On the 50th anniversary of Orwell's essay, Politics and the English Language, Andrew Marr finds political English in good health—thanks, in part, to Orwell's warnings. Power and brutality still hide behind evasive language, but are now more likely to do so in corporate cultureby Andrew Marr / April 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
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?
Before addressing this directly, it is worthwhile rehearsing the strength of the original essay. It was a curious but gripping mixture of practical criticism of bad prose, plus rules too strict for most writers to adhere to (“Never use a long word where a short one will do… If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out…”), plus angry polemic. The rules have had the biggest impact. Printed first in Cyril Connolly’s Horizon magazine, the essay was circulated almost immediately by David Astor to Observer journalists. After that it influenced many newspaper style guides, from Keith Waterhouse’s Daily Mirror Style to the in-house Economist rulebook.
Conservative admirers of Orwell tend to regard him as a defender of stability and orthodoxy in English, a wiry embodiment of Fowler’s King’s English whose views on split infinitives were as firm as his views on Soviet Russia. It is not true. In his essay, Orwell declared that correct grammar and syntax “are of no importance so long as one makes one’s meaning clear” and he was similarly relaxed about the arrival of Americanisms. 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 overly 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 the cudgels,” “Achilles’ heel”). They are often abstract–”the whole tendency of modern prose is away from concreteness.”
Aesthetics are certainly part of his case; in Orwell’s attacks on bad English there is the voice of the offended artist who sees his medium misused. Personally, Orwell was a prose puritan–though he revelled in writers who were anything but, including Joyce. For himself, he believed in the invigorating power of cold, clear water. But Orwell’s argument only starts with his professional distaste for tepid, muddied 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 your 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, New Labour pamphlets on training, and the mass-produced speeches of many 1990s politicians will recognise all that. Party apparatchiks are still chosen for their ability to turn a wooden, mind-repelling phrase. 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 as it was experienced in the 1940s; with its defeat, many of the phrases which made Orwell shudder have withered too. “Iron heel” or “the fascist octopus” would not be seriously used today; they belong to the junk-yard of the mid-century clash of ideologies.
Orwell wrote: “In our time, political speech is largely a defence of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.” He goes on to consider phrases such as “pacification” for the mass murder of peasants, and “the elimination of undesirable elements” for Stalinist repression: “A mass of Latin words falls on the facts like soft snow, blurring the outlines and covering up all the details. The great enemy of clear language is insincerity.”
That is a timeless truth. Yet our times are not his times. 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. Britain no longer holds down other nations by force. No democratic government has had to defend the use of atom bombs or chemical warfare against an enemy. 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. Henry Kissinger’s use of such language was lampooned across a decade. Today, British ministers may have hidden the truth about the sending of arms-making machinery to Saddam Hussein, but they could never have pretended his regime was anything other than bloody and genocidal. 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 1940s 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. The pretentious sub-Marxist dross which so offended Orwell is still available-just-for discerning readers of small circulation papers. But it has to be hunted out. It has become marginal. There are particular problems with the use of the language in television and radio interviews, which we shall come to. But so far as newspapers and magazines go—the main source of political writing for most people—the standard is high. On the basis of my scattered reading of newspapers and periodicals of 20 to 30 years ago, and of political pamphlets from the postwar 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. Here are two extracts from one of Alan Watkins’s columns for the Independent on Sunday, written just before last Christmas: “This is the time of year when the experienced drinker keeps out of licensed premises if he or she can. It is difficult to get a drink and impossible to enjoy it once it has been secured, for the pubs are full of boisterous young men and nauseous young women. ‘Do you know what she’s had today? Four gin-and-tonics, two large sherries, a cr?me de menthe and a half of Guinness. We tried a port-and-brandy to settle her stomach, like, but it didn’t seem to do the trick.’ One’s heart goes out to the poor girl. It is not right. It should be stopped.” This may not seem out of the ordinary, but the piece evolves into a piercing attack on the propensity of British governments to lecture people about their private lives. He contrasts official propaganda on drinking with that on sexual behaviour: “The Department of Health’s attitude, inasmuch as one can make it out, is that Sex is Good for You, provided the proper protective measures are taken. However, Smoking is Bad For You. And Drinking is Somewhere-in-Between but veering towards the Bad.”
I chose that column at random from a thick wodge of filed newspapers on my desk. I have gone back and looked at old Spectators and New Statesmans from earlier decades; the language stands up well for clarity, humour and pith. Watkins is unlike Orwell not only in shape, views and personal history, but in his preferred prose masters too. When he retires to France each summer he drinks wine and reads Gibbon. His characteristic style is not, however, the result of imitation. Watkins is good because his way of writing accurately reflects his way of talking and, one assumes, his way of thinking. It is sincere. But good writing does not come by accident. It needs to be worked on, and anyone who writes for a living knows that contact with great writing helps. Orwell himself took regular immersions in Swift. Michael Foot uses him too, and William Hazlitt.
