Dominic Lawson: What would Orwell have made of a PM who keeps saying he 'acted in good faith'?

Blair is a lawyer by training, so it is not surprising he uses a form of words that has its origins in contract law
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"Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way, but it is generally assumed that we cannot by conscious action do anything about it." Those are the opening words of George Orwell's Politics and the English Language, published in April 1946. Sixty years on, Orwell's single-handed attempt to stop the rot remains required reading, especially since its lessons are further than ever from being learnt.

One of Orwell's targets was what he called dying metaphors: "a huge dump of worn-out metaphors which have lost all evocative power and are merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases by themselves". It is both fascinating and depressing to discover how many of the dying metaphors listed by Orwell still struggle on, as if with the aid of linguistic life support: "take up the cudgels for, toe the line, ride roughshod over ... no axe to grind, grist to the mill, fishing in troubled waters ... swan song, hotbed." As Orwell points out, many of these "have been twisted out of their original meaning, without those who use them even being aware of the fact; for example 'toe the line' is sometimes written 'tow the line'." Yes, and it still is.

I suppose all writers have their individual complaints about the way in which phrases which once had a particular importance have become stripped of their meaning by overuse and misuse. My own nomination would be "begs the question". The phrase, which stems from an English translation of petitio principii, had its origins in Aristotle's writings on logic, and is related to the fallacy of the circular argument: the question remains, "begging" to be answered. Yet politicians, and, yes, journalists, continue to use the phrase as if it meant no more than to "raise a question".

I'm sure that Independent readers have particular favourites, or rather enemies, in the misuse of English. Although this is not quite as important as saving the planet from incineration, I would encourage a letter-writing campaign on this topic; I'm sure you will find a number of your pet hates in my own columns.

Nowadays the term "political correctness" is used to sum up a whole type of discourse which seems to have become polluted by politically inspired jargon. It is not, in fact, a modern idea. Orwell was only too familiar with the way in which the Communists of his day embraced the concept, in which a person's ideological soundness was measured by the very words he used to describe events and people. It was, after all, Orwell who invented the term "thought crime".

And as he writes in Politics and the English Language: " 'Bestial atrocities' ... 'bloodstained tyranny'... 'free peoples of the world' ... A speaker who uses that kind of phraseology has gone some distance towards turning himself into a machine. The appropriate noises are coming out of his larynx, but his brain is not involved as it would be if he were choosing the words for himself ... . this reduced state of consciousness, if not indispensable, is at any rate favourable to political conformity."

The terms Orwell uses in that example have disappeared from public usage, at least outside the publications of the Socialist Workers' Party. But others, more suited to our own more self-consciously consensual age, have sprung up. Let me nominate a few: "the international community", "world opinion" (sometimes, but not always, synonymous with "respectable opinion"), and that perennial favourite: "people of good will". Tony Blair sometimes uses the simple term "we" to mean all the above. But then this is the man who declared - in his 1997 election manifesto - that New Labour was "nothing less than the political arm of the British people as a whole".

New Labour is nothing of the sort - if it were, we would be living in a one-party state. But Mr Blair's invented party is indeed the apotheosis of George Orwell's observation that "political language is designed ... to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind". No government has ever churned out so many tons of verbiage, in millions of booklets which no one will ever read, to give such an impression of incessant action.

There are so many examples to choose from, but try this, from David Blunkett when Education Secretary: "With the Objective 1 Status that the Government have obtained for South Yorkshire, it will be possible to ensure that we uplift not only economic activity and employment levels but our communities' aspirations and expectations."

Or this, from Andrew Smith when Chief Secretary to the Treasury: "Working in an unscreened environment in the single work-focused gateway requires good security arrangements." The satirical playwright Alistair Beaton translated this as: "People whose benefits are being taken away tend to turn a bit nasty." His guess is as good as anyone's.

Orwell's most savage observation, that "political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable", would certainly be the view of the longstanding critics of Mr Blair's Iraq policy. But the Prime Minister has his own form of words to rebut those who accuse him of lying in the dossier which made the case for war against Saddam Hussein. Mr Blair tells us that he "acted in good faith".

The Prime Minister is a lawyer by training, so it is not surprising that he constantly uses this form of words, which has its origins in contract law. Mr Blunkett borrowed the "I acted in good faith" rubric whenever he got caught out doing something improper. With Blair it means "I'm not a liar". With Blunkett it means "I admit that I didn't act in an entirely proper manner, but I've only just realised it - now that you've brought the matter to my attention."

Orwell would have recognised this sort of thing from the politicians of his own era. But I wonder what he would have made of the "mission statement", in which businesses seek to adopt the worst practices of political manifestos. And I wonder even more what he would have thought of the way in which governments have in turn copied these ghastly corporate slogans.

A friend of mine who served in the armed forces a generation ago recalled to me that his training manual had a statement from Field-Marshal Montgomery on its front, which declared: "The task of the Infantry is to find the enemy and kill him." That sort of honesty would now be regarded as disgusting, and my friend wonders what the mission statement of the Army Recruitment Office says now.

I can tell him. It is: "to create the condition to enable the recruiting of young men and women irrespective of their marital status, social background, race, ethnic origin or religious background". And how is the Army meant to be able "to create the condition to enable" such a thing? I would feel a lot safer - please excuse my English - if they just stuck to finding our enemies and killing them.

d.lawson@independent.co.uk

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