It Is Not Only What But How


Published in localis, May 2009

People are cottoning on. There is a renewed interest in the use of language in politics. The fact that President Sarkozy’s has started to us the informal “tu” in his speeches was deemed to be so remarkable that there was not only a report about it in the Times but also an editorial. The Local Government Association, keen that officers should write what Margaret Eaton, the LGA Chairman, calls “talk to people English”, has produced a list of 200 words that all public sector bodies should avoid if they want their messages to be easily understood by residents. Both Sarkozy and the LGA have the same objective: they want their messages to be taken on board. One assumes President Sarkozy is aiming to portray himself by his informality, as a trendy, relaxed sort of guy – the sort that is not going to be fazed by the odd credit crunch or world banking crisis. The LGA wants to see greater confidence in councils so it is urging them to move away from an increasingly nonsensical and grammatically dubious gooblely-gook talk. The underlining theme is the same: an acknowledgement that in politics it is not just what you say, but importantly how you say it.

My colleague Joe Simpson points out in his recently published study of “The Politics of Leadership” that there is a major difference between the utterings of a politician and the writings of officials. Quoting the philosopher John Nalandian he writes ‘the report (the written word) is the language of the public official, but the story (and indeed the spoken word) is the language of politics”. The use of complex language not only confuses but also alienates then there is an obvious problem. Avoiding incomprehensible words as “predictors of beaconicity” or “coterminous stakeholder engagement” should be a start and refraining from the American habit of making nouns into verbs, such as in “incentivizing” or “bastardising” would be useful too.

Replacing strange concoctions with normal vocabulary is the comparatively easy; politician have the harder task. If it is officials’ job to instruct and to manage, it is the politician’s role to inspire, excite and ultimately to persuade the electorate to vote for a vision based on political values. Forgetful of this role we are finding that politicians tend simply to follow a brief drawn up for them by their officials in increasingly absurd officer-speak. Hence we are hearing more and more expressions from politicians that are utterly meaningless in political terms. Take for example the vision statement “Safe, Clean, Green.” They may be excellent sentiments but can one tell such statement come from a Labour, Conservative or Liberal Democrat run administration? Many Conservative councillors I know use the term postcode lottery without thought that for Conservatives variety is the stimulus for further innovation. Many dislike the word chair being used instead of chairman. By using the word chair, in the context of a meeting, a councillor associates himself or herself with a “we are all the same agenda” which is patently ridiculous for Conservatives who should have the confidence to recognise and appreciate difference. But yet it is an increasingly being used by Conservatives who are not thinking through the meaning they are conveying.

Every politician should take the time to read George Orwell’s “Politics and The English Language”. Orwell points out, even in 1946, that politics was being written in a language that sought to complicate rather than elucidate. Some of this, he claimed came from not understanding grammatical construction i.e. the difference between the passive, the active and the gerund, but others are from not understanding terms. He decries the coupling of unconnected words (quantitive easing or data sharing might be examples) and misplaced metaphors. He is particularly critical of ready-made phrases pasted onto unrelated prose. He concluded “This mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence is the most marked characteristic of modern English prose, especially in any kind of political writing”. What is needed, he concluded, is “to let the meaning chose the word, and not the other way round”.

Politicians sound the same because increasingly the language of politics is simply one that ordinary people do not use. Words such as “direction of travel”. How many of us say at the start of a journey “our direction of travel is to Brighton”. We would actually say, “we are travelling to Brighton” yet both politicians on the left and the right of the political spectrum would use such a phrase. Eric Pickles is fond of pointing out the ugliness of the expression stakeholder. Not many use stakeholder as a normal means of conversation. More often we would say “those interested” or “those who are concerned.” More serious is when the original meaning of a word is forgotten in place of a corrupted version. Take the word fascist. This is thrown around with complete disregard to the seriousness of the charge. Fascism was a nasty, totalitarian philosophy the word is now used to denote someone who is only moderately right wing and who may hold libertarian views totally at odds with genuine fascism.

My own favourite is the use by politicians of the word consensus. How many times have we heard politicians “seeking to build consensus” . But that is not strictly their job. Democracy thrives on didactic arguments.Politicians should lay out a vision according to the values of the political philosophy and for us to decide whether we are going to agree – so we build the consensus.

By having their own language politicians are effectively saying we know what we mean because we all use the same words; the fact that others do not understand is their problem. This is hardly the stuff that encourages the electorate to be inspired or even to trust those who aspire to lead. More likely the electorate is alienated by political language that seeks to obscure, conceal or, more worryingly, confuse political value.

Of course there are politicians who do write their own words and do think about what they say, Daniel Hannan being a prime example. A staggering one and half million people have viewed his three and half minute address to the Prime Minister in the European Parliament. Why? Because he said what he meant, the speech was pithy, the vocabulary was plain English, he used his own words, the metaphor was simple and sustained and there was no use of jargon. While it is true the novel way the speech relayed to the general public attracted attention it is also true his speech reads well because we understood what he said and applauded him for having the guts to say it as it is.