Have the abuses of language by those in power become so severe that we need a Language Czar to restore grammatical order?
It took a Conservative MP, Margot James, to point out that her party’s 2013 conference slogan, “For hardworking people,” excluded not just the usual suspects—shirkers and scroungers—but lots of other groups: “children, older people, retired folk, people with disabilities and people who for whatever reason cannot work.” Whenever politicians start banging on about “hardworking families” —which is often—I finding myself wishing we had a Language Czar to ban this phrase, or at least impose swingeing fines on the perpetrators.
The same would go for “change,” another politicians’ favourite. Or, as Nick Clegg put it at the 2010 election, “change that will make a difference;” Gordon Brown’s change, by contrast, was merely “the change we choose.” The point is that if you’re single or unemployed, even if you choose change that will make a difference, it won’t make any difference to you. Sorry about that.
Such inanities are essentially harmless, you might say, but the language of politics, and the way it is reported in the media, can be more sinister. Take Labour’s “Interception Modernisation Programme,” which became the coalition’s “Communications Capabilities Programme.” Modernisation and development: cool! What’s not to like? Orwell would have recognised these as classic examples of disguising hard reality—giving sweeping powers of surveillance to the security services—behind soft words.
While Labour was by no means immune from making populist attacks on easy targets, the coalition, and in particular the Tories’ militant tendency, has plumbed depths not seen since Michael Howard’s 2005 election poster “It’s not racist to impose limits on immigration—are you thinking what we’re thinking?” As it turned out, the voters were thinking that they still preferred Tony Blair, but the language had been deliberately chosen to convey an unspoken but unmistakable message, an unpleasant foretaste of the “Go home” daubed by, incredibly, the Home Office, on vans touring some of the London boroughs this summer. If the next election is a close-run thing, one shudders to imagine what level of verbiage we will be subjected to (and not necessarily just from the Conservatives).
A characteristic of ministers has been to echo the perennial complaints of business people about school leavers’ poor standards of English. The responsibility is variously apportioned between the students themselves, teachers, previous governments, and other familiar scapegoats. No one ever blames those in positions of power for setting such a poor example.
Take business. A recent CBI survey of more than 500 companies found that 42 per cent were dissatisfied with school leavers’ use of English. Perhaps the young people in question had been shopping at one CBI member, Tesco, with its “kids toys,” “Mens” and “Womens” departments. I wonder how far I’d get with a job application to our biggest supermarket if I wrote something like this: “Id really like a job at Tescos, I think its a great company, it sell’s everything from kids toys to Mens. p.s I also like the BOGOF’s (that’s Buy One Get one Free).”
Much of the business world, meanwhile, is so mired in corporate gibberish that it has lost the ability to convey information in what a typical native English speaker would regard as meaningful in any sense at all. If you hear someone burbling away about “owning the strategic roadmap” or “delivering actionable insight” they are, I suggest, very unlikely to be the young people we are told have poor communication skills. After taking over from Bob Diamond at Barclays bank (another CBI member), Antony Jenkins announced: “Barclays’ leadership population will be tasked and supported as visible exemplars and champions of those values and behaviours.” A man with a degree from Oxford and an MBA from Cranfield is apparently incapable of articulating the simple message: “Bosses will lead by example.”
If I had more space, we could savour examples of this stuff from visible exemplars of corporate drivel in the civil service, local government, the NHS, the rail companies (who have devised a Railspeak language all of their own) and other areas desperately in need of guidance from my Language Czar. The fortune they spend on marketing and PR is part of the problem, not the solution.
I’m not arguing that we should have no concerns about literacy. England’s 22- to 24-year-olds were ranked 22nd out of 24 countries surveyed by the OECD for literacy. Our politicians were, predictably, reduced to trading insults about who was responsible for what they termed “dumbing down” rather than address the issues raised by these figures.
The answer does not lie with grammarians such as Lynne Truss, Simon Heffer and NM Gwynne who believe in a golden age when everyone knew their syntax, spelling and punctuation —a view supported by Michael Gove, to judge by his fondness for the rote learning and memory tests that served a small minority of schoolchildren so well in the past. There is no evidence for any such golden age.
Those in authority have always used language in an attempt to assert their supposed superiority. Ordinary folk face an alienating barrage of gobbledegook. No wonder so many refuse to engage with people in power—if they all look the same and sound the same, they probably are the same.
For Who the Bell Tolls is published by Guardian Faber, £12.99, buy it here