Twenty-seven years ago, in the build-up to the 1983 General Election, the Sunday Times had the bright idea of sending the three principal party manifestos (in those days Tory, Labour and SDP Alliance) to John Carey, Merton Professor of English at Oxford. His brief was to consider them not as a series of political programmes, but as pieces of English prose. Professor Carey, as you may imagine, enjoyed himself no end. Collectively, he pronounced, the three publications staked out a territory where "cliché comes to die".
The Alliance manifesto "exuded well-meaning feebleness, persistently managing to drop its words just off target". Labour's was "appallingly written". The best was the Conservatives', which though "hackneyed and lustreless", was "efficient, clear and uses statistics cleverly" – a distinction much less mysterious once you discover it was written by the novelist Ferdinand Mount, then the head of Mrs Thatcher's policy unit.
It is an axiom, that when a modern politician, or a modern politician's amanuensis, sits down to address the people who are going to vote, the first casualty will be not truth, or even logic, but language. This complaint was being made as long ago as the 1940s, and it is even more worth making here in 2010 in a world where it sometimes seems as if political rhetoric, like some hot-air balloon catastrophically adrift from its moorings, has abandoned any relationship with the landscape where it began its journey.
In his 1946 essay "Politics and the English Language", George Orwell diagnosed a "special connexion between politics and the debasement of language". The two explanations he identified were, first, that orthodoxy seemed to demand "a lifeless, imitative style"; second, that modern political writing and speaking was largely "a defence of the indefensible", in which the horrors of totalitarian oppression were made more acceptable by being dressed up in seemly cliché. The most damning example Orwell cites comes from an apologist for the gulags who remarked, with an absolutely chilling innocuousness, that "the Soviet regime exhibits certain features which the humanitarian may be inclined to deplore".
Orwell's quarry was euphemism, the idea – to which many a left-wing intellectual of the 1940s subscribed - that news of the suppression of fundamental human rights is less noticeable if framed in the language of the drawing-room. Six and a half decades later, the problem is a slightly different one. It is not that politicians consciously aspire to tell lies in public, though doubtless some have excellent reasons for doing so; merely that politics generally has succumbed to the two great influences currently at work in British society to prevent language from doing its job.
The first is the rise of business jargon, derived from the anodyne, affectless world of the chairman's speech and the annual report. The second is a wholesale weakening of educational standards, the most obvious symptom of which is the inability of those in positions of authority – bureaucrats, bank managers and political apparatchiks – to write correct English. Here are four specimens of English prose taken from a Liberal Democrat election newsletter that fell through the door in the third week in April:
"After coming to power ending seventeen years of disastrous Tory rule, things went well for a short time."
"Thanks to Labour's recession, ordinary hard-working families have already suffered cuts to vital services and tax rises."
"A&E departments at hospitals are also picking up the pieces of binge-drinking to the detriment of others who need help."
" But within years, Blair and Brown had taken our country to an illegal war."
Each extract, you note, produces more or less the same sensation. The reader begins with a vague idea of what the writer intended, only for a series of slips in grammar and construction to render the sentence, if not meaningless, then horribly confusing. In the first example, the subject is clearly supposed to be "the Labour government", but it is the "things" that seem to have come to power and ended 17 (in fact 18) years of Tory rule. In the second, the absence of a vital comma after "services" suggests that "ordinary hard-working families" have had their tax-rises cut, presumably a good thing. The third sentence offers a spectacular mixed metaphor: how you can "pick up the pieces" of binge-drinking? And then there is the UK – all 60 million of us and the several billion square acres we inhabit – apparently shipped out to Iraq to fight in an illegal war.
A politician taxed with these failings would probably argue that he (or she) is a communicator, not a prose stylist; that political literature has, necessarily, to be written in a hurry, and that most readers would be able to grasp at any rate the essentials of what he meant. None of this disguises the fact that the average political pamphlet and average political speech are constructed not by thinking original thoughts but by assembling ready-made blocks of sentences and phrases, rather in the same way that a builder puts up a pre-fabricated house. In its defence, the Norwich Mail only reaches a few thousand electors. Here, on the other hand, is a passage from the Liberal Democrat manifesto:
"At the root of Britain's problems today is the failure to distribute power fairly between people. Political power has been hoarded by politicians and civil servants; economic power has been hoarded by businesses. Both kinds of power have been stripped from ordinary people, leaving us with a fragile society marked by inequality, environmental degradation and boom-bust economics. If governments merely tinker at the edges...Britain's problems will not be solved. We can change this only with radical action."
