The lan­guage of man­i­festos in 2017

Deccan Chronicle - - OPED - D.J. Tay­lor

J.L. Carr’s clas­sic novel How Steeple Sin­derby Wan­der­ers Won the FA Cup (1975) con­tains a char­ac­ter named Arthur Fang­foss. Mr Fang­foss is a rural tyrant who, when stand­ing for the lo­cal coun­cil, lim­its his elec­tion ad­dress to a pithy eight words: “If elected, I will keep down the rates.” No such brevity, alas, at­tends the 2017 man­i­festos of the UK’s three main po­lit­i­cal par­ties. The short­est of them — the Lib Dems’ Your Chance to Change Bri­tain’s Fu­ture — weighs in at over 80 pages, while Labour’s For the Many, Not the Few ex­tends to a well-nigh novella-length 23,000 words.

The Con­ser­va­tives’ For­ward, To­gether is not that much shorter and took sev­eral min­utes to down­load (for some rea­son it seems im­pos­si­ble ac­tu­ally to buy a party man­i­festo these days. No book­shop in my home city of Nor­wich was stock­ing any, and the lo­cal Labour coun­cil­lor from whom I re­quested a copy of For the Many, Not the Few seemed puz­zled that any­one should want one). Each is at­trac­tively pro­duced, pro­fes­sion­ally laid out, and har­bours a wide range of il­lus­tra­tions. But how do they shape up as pieces of writ­ing? Would any­one read them who was not ab­so­lutely com­pelled to do so? And if not, why not?

Sen­si­tive lit­er­ary types very of­ten turn highly agi­tated in the pres­ence of party man­i­festos. The ur-text nearly al­ways in­voked for pur­poses of com­par­i­son is Ge­orge Or­well’s es­say Pol­i­tics and the English Lan­guage (1946), with its di­ag­no­sis of a “spe­cial con­nec­tion be­tween pol­i­tics and the de­base­ment of lan­guage”. Or­well’s con­clu­sion, back at the on­set of the Cold War, was that po­lit­i­cal or­tho­doxy seemed to re­quire “a life­less, im­i­ta­tive style”, and that modern po­lit­i­cal writ­ing was largely “a de­fence of the in­de­fen­si­ble” in which the cal­lous­ness of au­thor­i­tar­ian regimes was ren­dered slightly more ac­cept­able by be­ing dressed up in seemly cliché.

If the modern party man­i­festo is cer­tainly keen on a life­less, im­i­ta­tive style, then com­par­isons with Or­well’s gu­lag apol­o­gists (one of whom re­marked that “the Soviet regime ex­hibits cer­tain fea­tures which the hu­man­i­tar­ian may be in­clined to de­plore”) are ex­ag­ger­ated. It is not so much that the modern politi­cian wants to tell lies in pub­lic, sim­ply that he or she has suc­cumbed to the two great de­vi­tal­is­ing in­flu­ences that have been busy un­der­min­ing writ­ten lan­guage over the past 30 years. One of them is the rise of busi­ness jar­gon and the bro­mides of the com­pany re­port. The other is the gen­eral col­lapse of ed­u­ca­tional stan­dards that has robbed nearly ev­ery­body in a po­si­tion of power of the abil­ity to write de­cent English.

On the plus side, lit­tle in Change Bri­tain’s Fu­ture, For the Many, Not the Few or For­ward, To­gether is ac­tively il­lit­er­ate. The ap­pa­ratchiks who wrote them (and from all three doc­u­ments rises the scent of some­thing la­bo­ri­ously put to­gether by com­mit­tee) clearly know how to ar­range words on a page; gram­mat­i­cal rules have mostly been fol­lowed (I was par­tic­u­larly im­pressed by the sen­tence in For­ward, To­gether that runs “For too many peo­ple, where you end up in life is still de­ter­mined by where you were born and to whom”); there is even, on rare oc­ca­sions, the fleet­ing sense of an in­di­vid­ual style sur­fac­ing above the collective wave. But the ef­fect of read­ing more than a few para­graphs is of wad­ing through lex­i­co­graph­i­cal trea­cle, at­tempt­ing to dis­cern mean­ing in a land­scape where cliché, rep­e­ti­tion and tau­tol­ogy pile up on ei­ther side of the path like so many wind­fall ap­ples.

