We still need Orwell

Bad English obscures political truths. Andrew Marr applies the 50-year-old Orwellian thesis to today's power brokers
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"Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way." That was how George Orwell began Politics and the English Language, published 50 years ago this April. It was one of his most subtly influential essays, an almost holy text for many thousands of journalists and other writers throughout the English- speaking world. In it Orwell made a thrilling call to arms, shouting out for clear, clean English. In the essay, and through the example of his own vigorous prose, he demonstrated that the state of the language was a political question. Lizard-eyed power hides behind pretentious sentences. Thought corrupts language and language corrupts thought, and to reform the language is to reform politics, too. Half a century later, this remains a simple, but radical test of our political culture. How do we shape up? Is the language still in a bad way?

Conservative admirers of Orwell tend to regard him as a defender of stability and orthodoxy in English, but he was hunting different game from the trustees of "Heritage English". His target was not linguistic change or lack of orthodoxy, but sloppy, pretentious and abstract thinking, composed of ready-made phrases "tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated hen-house". These, he notes, are often built up of pretentious latinate words ("render inoperative", "ameliorate") or dead metaphors ("take up cudgels," "Achilles' heel"). They are often abstract - "the whole tendency of modern prose is away from concreteness."

But Orwell's argument only starts with his professional dislike for tepid, muddled sentences. He was aiming higher and, as usual, his main intention was political. In one of the essay's key passages he writes that ready-made phrases "will construct sentences for you, even think your thoughts for you ... and will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even from yourself. It is at this point that the special connection between politics and the debasement of language becomes clear. Orthodoxy, of whatever colour, seems to demand a lifeless, imitative style".

Connoisseurs of Conservative Party handbooks, Labour pamphlets on training, and the mass-produced speeches of many 1990 politicians will recognise all that. But as one reads through Orwell's essay, it becomes obvious that his argument about the spreading evil of bad political writing has dated. He was talking about Stalinism and imperialism in the Forties; with its defeat, many of the phrases that made Orwell shudder have withered too. "Iron heel" or "the fascist octopus" would not be seriously used today; they belong to the junkyard of the mid-century clash of ideologies.

There is no political evil in the world today as great as Stalinism, nor any widespread language of euphemism as threatening as the Stalinist rantings of 1946. There are living evils, yes, and specialists in evil euphemism, from the IRA to Ratko Mladic. But many of the places suffering famine, dictatorship, civil war or other preventable and political ills, are brought into our imaginations by television, thus diminishing the power of political euphemism. The coverage of the Vietnam war is rightly seen as the beginning of the end for weasel words such as "pacification"; you could see the bombs, you could hear the burning children. Our government may have failed in its response to the Bosnian war; but its reality was starkly available to almost every British citizen. In the political information business, the terms of trade have shifted since the Forties and greatly for the better.

It is not only that the gross lies of murderous regimes are rarer in the world, and easier to disprove. At a more mundane level, I would argue that political prose, in mainstream English books and newspapers, is in good shape - perhaps, for anyone who has read Orwell's warnings, surprisingly good shape. On the basis of my scattered reading of newspapers and periodicals of 20 to 30 years ago, and of political pamphlets from the post-war period, I suspect we may be living in a silver, if not a golden, age for this kind of prose.

It is partly that we have some excellent writers. Alan Watkins, of the Independent on Sunday, is the best of all political writers in the sense of writing beautiful English. But there are a large number of serious rivals, including Neal Ascherson, Ian Bell, Simon Jenkins, Barbara Amiel and Matthew Parris. In the US, we have had Christopher Lasch, Garry Wills, Wendell Berry, William Safire, Jane Jacobs and many more.

As clear, unpretentious writers I would also add many of the tabloid political journalists, including the Sun leader writers, even though Orwell would have loathed that newspaper. Clean English does not always make for admirable opinions. But it helps one judge and deal with opinions. They are not disguised by pretentious, pseudo-scientific language or blocks of prefabricated phraseology intended to batter the reader into acquiescence. Good political prose is democratic in effect because it alerts, provoking a response. It wakes us up and engages us in the argument - all of us, not only the political junkies.

Enough, though, of Pangloss. Orwell ranged widely in the five examples of bad political writing he opened his essay with - two by professors, one from an essay on psychology in a political magazine, one from a Communist pamphlet and one from a letter in Tribune. Taking this broader spectrum, the condition of political English is no better than in the Forties, and probably worse.

Politicians themselves can occasionally still use good English. I have recently read dozens of Hansard debates from the start of the century, the Twenties and Thirties, and the immediate post-war period. And it is simply not true that lifeless or incoherent speechifying is a modern failing. Even so, the greats then were great, while among today's leading politicians there are few good speakers or writers. John Major's numbing abuse of the language is worse than most; but there are few one listens to for pleasure. Tepid cliches and bland, tasteless UHT thinking gurgle from the radio and curdle on the page.

One cannot, though, divorce the speaking style of today's politics from the politics itself, or its technologies. Ours is not a time of clashing ideology or thrilling ideas. As new Labour embraces globalisation, the law of the market and individualism, there is no great economic argument between the parties that might spark into moral outrage or hot words; and the blandness of the economic and social argument is reflected in the blandness of much political language.

