October, when Jeremy Corbyn claimed, in response to the EHRC’s finding that the Labour Party had acted unlawfully, that “One anti-Semite is one too many, but the scale of the problem was also dramatically overstated for political reasons by our opponents inside and outside the party, as well as by much of the media.” ‘One too many’ may often be a subtle way of belittling the scale of a problem, but here subtlety was thrown out of the window: Corbyn barely paused for breath before qualifying his ‘one too many’ bromide with an insistence that the problem of anti-semitism in the Labour Party was never that great in the first place.
Maybe Corbyn has inadvertently made a good point: the biggest problem in the Labour Party under his leadership was not that anti-Semitism was rampant among its membership, but that his appalling ill-judged response to a handful of anti-Semitism complaints, and his refusal to properly engage with the Jewish community, helped to encourage more anti-Semitism both inside Labour, and beyond. His use of the phrase “one too many” was not really a signal of zero tolerance, but an act of deflection: by highlighting the small number of confirmed cases of anti-Semitism within the party, he missed the real point, which was the plight of Jewish Labour MPs hit by tidal wave of anti-Semitic abuse from outside it.
A useful way of spotting bullshit about racism is verbal substitution. Would Corbyn have ever said that “One white supremacist is one too many, but the scale of the problem was also dramatically overstated”? Of course not.
This was not the first time that Corbyn and his supporters employed the “one too many” line. In the summer of 2019 Labour’s NEC – then dominated by Corbynites – said that “Anti-Semitism complaints relate to a small minority of members, but one anti-Semite is one too many.” That autumn, Corbyn himself said “As far as I’m concerned one [case of anti-Semitism] is one too many”. ‘One too many’ was by then a stock response, trotted out parrot-fashion whenever the media spotlight fell on anti-Semitism in Labour.
Despite its misuse by Corbyn, ‘one too many’ has – alongside Work From Home, Eat Out To Help Out, and Social Distancing – carried on as one of the most over-used clichés of 2020. But isn’t it really a bit 2019? If 2020 has taught us anything, it is that reducing the number of deaths from phenomena like Covid to zero is not humanly possible now, and may never be. Just one Covid death in Scottish care homes? Only one case of Covid caught in an English hospital? If only.
No-one expects or demands zero Covid: all we want is for there to be a clear plan to reduce risk, test, trace, and above all vaccinate. Likewise no-one ever demanded, or expected, zero cases of anti-Semitism in British politics: only that parties banish anti-Semitic racists when they are found, and take the problem seriously rather than diminish it. Vowing that one accidental death/anti-Semite/Covid case is ‘one too many’ is not just a pipedream. It is also insincere flim-flam.
Let’s hope that in 2021 the term ‘one too many’ can be retired. Like many clichés it has been rendered meaningless by being used too often in 2020. One time too many, if you like.