Now, it is clear that this is a step up from the Norwich Mail. For a start the person who wrote is motivated by an idea – that if you take power away from ordinary citizens, the consequences will affect every part of society. He (or she) obviously has a taste for phrase-making, and an eye for metaphor. By the end, though, the figurative language has got dangerously out of hand. What, for example, is "power"? Various interest groups are described as "hoarding" it, which makes it sound like some precious metal or currency. All of a sudden, though, it is being "stripped" from ordinary people (clothing? Bark?). Its dispersal can only be solved by "tinkering at the edges", but of what? Britain's problems, no doubt, which had roots back in the opening sentence and were presumably some sort of tree or vegetable.
Naturally, there are distinctions. No one imagines that manifesto-writers take up their pens with the deliberate aim of bamboozling their audiences. Yet the same faults are apparent in almost every speech by a politician in the past three weeks and almost every election communication. Broadly speaking, they fall into four categories:
Cliché: One saw this especially in the televised leadership debates, with their metronomic references to "hard-working families", "our brave soldiers in Afghanistan", and the "hardened criminals" (Nick Clegg, five times) who are making our lives a misery. Choices are decisions are always "tough". Shocks and disturbances are invariably "seismic" ("produced by an earthquake").
Euphemism: Related, naturally, to the above. A drunk is someone who "abuses alcohol". Thuggery is "anti-social behaviour". Minor adjustments to some bureaucratic thermostat are presented as "radical transformations". Any interest group needing to be appeased is always a "community". Any remedial measure, however half-baked, is invariably a "solution".
Pleonasm: Using more words than are needed to make a rather obvious point. My local MP, Charles Clarke, proudly informs me that he has been "a strong voice for extra support for families and children". But this is slightly more intelligible than a claim that "Since 1997 the NHS has been rebuilt in our city" or Nick Clegg's suggestion, made in an interview, that Labour's coming third in the popular vote but winning more seats would be "a democratic outrage". Democracy might be outraged, but the outrage would not itself be democratic.
Jargon: Filched from the business primers, but also from the world of reality TV. Thus the Conservative manifesto talks about the millions of people "living the misery of unemployment" rather in the manner of Big Brother contestants who aspire to "live the dream". But the most insidious influence, and the one most capable of misleading the reader, is commercial. One might note the use of abstract nouns – "vision, transparency, sustainability" – which, in the context of practical politics, have no meaning, all-purpose adjectives such as "radical, forward-thinking, democratic" and "community-focused", and a host of high-falutin' obfuscations in which the language of the corporate press release is used to ginger up painfully mundane proposals. Thus cheap bus fares will "empower" commuters. The vulnerable will always be "enabled" (to do what, exactly?) Half-a-dozen policemen given some new responsibility are a "dedicated local team".
The net result of these concealments and evasions, a kind of terrible linguistic uncertainty common to all parties and political utterances, is not simply a desperate laziness of expression and an absence of striking phrases – all the heavy artillery that language uses – but a creeping awareness on the reader's part that what he or she reads is merely a series of bleating noises. In "Politics and the English Language", Orwell concluded that political language "is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind".
Here in the early 21st century, on the other hand, it has become a kind of well-meaning going-through the motions, an exercise in form rather than an attempt to convey genuine thought or emotion. Any politician worth his salt ought to realise that the task of forging a new language in which politics can be talked about is quite as desirable as a set of proposals to reduce the national debt. At the same time he (or she) ought to realise that to do so will mean confronting and overpowering at least two of the institutions – big business and the educational establishment - that direct our lives.
DJ Taylor's 'Orwell: The Life' is published by Vintage; his new novel is 'At the Chime of a City Clock' (Constable)
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies