Westminster, where words go to die
The Times January 5th 2002


Older readers may remember a bestselling little 45rpm seven-inch single about 35 years ago on whose A-side Peter Sellers intoned the words of the Beatles' A Hard Day's Night in the disjointed, Shakespearean manner of Laurence Olivier at his worst: words and phrases suddenly shouted for no apparent reason, stops, pauses and emphases in the wrong places.
Once something becomes a method it can be parodied by anyone with an eye and ear for mannerism and the genius to caricature it. By mockery the parody helps to kill what it parodies, and is therefore part of the regenerative force of a living culture. Craig Brown, the greatest and cruellest English parodist of our time, has almost single-handedly killed the leather elbow-patched tweed-jacketed why-oh-why (dread phrase!) school of British columnism.

When I took over the Times parliamentary sketch from Craig, my biggest regret was that he had not yet had time to drive his stake through the heart of Commons clichi. For the flip side of that Sellers seven-inch single had begun a task that somebody needs to renew. On it, Peter Sellers parodied a Conservative MP on the stump.

I wish I still had that brilliant record. The entire four-minute speech said nothing: just a string of clichis strung end to end. I remember phrases like "leave no stone unturned", "explore every avenue" and "we must reach out and grasp our opportunities with both hands . . . squeak from adjacent female member of audience . . . Oops, sorry, madam."

Like fungus to a dying tree, clichi attaches itself most easily to dying faith. From the Commons Press Gallery I started to keep a list. The last days of Thatcherism saw a minor flowering of the fungus. A once-fresh doctrine and its attendant metaphor was beginning to putrefy in the mouths of that army of courtiers and camp-followers that a political dispensation gathers before it dies: people drawn to the power rather than to the idea that created it, who now intone the idea without excitement. Words like "excellence" and "enterprise", "courage-and-resolution" (virtually hyphenated) and "strong defences", and phrases like "let the trees grow tall", grew stale with over-use.

The word "economy" hardly appeared without the adjective "dynamic", and we were enjoined to "level up, not down," "reward success, not failure" and "galvanise the entrepreneur". The enemy was ritually stigmatised as we reminded ourselves of "Labour's Winter of Discontent", "the dead hand of Socialism" and the "dustbin vote" for the Liberal Party. Reversion to such was urged by "siren voices".

Each of these phrases had once marked an idea. The metaphor was not meaningless, but was beginning to be used routinely, sometimes by people who hardly knew what they were saying but knew it was the thing to say.

Enoch Powell, Keith Joseph, John Biffen, Nigel Lawson, Nicholas Ridley never parroted phrases (although others later parroted theirs). But when a philosophy is trotted out by a hundred different people always in the same clothes, take heed: ideas donning uniforms, the march has lost direction and is parading round in circles. A rout will follow.

At the close of the last century a new ascendancy had arisen and was already losing freshness. New Labour was standardising its phrasebook. The new Establishment was running out of ideas before its challengers had time to think of any of their own.

My list of dead and dying words and images had covered the whole of the West End theatre map in the front of my pocket diary. I have brought it with me to the Pacific, where I now write. As rainforest drips around me and strange birds sing, the list takes on the terrible grey patina of dead things from a dead world. Much of it betrays no ideological leaning at all, but only the dreary mental landscape of the modern British politician of every mainstream tendency. Many of these have never experienced the excitement of a new idea. Their position lends them a certain vanity but they are not so stupid as to be unaware, in the reaches of the night, of a void at the centre of modern political existence. They do their constituency work and enjoy being placed on top tables, but they are not, if they are honest, entirely sure what they are for.

And their language reflects it. My heart sinks as I read the scrawlings: "year on year on year", "the weeks and months ahead", "win-win situation", "the fact is" "what I will say is", "cycle of deprivation", "spiral of decline", "arrogant-and-out-of-touch", "good news for business, good news for the economy, and good news for Britain". Dialogues are always "of the deaf"; we are not shocked but "shocked and appalled"; peace is always "just and lasting"; a contrast is "stark"; arrogance "breathtaking". We draw "scant" comfort, show "precious little" concern, and neglect things "at our peril". Our political rivals have crossed "a bridge too far", imposed "a tax too far" or closed "a sub-post office too far".

We have seen children murdered in our streets "for too long" (for how long should we have seen children murdered in our streets?). Such help as comes is "too little and too late". Every death is "tragic". The destruction of the World Trade Centre in New York has become "thehorrificeventsofSeptember11", as though no Commons speaker felt he could count on others realising how he felt.

The lack of self-confidence betrayed by this desperate scrambling for verbal lapel-badges is revealing. Only in the profession of marketing and the profession (if such exists) to which "educationalists" belong is the panicky surge, this way and that, towards whatever slick rephrasing of the obvious sounds buzziest at the moment, more marked. Rocket scientists do not race to impress each other with professional metaphor to flog to death: they have rockets to launch. Politicians, marketing people and educationalists have no product, hence the rush for clichi to hide their nakedness.

Much of this is common to all MPs. How about the death-rattles of clichi emerging in new Labour itself? Most fumble towards one of three purposes. They strive to give an impression of solidity to something vacuous, foggy or imprecise; to make something small sound big; or to imply that the "unveiling" of a target or plan is itself an achievement.

The political logic behind the glorification of pledge rather than actuality is obvious. New Labour speech is littered with "vows", "challenges" and "mission statements" - fancy words and phrases all meaning no more than "hope".

Among little things made important come "invest", "roll out", "pilot", "earmark", "ring-fence", "passport", "kick-start", "seedcorn money", "package" (or "whole range") of "measures" and "raft of initiatives". The packages are really just a way for a politician to avoid admitting that the things he proposes are minor, none deserving mention on its own without inviting ridicule; so he invents a collection. Investing means spending, hardly a new activity by government. Rolling out (meaning bit by bit) and piloting are the cheap alternatives to introducing something nationwide. Earmarking, passporting and ring-fencing do not mean a single penny extra, but telling somebody else to spend money they already have on one thing rather than another.

The Blairite clichis that aim to give solidity to gas include "local people" ("on the ground"), "the community", "the faith community", "the international community", "the many" ("not the few") and that whole barrage of abstract words about standards, values, vision, purpose, priorities, core-principles, ideals, dreams, renewal, rebirth, the Third Way and the future ("not the past"), which leaves you with the sort of warm feeling you get when you wet your bed.

Tony Blair had a purpose: to get his party by the scruff of its neck, win an election, and show that Labour could manage a market economy. This he has now achieved. He moves to another purpose: to make big improvements in state services without much increase in cost. This he will not achieve and his parliamentary party knows it.

Labour MPs therefore start the year with little confidence in the terrain ahead, and a diminishing sense of wonder in the terrain already conquered. If you have not yet seen this, you can hear it already in the clichi