The Times SATURDAY JUNE 23 2001


A verbal virus that kills all meaning




A virus is attacking the language of politics. It is multiplying fast and destroying meaning. Some of the words it has attacked may be beyond recovery. Some of the noble ideas those words can describe are slipping, by association, into disrepute.

The scale of the threat was born in on me on Thursday as I sat in The Avenue in St James's Street, London, over a poncey breakfast of bijou-savouries and coffee, and listened to Michael Portillo launching his campaign for the leadership of the Conservative Party.

I apologise in advance for peppering you with a hail of quotation marks but this is done with a purpose: to draw words and their particular use to your attention.

It was, said Mr Portillo, to the clink of stylish glassware and the splash of freshly-squeezed orange, his task to describe "the direction" he was proposing.

The new leader, he went on, would have a "duty" to "rebuild" the party. He wanted to "change" the "dialogue" of politics. He was, he told guests fingering their delicate little pastry packets of scrambled egg, "passionate" about public services. Tories must be, he said, a party of "ideas". There should be a "dynamic" "debate". He sought a better tomorrow.

He sought, too, to "learn". Indeed the whole party must "learn".

He was, he added, a person of "strong" "views" who wanted his party to prepare now for "change". Portillo spoke - as indeed have the others - of "renewal".

Let us examine more closely, first, some of the verbs quoted above. They included: rebuild, change, debate, learn, renew.

What these words have in common is that on first hearing they sound a jolly good idea, but on further thought they all invite the questions what? or how? Renew how? Learn what? Debate with whom?If, instead of "rebuild", "change", "debate", "learn" or "renew", a politician used verbs such as "hit" or "straddle", his audience would at once have wanted to know what or whom it was the speaker proposed to hit, or which thing or things he wanted to straddle. A declaration from the rostrum "We must hit!" (audience cries of "hear, hear"), "We must straddle!" ("hear, hear"), belongs to the theatre of the absurd. But so, on reflection, do exhortations to rebuild, change, debate, and so on. What in particular is to be rebuilt, and how? What is to be changed, and how? Mr Portillo left these verbs hanging. His rivals have sometimes been doing the same. I could add to the guff yesterday a group of associated "hanging" verbs and verbal phrases such as "connect", "reach out", "relate" and "revalidate". All convey on first hearing an aspiration which sounds admirable but which is without useful meaning.

Let us next glance at some of the nouns to be heard bouncing off the eggshell walls and abstract art at The Avenue. These included: duty, direction, dialogue, ideas, change.

We could add some of Tony Blair's own favourites: "values" (and "core values"), the Conservatives' "family values"; new Labour's "beliefs", "standards", "ideals", "vision" and "mission".

These come from the same conceptual stable as the mystery-verbs cited earlier. They all sound like the kind of thing decent people are in favour of; they all evince a positive response. But after scrutiny they all require that the witness be summoned back into the witness box to answer further questions. Hitler had values; Marx had core values; the Taleban have family values; lunatic asylums overflow with people with beliefs; Stalin was a stickler for standards; Robespierre did not lack ideals; Pol Pot had vision; Chairman Mao had a mission; Sir Oswald Mosley cannot be accused of lacking a sense of duty. Unless those who rely on such language can elaborate, we are left with category-headings but nothing to fill the space beneath.

Finally, a few of the adjectives from The Avenue. These include: passionate, dynamic, strong . . . to which we might add "modern", "inclusive", "responsive", as well as William Hague's favourite - "fresh" - and Tony Blair's beloved "new". All sound splendid, but in fact denote qualities which may be possessed equally by the virtuous, the wicked, the wise, the ignorant or the plain stupid. Crack is modern; manure can be fresh; Robert Mugabe is strong; Gaddafi is passionate; the latest strain of foot-and-mouth disease is new; and your bog-standard comprehensive is a good deal more inclusive than the Oratory School of which Mr Blair and the Tories both approve.

Anyone who thinks about language can see what is happening. Many of the present generation of political speakers and writers are choosing generic words - words which denote a whole category of ideas - rather than selecting practical examples from within the category and committing themselves to these.

This is worse than useless, for it misleads, giving a spurious sense of drive and meaning. For the leader of an expedition lost in the desert to mount a rock and cry "we must have direction!" would be of little help to his followers. The more "directions" a man has, the less directed he is. If the truth be known, some of Tony Blair's values (like self-help) are inconsistent with others of his values (like compassion). It is therefore safer for him to limit himself to the general view that "values" are what he has.

Some of the principles to which Tory leadership contenders are now promising to be true involve rejecting some of the people which an "inclusive" party might have to include. It is therefore safer to declare simply that Tories must be both inclusive, and true to their principles. If audiences are lazy enough then they will not think it through.

A religious leader who mounted a pulpit to cry "we must have belief" would leave his flock none the wiser; belief in what? The sly, sloppy use by politicians of the fashionable new term "the faith community" falls into precisely this error: inventing a "community" which is only a community so long as a veil is drawn over the often contradictory things in which its members repose their faith. I suppose the bloody clash of the Christians and the Moors during the Crusades could be called a meeting of the faith community. You might as well describe Asian rioters and BNP troublemakers in Oldham as the "racist community".

All this debases politics. Worse, it leads to a general cynicism about all values, vision, ideas, debate, dialogue and the like because we subliminally sense that when politicians use these words they are fighting shy of practical commitment. We lose our confidence that within these sloppy generic terms there may lurk valuable and interesting particular examples.

In medicine, I understand that a virus is a little bit of DNA which attaches itself to cells and fools them into treating it as a part of themselves and replicating it, while it continues to corrupt them. So it is with generic terms posing as particular examples. Oratory which is redolent with terms such as "values", "ideas", "challenges" and "great debates" fools us into thinking that the orator himself recognises and cherishes specific values, entertains particular ideas, knows what it is he plans to challenge, and has concrete and important things to say in any great debate. We react positively to such orators, welcoming them into the body politic.

But all the while they are driving out speech which, by concretising, narrows the appeal of the speaker. His appeal narrows firstly because by saying something with consequences he invites dissenters. Secondly it narrows because he is likely to sound pedestrian.

Specific examples of (say) "vision" do not need the term "vision" to describe them. My "vision" for London, for example, involves a new east-west underground railway. If I keep banging on about this, and Tony Blair keeps banging on about vision, many may conclude that he has vision and I lack it.

Thus the vision-virus and its allied viruses in the fields of "direction", "renewal" and "change" drive out the real examples of each, prosper, and drain the very categories they puff, of meaning.

The logical conclusion to the progress of this disease would be a politics led by speakers whose language consisted entirely of warm words about principle and vision, and whose actions betrayed a total absence of either. We are approaching it.