Perhaps for the first time this century, there is nobody whose name on the Commons monitor would cause MPs to leave their drinks or papers and return to the chamber for the sheer joy of listening to great political English. Michael Foot and Enoch Powell are reckoned to be the last of that kind. Yet there are good younger speakers. The chamber is dying for more basic reasons than its rhetorical thinness.

One of them is the rise to primacy of radio and television studios as the new arena. And this, too, has had its effect on political English. Programmes such as BBC Radio's Today, Channel 4 News and Newsnight have encouraged the evolution of a complex ritual of attack and defence. Interviewers have become more direct, assertive and persistent, as well as skilled in asking judgemental questions ("You've made a bog of this, haven't you, minister?"). Their game has partly been to extract damaging-looking quotes that become the next day's news stories, helping to promote the programme on which the politician goofed.

Politicians, becoming wise to this, have developed defensive strategies. They believe that if they get their prepared soundbite message over, day after day, then voters will start believing it. So very often they now ignore the interviewer's question, answering a different question. Or they dance aside. Such gross evasions have spread now from broadcast arguments to the chamber itself.

John Major and many other ministers regularly use shameless non-answers during parliamentary questions. I do not think MPs would put up with them had they not been coarsened, like the rest of us, by the rituals of broadcasting. If most of us behaved this way in real life, ignoring inconvenient questions, conducting discussions with silent and invisible interlocutors, we would be advised to see a doctor. It is, in its way, as profound a corruption of the language as the bombastic prose described by Orwell.

But he would not - and did not - base his analysis of English on the sayings of politicians, either in speeches or in parliamentary exchanges. He was more concerned to fight bombast and obfuscation in the bigger pond of political comment and conversation. In that wider sense, covering academia, the bureaucratic prose of government and the surrounding verbal pollution of marketing, the condition of English is very bad. Some complicated ideas require complicated language. Much academic language, though, is more to do with the cult of the departmental specialists, surrounding themselves with cult words designed to keep trespassers away.

Orwell can go too far in his assault on abstract words; he comes close at times to championing an English without abstract thought or the ability to argue through complicated policy problems. But Orwell's instinctive hostility to abstract language is sound, and confirmed today by a thousand works of political theory.

Then there is bureaucratic English, which is often only circumlocution, dazing and tedious, but not evil in effect. More sinister is the twisted English used by ministers and civil servants in order to deceive or reassure themselves. Lord Armstrong's ironic phrase "economical with the truth" has entered the language. In his evidence to the Scott inquiry, the Foreign Office mandarin David Gore-Booth did almost as well by suggesting that "half a picture can be accurate". Sir Richard Scott's own report had its tortured English, too, including the now notorious double negatives with which he tried to half protect the ministers whom, in plain prose, he would have condemned explicitly. It became possible for parliament to have been deliberately misled, but without "duplicitous intent". This reflected the judge's agonised struggle with politicians fighting in private for their careers.

To pursue dangerously bad English, we must ask where power and influence reside, and look there for gobbledegook, blather and smarm. Power lives, even now, in Whitehall, and in the academic self-promoters who try to direct and limit political argument. But, more than all of this, power lives in corporations, in markets and marketing. We live now in a partly privatised world. And it is not surprising that some of the worst new abuses of language come from the private sector, not the public sector. They pour from half-yearly reports and the public relations statements from embarrassed chairmen of privatised utilities and the promotional ideas of big corporations. There is the hogwash of management consultancy, the downsizing and delayering, the use of words such as "efficiency" to mean always sackings and never good work, the simple equation of free people with free trade. These are the euphemisms of contemporary power.

From the art establishment to the big cheeses of big business, there are many powerful people whose use of English is cynical - designed to deflect thinking. This is never trivial, because bad English is always a sign, as Orwell suggested, of insincerity or sloppy thought. But it can be fought, with the aid of constant ridicule. And this is happening. From the Plain English campaign to "Pseuds' Corner" in Private Eye, from the mockery of Gordon Brown's "endogenous growth theory" to the attacks on Sir Richard Scott's double negatives, this remains a country passionately committed to plain speech and instinctive in its hostility to overblown English. In that way, we are a truly Orwellian country.

And Orwell was, to be honest, a bit of a thug on this subject. His boots loved the feel of of fat intellectual bottoms perhaps rather too much. No philistine himself, he has made British public life just a little safer for philistines. But for democracy, his defence of plain English has been an absolute and important good. He thought that political language is "designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind".

This, his 1946 essay concluded, could not be changed in an instant - "but one can at least change one's own habits". And the people who have read him since and changed their habits have had, cumulatively, a great influence, helping the language fight back against elitism, abstraction and the rule of experts. That fight is never over. But without Orwell, this would be a country with worse political writing and argument. Because of that, Orwell is not just a great writer; he is one of the great political reformers of the century.

A fuller version of this article appears in the April issue of `Prospect' magazine.