Government Ministers purposely degrade our language and the mass media often aid and abet. It has ever been so. James Madison, fourth President of the USA – you may remember him from Hamilton the musical – wrote in 1788: “The use of words is to express ideas. Perspicuity, therefore, requires not only that the ideas should be distinctly formed, but they should be expressed by words distinctly and exclusively appropriate to them”. He had in mind the divisive politics of the Constitutional Convention. His advice has continuing relevance. You may have observed that the word ‘perspicuity’ is almost archaic, judging by responses from most Ministers in radio or television interviews. As the Allegra Stratton video showed, our professional political communicators get on the job training in obfuscation.
George Orwell echoed James Madison in his 1946 essay Politics and the English Language, still a guide for writers and punctilious editors. “The great enemy of clear language is insincerity”, he wrote noting “it is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes”. Slovenly thinking leads to slovenly writing and discourse. It follows that “to think clearly is a necessary first step towards political regeneration”. He was reflecting on the propaganda of Nazi Germany, and Stalin’s Soviet Union, but his insights apply today.
We await both political regeneration and the regeneration of our language. New misleading terms are constantly invented. ‘Levelling Up’ means the funding of local authorities and towns with Conservative MPs and thus discrimination against Labour controlled ones. “Regulatory reforms” means, having reneged on promises made to gain their support for BREXIT, bankrupting thousands of farmers. ‘Externalisation’ of asylum seekers means deporting and dumping them in distant countries in contravention of refugee conventions. And what Orwell called ‘fly-blown metaphors’ abound. A ‘wake-up call’ means a problem will be ‘kicked into the long-grass’ (hackneyed but sincere - from Opposition Parties) or ‘kept under review’ in governing Party’s words. I wonder what Orwell would make of Johnson’s ‘oven-ready deals’, a nicely chosen metaphor to render a lie and the liar homely, domesticated and just like us.
When did this degrading of our language become commonplace? This is Liam Fox MP, Secretary of Defence 2010-2011, looking for his next ministerial post in 2013. ‘The great Socialist coup (my italics) of the last decade was making wealth an embarrassment”. Peter Mandelson? The Blair and Brown governments? A coup? Fox would later call the Northern Ireland protocol ‘a coup against the British people’. Such debasement of the meaning of words, of course, predates the various Conservative governments since 2010 and was gaining some ground during the Blair years, a period that saw a refinement of ‘spin’.
But Tony Blair had, and retains, the ability to succinctly, clearly and therefore persuasively analyse and present a changing world to the public. In the case of the Iraq war, his analysis was flawed, failed to persuade, and appeared to many as insincere. Being out of power removes constraints, but the difference in clarity between a Blair interview and that of a current government Minister is striking. Deliberately using imprecise language as a tool of government is a thread running through Karen J. Greenberg’s excellent Subtle Tools: The Dismantling of American Democracy from the War on Terror to Donald Trump. The book convincingly demonstrates the processes at work undermining democracy since 9/11.
Greenberg points to “the degradation of language, the starting point for political dishonesty and power mongering, and the platform upon which undemocratic and unlawful policies have been fashioned”. Imprecise and confounding language gave rise, she argues, to “confusion and imprecision in the roles and responsibilities of institutions of government” followed by “the abandonment of legal and procedural norms for law making”. Try ‘work event’ instead of ‘party’. She charts in detail how the US reaction to terrorism, the catch-all 18 September 2001 Authorisation for Use of Military Force (AUMF), played out through ‘the Global War on Terror’. As Madeleine Albright, US Secretary of State 1997-2001, reputedly said America usually gets into trouble waging war on an abstract noun. Greenberg presents the Patriot Act, the invasion of Iraq, the creation of the multi-institution Department of Homeland Security, leading to ferocious border control and domestic policing notably of Black Lives Matter demonstrations, as culminating in the insurrectionary riot and attack on the Capitol of 6 January 2020.
In the UK this trajectory of political disintegration accompanying debasement of language has not closely followed the US example. But we see echoes of growing and misused Executive power in Johnson’s proroguing of Parliament, Priti Patel’s Nationality and Borders Bill and her Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. In the Policing Bill decisions about protests and demonstrations which, in the vague words of the Bill, threaten “serious disruption to the life of the community” and “the activities of an organisation” may be taken away from the Police with their long practical and operational experience and, when deemed necessary, given to the Home Secretary to delineate by secondary legislation. In other words “what falls within and without lawful protest”, as Amnesty International puts it, now assessed by the Police on the basis of potential harm after consultation, or negotiation with interlocutors running the protests, would be at risk of being determined by a politician without reference to Parliament and on the basis of political content. During the Second Reading of the Bill, even past Conservative Prime Minister, Theresa May, herself a former Home Secretary, expressed anxiety about its consequences.
Import and export of ideas and words have not been just one way. The European Court of Human Rights judged that the five techniques used in ‘Deep Interrogation’ in Northern Ireland during the 1970s were ‘inhuman and degrading treatment’, but not torture. This judgement was picked up by the Bush administration to counter condemnation of their treatment of Al-Qaeda terrorists. But the US added water-boarding as their sixth technique. Calling them ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ was not accepted by President Obama. “I believe it was torture”, he admitted in 2009.
Maybe we in the UK have a Wizard of Oz government. Maybe we are too fearful. Follow the yellow brick road. Pull back the sheet, probe the language and all you will find - Orwell again – is “a mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence”. Or maybe 2022 will reveal, as Greenberg does for the USA, something more dangerous, a serious, advancing erosion of our own democracy. Whichever awaits us, James Madison still speaks to our condition: “It is a misfortune, inseparable from human affairs, that public measures are rarely investigated with that spirit of moderation which is essential to a just estimate of their real tendency to advance or obstruct the public good; and that this spirit is more apt to be diminished than promoted, by those occasions which require an unusual exercise of it”. Mea culpa.
See TheArticle 12/01/2022