And so, af­ter only a page or so, the reader cries out for men­tion of a job which isn’t “cut­ting edge”, han­kers af­ter an in­sti­tu­tion which doesn’t merit the de­scrip­tion “not fit for pur­pose”, and pos­i­tively yearns for a sit­u­a­tion which isn’t li­able to cre­ate “burn­ing in­jus­tices”. Worse, per­haps, than the stock phrase, which even Man Booker win­ners some­times strug­gle to avoid, is the con­stant ver­bosity, the feel­ing that seven or eight words are be­ing used when some­times two or three would do. “Tax­a­tion is what un­der­pins our shared pros­per­ity”, the Cor­byn team de­clares at one point. Why not just “Tax­a­tion un­der­pins”? The Con­ser­va­tives, too, prom­ise to en­cour­age “the whole of our econ­omy, across the whole of our coun­try”, a sen­tence whose sec­ond half is re­dun­dant, and as­sure us that “We be­lieve these things, not de­spite the fact that we are Con­ser­va­tives, but be­cause we are Con­ser­va­tives”, which needs some se­ri­ous edi­to­rial work to un­tan­gle its mid­dle clause.

Then there are the odd­i­ties of the fig­u­ra­tive lan­guage. The Lib Dems, to par­tic­u­larise, of­fer dire warn­ings of the like­li­hood of Theresa May “walk­ing away with a land­slide”. (And how would Ms May do this? Stow the pieces of rock away in her hand­bag?) A bit later the govern­ment is pic­turesquely ac­cused of “bal­anc­ing the books on the backs of the poor and dis­abled”. The Con­ser­va­tives, al­ter­na­tively, file a se­ries of il­lu­mi­nat­ing metaphors for the state, which at one point is “launch­ing” it­self into the fu­ture (a boat, pre­sum­ably), is swiftly an­thro­po­mor­phised so that it can “look” into the post-Brexit world, like Cortez sur­vey­ing Darien, only, shortly af­ter­wards, to be de­scribed as “nim­ble”, which con­jures up the vi­sion of a moun­tain goat spring­ing from one High­land rock to an­other.

Labour, on the other hand, seems to en­vis­age Leviathan as an in­creas­ingly sophisticated piece of ma­chin­ery, given that it is ex­pected to have “a laser-like fo­cus on how we earn, as well as how we spend”. Mean­while, there is talk of a “Fis­cal Cred­i­bil­ity Rule”, which has been de­signed in con­junc­tion with “world-lead­ing econ­o­mists”. Do the econ­o­mists with whom Team Cor­byn wants to ally it­self re­ally lead the world? No, alas, this is some­one’s slip for “the world’s lead­ing econ­o­mists”.

As for the over­all ef­fect, what with Mr Cor­byn’s rather ram­bling vo­cal style, I was ex­pect­ing the Labour man­i­festo to veer all over the place, whereas in fact these di­gres­sive ten­den­cies have been largely reined in. For­ward, To­gether, though repet­i­tive (“sta­ble”, “strong”, “main­stream”, etc.) is agree­ably sonorous while ris­ing to well-nigh bib­li­cal ex­al­ta­tion in its terse sum­mings-up of Ms May’s cur­rent ide­o­log­i­cal po­si­tion (“We ab­hor so­cial di­vi­sion, in­jus­tice, un­fair­ness and in­equal­ity”). The Lib Dems’ ef­fort is dis­agree­ably chirpy and, in its pre­sump­tion of a Tory tri­umph, hor­ri­bly de­featist. In read­ing all of them, though, I was op­pressed by a deadly feel­ing of déjà-vu. What did they re­mind me of?

The an­swer, sadly, is the brochures and an­nual re­ports that I used to write when I worked as a copy­writer in the City — drip­ping lumps of cor­po­rate suet whose soli­tary re­deem­ing fea­ture was the fact that no or­di­nary per­son was ever go­ing to read them. By ar­range­ment with the Spec­ta­tor

‘Just go over there and pull out that un­sightly old man’s beard’

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