Jill Kirby: The sinister Newspeak that makes cynics of us all

Friday 28 December 2007 01:00

"We do need to have a debate about it ... We have to have a very big debate about this." Harriet Harman, asked on the Today programme last week whether paid sex should be made illegal, used one of the favourite political devices of 2007: calling for a debate.

Rarely alluding to a discussion in Parliament, the call for a debate (or its close relative, "a public conversation") is nowadays a purely rhetorical device. Especially useful for ministers being pressed on difficult or controversial subjects, it is a convenient way to imply that action will be taken when in fact nothing will happen. It also helps the speaker avoid stating a view which might prove unpopular.

Politicians, motivated by their desire to create a sense of purpose and importance, have always manipulated language. Official jargon enables them to baffle the public and to justify their existence, to disguise inefficiency or incompetence. But New Labour has taken this disguise to new heights. In its desire to solve every problem and by the huge expansion of its public relations machinery, this Government has blurred the line between words and actions. Talking about a problem has come to mean the same as doing something about it.

Over the plast 10 years, thousands of government publications and ministerial speeches have generated millions of words, spawning a new and often impenetrable vocabulary. Replete with sustainable aspirations and ambitious targets, they promise to use key performance indicators to address the issue, bring about step-change and implement a progressive consensus, to raise awareness and streamline joined-up delivery in order to fast-track transformation. But how many problems have they really succeeded in solving?

Reverse the order of any of these phrases, or combine them entirely at random, and you will have an equally meaningless but portentous announcement providing the full flavour of Newspeak, New Labour style. Log on to any government website, or pick up any government publication, and within minutes you will experience the deadening effect of this vocabulary.

Speeches by David Miliband are a particularly rich source of Newspeak, but no front-bench politician is immune from the disease. What George Orwell described as "euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness" now dominate political discourse. The corruption of language has infected all political parties, is endemic in public services, and is rapidly spreading into the media.

This week, the Centre for Policy Studies publishes a Lexicon of Contemporary Newspeak, identifying some of the most prevalent examples. As the Lexicon explains, there are several strands to current Newspeak. The first, and probably most widespread, is management-speak. Thanks to New Labour's expensive enthusiasm for employing management consultants, their jargon resonates though the corridors of Whitehall: from best practice to benchmark, strategic framework to cost-benefit analysis.

Added to this is a layer of therapy-speak: holistic, empowerment, dialogue and closure all spring to mind. Then there is an echo of old-fashioned Socialism: the 10-year Plan, The People (The People's Budget, The People's Europe, the People's Government), Time of Change. Finally a dash of post-modernism, which provides narrative, cultural shift and "truth". The result, almost always, is hollow obfuscation.

Of course, it is amusing to puncture the self-importance of the governing classes by identifying their verbal weaknesses. But modern Newspeak, like its sinister antecedents, is serious in its implications. Many familiar words have been drained of their original meaning; in some cases their meaning has been reversed. "Investment" now means simply expenditure. Describing users of public services as "customers" implies they have purchasing power, when in fact they have none. "Excellence for all" is a contradiction in terms. Being in "treatment" under the national drugs scheme covers all drug users who have registered, only a minority of whom are being helped to get off drugs.

But perhaps the most demoralising effect of modern political Newspeak is that it makes us more apathetic about the possibility of better governance. Becoming more cynical about the ability of politicians to mean what they say, we are inclined to treat all public utterances with contempt. If 2008 brings forward a politician who delights in plain speaking, using clear, jargon-free language, then he or she will deserve to gain a huge popular advantage. That really would be a step-change.

Jill Kirby is Director of the Centre for Policy Studies

The 2008 Lexicon is available at www.cps.org.uk

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