Amol Rajan: Let the axe fall on stale metaphors

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This week, what passes for political debate in this country has, according to its protagonists, been a "soap opera" between "old", "new" and "next" Labour. Last week, everything hinged on whether or not the Coalition's Budget was "progressive". A few weeks earlier, acres of newsprint addressed our Prime Minister's use of the phrase "middle class". Nobody knows what any of these terms mean, least of all those who initially submitted them for public consideration. "Progressive" is related somehow to protecting the poor; "middle class" is so abused and polysemous as to be nothing more than a badge of honour among the unthinking rich. Our political language is not in a good state.

When George Orwell wrote the essay Politics and the English Language, his motivation wasn't pedantry but concern for the relation between lazy writing, lazy thinking and the decline of a culture. "It is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes..." he wrote. "But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely."

Sixty-four years have passed since those words were published, but the cause endures. Orwell wrote them in anticipation of a long period of austerity and British decline. That is, he wrote them in a period much like the present. If we accept the logic of his premise, the conditions are ripe for another sudden deterioration in the clarity of political language: political and economic causes, from MPs' expenses to a nasty recession, abound.

But the threat is compounded by another factor not present in Orwell's day. The internet has spawned a completely new relationship between politics and the media, one lubricated by a vast ocean of information, much of it officially sanctioned, and most of it hurriedly produced. Linguistic looseness seems a necessary consequence.

In part because they constitute a new officer class, but mainly because they have young families and no grey hair, the people now running the country are routinely described as having had a "meteoric rise". Alas, meteors don't rise. They fall. A meteoric career blazes in brief glory before falling into darkness: its impending doom is intrinsic to its character. Not many people associate the likes of David Cameron, George Osborne, and Nick Clegg with impending doom. In fact, there's nothing meteoric about them.

To show awareness of how their policies will affect the poor, these three talk loftily about the "safety net" of welfare. If you are walking across a tightrope, there may be a protective net in case you fall. But those for whom a social "safety net" is said to be vital have not been conducting any dangerous activity. They have simply struggled to cope with circumstances. And nets are generally mechanisms for the entanglement of their victims. They are designed so that, the harder the captive tries to escape, the more entangled they become. This is of course the very problem with our welfare state: it traps people in poverty.

The "safety net" becomes more important when public expenditure is being reduced. That process might explain the most ubiquitous stale metaphor of our times. "Where will the axe fall?" is the ever-ready shorthand for an assault of the size of government. The falling axe metaphor, when first used, may have had a capacity to shock. But now, through over-use, it is stale. Like the "safety net", the proverbial "axe" shrouds vast suffering in lazy verbiage, and substitutes imaginative indolence for common compassion. Each of these metaphors is otiose.

Our country is embarking on a long period of relative decline, through which it will be governed by people whose rise has been far from meteoric, and for whom the falling axe and safety net are convenient phrases, not lived experiences. It's the poor who will suffer. The very least the former owe the latter is to let their meaning choose their words, rather than their words choose their meaning.

a.rajan@independent.co.uk

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