“The poverty of the language she uses on issues of social cohesion is shocking. As with her approach to Brexit, everything is wrapped in officialese.” So wrote Charles Moore of the Prime Minister, almost as an aside, in his Daily Telegraph column on Saturday.
One sees why he feels indignant. The banality of Theresa May’s language is an insult to the public. At best, it means whatever she is saying is muffled. At worst, it suggests she does not wish to communicate with us at all, and has nothing whatever to say.
If asked to quote something she has said in the last couple of years, most of us would probably resort to “Brexit means Brexit”. As a holding position, an assurance that she intends to keep her promises, that phrase may be tolerable, or expedient.
But the words become, with repetition, an insult, for they sound like a wilful refusal to take us into her confidence.
In a sense, it is quite unfair to place all the blame on May for this. The Leader of the Opposition is just as capable of being uncommunicative. His statement “I was present at that wreath-laying, I don’t think I was actually involved in it”, takes evasiveness to a new level.
And one could say both of them are simply behaving like most other members of the Cabinet and Shadow Cabinet, for whom poverty of language has become an indispensable means of saying the bare minimum about whatever they may be asked about, or indeed saying of nothing at all.
The use of standard, formulaic phrases is safer, because it means one can be confident one is saying nothing new. The more often those phrases are used, the emptier of meaning they become, and the less inclined anyone is to listen, or to ask questions.
There is a large class of ministers and shadow ministers who exist in a kind of habitual, self-inflicted obscurity. They are not worth talking to, or listening to, because they have become used to saying nothing, and consider it their professional duty to say nothing.
I heard the other day of a quite senior minister who has not been rung for the last six years by the political editor of the newspaper in his local city because he, the minister, can be relied on to say absolutely nothing. No one has ever written a profile of this minister. As he transacts the business of his department, he might as well be wearing a cloak of invisibility. One cannot help wondering whether his own family have any idea of who, politically speaking, he is, for even if he knows himself, he lacks the command of language needed to explain himself to anyone else.
We should not make ourselves even gloomier than we need to be by treating this as an entirely new problem. George Orwell, in Politics and the English Language, written for Horizon in 1946, observed that slovenly use of language was making it more and more difficult to think clearly, and went on:
“This mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence is the most marked characteristic of modern English prose, and especially of any kind of political writing. As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a pre-fabricated hen-house.”
But in 1946 there was a vein of subdued poetry in the spare, plain, lucid prose of the Prime Minister, Clement Attlee, who had himself hoped to be a poet, admitted his love of such old-fashioned writers as Tennyson, Rossetti, Browning, Swinburne, Morris, Masefield and Kipling, and confessed he was unable to get on with the moderns. And the Leader of the Opposition, Winston Churchill, had in Ed Murrow’s words “mobilised the English language and sent it into battle”.
Few people can be vivid all of the time, and it would probably be intolerable if our politicians made the attempt. A soothing dulness, a recognition that tedium has its place in the scheme of things, is an essential element in the conventional politician’s armoury. As Bagehot put it in an essay published in 1871,
“The faculty of disheartening adversaries by diffusing on occasion an oppressive atmosphere of business-like dulness is invaluable to a Parliamentary statesman.”
As Home Secretary, the present Prime Minister disheartened her adversaries by being far more in command of her brief than they were. Unfortunately, she now disheartens her friends too, by being so flat and uncommunicative.
John Major was no lord of language, but in the 1992 general election campaign showed that by reverting to the rough and ready methods he had practised in his youth in Brixton, mounting a soap box and addressing often hostile audiences through a loud hailer while having eggs thrown at him, he could find his voice and connect with the wider public.
In the 2017 general election, May revealed no such youthful well on which to draw, while Corbyn demonstrated, much to the commentariat’s surprise, that he does have a natural game to play, practiced unchanged since the 1970s, which consists of making people feel good about voting for a left-wing, anti-Establishment candidate.
If Corbyn were any use in Parliament, he would by now have made the Prime Minister’s position untenable. Week after week her defects would be held up to ridicule and contempt. By choosing such a third-rate leader, the Labour Party enables the Prime Minister to survive.