Paula Keaveney: The language politics deserves
It was George Orwell , in his 1946 essay on Politics and the English Language who said that getting rid of bad habits in English would help us think more clearly and "to think clearly is a necessary first step towards political regeneration".
He was taking issue with all sorts of linguistic misuse, like stale images, lack of precision and words that appear no longer to have any real meaning or to have so many possible meanings that they fail to express anything concrete.
Political language, he said "is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind".
I don't think I would go that far but it's certainly true that many of the phrases that have become commonplace in political speeches or writing do a great job of substituting vagueness, or signals, for clarity of meaning and purpose.
George Orwell of course wasn't operating in a world of 24 hour news and instant soundbites. Today the pressure to condense a potentially complicated message into a pithy phrase is huge. Given the way quotes are lifted, no one wants to leave a hanging sentence that can go out of context on an opponent's leaflet.
But I do wonder if we all can't do a bit better when it comes to political phrasemaking.
I have my own list of phrases that I wish had never been born. Some carry quite a bit of silent meaning, or in Gordon Brown's British Jobs soundbite not very silent. Others are logically impossible. All however get repeated over and over to fill in the gaps between actual thought and expression.
My current bête noire is "hard working families". What on earth is one of those? Wikipedia tells me that the phrase came up around 1995. To be honest I don't remember it that early as I was sure it was a Prime Minister Blair mantra. Wherever it came from though it's been heavily used not just here but in the US and in Australia.
But what on earth is a hard working family? Clearly unless everyone in the group is of working age there must be someone not working. Perhaps we are indulging in child labour and granny is doing piece work at home. And it's not enough to be working. You have to be working hard.
The phrase has no real literal meaning. But it does enable politicians to send several signals. And as Frank Luntz, the author of Words that Work, explains it is not what you say it is what people hear. "Hard working families" as a piece of phrasing makes it possible for the distinction of deserving and non deserving to be hinted at. If there are hard working families there must, by definition, be lazy good for nothing ones. Of course everyone will think they are in the hard working category but they will also get the signal about the fact that there are these others who are not. (So not really about meeting people's needs at all now) Of course you have to be in a family too. As a singleton I am obviously far too idle to deserve anything!
If I had to make a list of phrases that should never see the light of day in politics, there is a good case for the group of "debate" phrases. How often have you heard someone, in reply to a legitimate question about policy say "we need to start a debate about this" or "I want a debate about this".
Really? You want an actual debate? If the politician in question has strong convictions already on that subject what's with the debate idea. And if not surely it would be more honest to simply say "I haven't made my mind up yet". The debate phrase is another bridge or filler that means nothing but makes it possible to move from statement one to statement two.
The trouble with political writing or speaking, if you are a politician rather than a commentator, is that avoiding quotable mistakes is as important now as expressing your views. Say something that can be misunderstood either deliberately or accidentally, say something that is part of a lengthy argument which runs against orthodoxy and you risk seeing yourself quoted all over the place and not in a nice way! I am of course not important enough for that to happen now but I do remember self- editing for just that reason. We cheat ourselves and we cheat the process when we do that as by removing clarity and argument we remove the chance to make progress.
Part of my reason for writing this was to start a debate. Ah you have noticed the inconsistency! (Wasn't there someone who said that holding two inconsistent beliefs at the same time is a mark of intelligence?) But seriously, let's declare a linguistic amnesty! Let's bring in all those meaningless phrases and dog whistle words and get back to some real meaning in our political language.
As Orwell concluded ".. if one jeers loudly enough (you can) send some worn-out and useless phrase... or other lump of verbal refuse - into the dustbin where it belongs".
Paula Keaveney is the former leader of the Liberal Democrats on Liverpool City Council. She is a lecturer in Public Relations at Edge Hill University and blogs HERE.