Watkins 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. Here is another British example, Boris Johnson, writing in the Daily Telegraph in January. He imagines waking up on the morning after the 1997 election: “As you come to the surface you are conscious of a sense of doom. The television is still burbling faintly. There are empty cans of beer on the floor. Cigarette ash has been ground into the carpet. You can’t quite place what is troubling you. Then you remember. It was election night last night, and it has been won by… Omigosh… Ouch… It has been won by the Tories. You cradle your head in your hands. The shock. Above all, the tedium. You voted for them yourself, of course, furtively, nose held. But you never expected so many others to do the same. There is Michael Howard, Michael Heseltine, the lot of them, grinning like idiots on Breakfast News. Unpunished. Unchastened. Unbowed. All those familiar Tory ministers, you realise, are going to hang on to their Rovers and their Red Boxes and their Zeppelin-like self-esteem. With shaking hands, you have a cup of coffee…”
The rest of the column follows the narrator’s thoughts from depression to flashes of optimism as he realises that there will be no higher taxation, no Scottish devolution, and so on. It is a beautifully controlled piece of writing, which conveys a mixture of disgust about the Conservatives and relief that they are in office. This reflects a certain Tory state of mind, a widespread ambiguity about the party in parliament, which had not up to then been described in journalism. Whether one agrees with it is not the point. It happens that Boris was dropped on his head as a small child and has, as a result, formed the intention of becoming a Tory MP himself. But good writing, in Orwell’s sense, can survive disabilities even as profound as that. The writers mentioned earlier have very widely differing views. 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 understand, 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 wakens us up and engages us in the argument – all of us, not only the political junkies. Democracy cannot exist without a common culture. If political communication becomes over-specialised, or jargon ridden, it becomes the enemy of that common culture, and the enemy of democratic politics.
Why has good political English proved so strong and durable, even in a time when the democratic machinery of the country is decayed and unreformed? Part of the reason is the influence of Orwell himself. Another reason is that journalism is a market, and bad prose repels attention, failing to interest readers and leading to the sacking of bad writers. (Though many good journalists get sacked too.) The journalistic market in political writing has not led to its degradation, but has furthered the cause of clarity, simplicity and freshness. Orwell underestimated this, perhaps because he was writing at a time of limited market influence, with rationing and so on.
Enough, though, of Pangloss. If this essay was confined to the examples of “straight” mainstream political writing, its verdict would be that the intervening half century has been a time of improvement. But 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 1940s, 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 1920s and 1930s, and the immediate postwar period. And it is simply not true that lifeless or incoherent speechifying is a modern failing. Try reading a non-vintage Gladstone speech. Try reading Ramsay MacDonald, even in his more lucid years. 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 clichés, 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. The abolition of class war as a fit topic for parliamentarians may have junked the Stalinist and fascist-thuggish language Orwell satirised. But it has also stripped away a whole vocabulary of invective and imagery – recall the shocked “oohs” and “aahs” from the Labour leadership when Ron Davies raised the small matter of Prince Charles’s unsuitability to be king. As New Labour embraces globalisation, the law of the market and individualism, there is no great economic argument between the parties which might spark into moral outrage or hot words. There is no New Jerusalem glittering ahead. It is true that on political reform, the parties do remain far apart—it is on Scotland, Europe, a Bill of Rights and so on that language occasionally ignites. But generally, the blandness of the economic and social argument is reflected in the blandness of much political language. Politicians will be listened to more when they study their Orwell, strip down their language and address big problems in our lives with clear words. But life would not necessarily be better if the politicians’ English were more vivid. One of the very few politicians who has a feel for lively Anglo-Saxon rhetoric is the US protectionist and political insurrectionary, Pat Buchanan. If he’s the price of livelier prose, the price is too high.
Apart from the great speakers, the generality of politicians’ language is not so different. In that, as so much else, today’s House of Commons is remarkably similar to the Commons of Lloyd George, or Churchill. One finds in musty Hansards the same statistic-crammed, bureaucrat-revised officialese from government ministers; the same contrived jokes from the backbenches; and the same late night ramblings. It is true that today, 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 other, 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 Four News, Newsnight and so on have encouraged the evolution of a complex ritual of attack and defence, as stylised as the mating dance of certain exotic spiders. 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 which 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-sometimes a subtly different question, sometimes an entirely different one. 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. The listener hears a false conversation, a sterile unexchange in which the purpose of language–communication is subverted. This is generally mundane. Many of us hardly hear it any more. Question: “So what would Labour have done?” Answer: “In section D.77 of his report, Lord Justice Scott…” But its cumulative effect rots our trust in political language. 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. Orwell would have regarded the effusions of most politicians most of the time as propaganda, barely worth serious analysis; Nye Bevan, partly because of his radicalism, partly his love of good writing, was a rare exception. I suspect Orwell would have given low marks to even Churchill’s “iron curtain” speech at Fulton, Missouri, made in the same month as the publication of “Politics and the English Language.”
Orwell 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. We see it everywhere, but it is particularly offensive in academic writing about politics, which depends so heavily on the common culture. It implies a priestly caste of political experts who write as if the struggle for power and the distribution of wealth were specialisms—too difficult for little people to understand.
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. (Similarly, it is not always the case that latinate words should be thrown away for Anglo-Saxon ones. This is partly a matter of personal taste; where would Johnson be without latinate words and rhythms, never mind Pope?) But Orwell’s instinctive hostility to abstract language is sound, and confirmed today by a thousand works of political theory. Here are a couple of examples of bad writing by famous men.
The first is by Theodor Adorno, culled from the New Left Review, on revolutionaries and passive, beaten people: “Both types are theatre masks of class society projected on to the night sky of the future, and the bourgeois themselves have always delighted at their errors, no less than their irreconcilability: on the one hand the abstract rigorist, helplessly striving to realise chimeras, and on the other the subhuman creature who as dishonour’s progeny shall never be allowed to avert it.” Somewhere in there are interesting ideas struggling to get out; but Adorno’s prose (even allowing for poor translation) is strangling them. These days few people read abstract Marxian texts, but prose worthy of second rate 19th century Hegelian philosophers can also be found in books meant to be popular and important, such as Amitai Etzioni’s The Spirit of Community, which includes sentences like this: “Our Communitarianism is not particularism. We believe that the responsive community is the best form of human organisation yet devised for respecting human dignity and safeguarding human decency and the way of life most open to needed self-revision through shared deliberation.” Or, to put it another way, “it’s best if folks get on.”
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 himself was unimpressed by the civil servants’ attempt “to reconcile the giving of answers that designedly disclosed only part of the picture with the obligation to avoid giving misleading answers.” To a public tutored in the sinuous, deceitful logic of Yes Minister, none of this was, perhaps, a shock. But it was damning evidence of Whitehall’s continuing enthusiasm for keeping information out of the hands of the democracy it serves. 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.
The bad English of academia, officialese and judges is not the end of the story. I am straying from the theme of political English; to explain why, we must return to our source. “Politics and the English Language” was almost the last thing Orwell wrote in early 1946. He was tired; Animal Farm was a success, bringing in good money, so Orwell gave himself a break. In the autumn he began a new novel, which was to become 1984. Its bleak satire about language and power—doublespeak and the euphemisms of totalitarian states—had grown from the arguments in his earlier essay. And though both were set against the political threats of Stalinism and Nazism, Orwell’s argument, about power hiding behind twisted language, applies to lesser tyrannies too.
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 videos of big corporations. There is the hogwash of management consultancy, the downsizing and delayering, the use of words like “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. To my mind they are a lot worse than “political correctness,” which is not very widespread and is, in any case, often mere politeness and human decency, adapted to a more sensitive and multi-racial world.
The corporate euphemisms are the targets Orwell might have turned on had he been sitting in Islington or Jura in 1996 rather than 1946. Much of the degraded English of today’s corporate culture is simply verbal static, an irritating background noise which would send us all mad if we paid it attention. It includes the sort of International Hotelier English which slews out of the glossy magazines and brochures. An example, picked from a pile of holiday brochures, reads: “This brochure is a guide, designed to help you understand the diversity of the Club Med proposition. It offers a wealth of destinations for you to choose from, explains the main principles and ingredients of the Club Med concept to those who haven’t yet sampled it and informs our regular members of the evolution of our product.” To the extent that it means anything at all, it says: “This is a brochure,” something which anyone who has picked it up already knows. This matters because it is a part, a tiny part, of the linguistic conspiracy to befuddle the ordinary reader and convince him or her that the world is benignly run by professional experts. From the art establishment to the big cheeses of big business, there are many powerful people whose use of English is cynically-designed to deflect thinking.
So my original argument, that the English of political journalism is in good shape, turns out to be only part of the story. There is still a battle going on. Good English is still surrounded and challenged by a polluted slew of twisted, pretentious or corrupt language, ranging from humdrum examples in marketing to sinister examples from Whitehall and the big corporations. 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. I think Orwell would have been cheered by the condition of our common culture in 1996 because of the sheer quantity of this necessary ridicule. 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 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. Like Tom Paine, or William Cobbett, his prose and his politics are inseparable; and like them, he believed that pretentious prose was a threat to liberty. 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.