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Politics and the English language: Peter Hennessy at TEDxHousesofParliament


Translator: Denise RQ
Reviewer: Miloš Milosavljević Ladies and gentlemen, scientists and anthropologists tell us, that what saved we, humans,
from extinction in the savannah country on the northern rim of what is now Kenya,
a million or so years ago, when the climate moved against us, was two things: first of all, brains. Our abnormally large brains, three times the size
of our closest relations, the chimpanzee, gave us unusual abilities to think
and to integrate knowledge. Secondly, chat. Our ability to communicate that knowledge
with the degree of precision that enabled us to pool what we knew: “Wouldn’t go that way…
no water for days,” that sort of thing. And in so doing, it enabled us to get out what it could have been
a terminal scrape for we, humans, and instead, we found our way
to this banqueting hall this afternoon. Ideas and the capacity
to transmit and share them, are our trump cards as a species. Those trump cards have mattered,
ladies and gentlemen, every minute, every hour,
from that day to this. Not least, to the sustenance
of our ability to govern ourselves, without, we hope, excessive rancour, that is through politics,
debate and discussion, instead of violence, war and destruction. Viewed like this, chat plus politics is a precious
and all too fragile combination, so the question of politics
and language is, or should be, a vital one for every generation, for everyone, everywhere, whatever the political system
in which they live and breathe. Every generation should worry about it. I certainly do. And there is, I think,
plenty to be worried about. Not that I am a golden-ager, that the past was a better place.
Far from it. Have a listen, with me, to that great 19th century British
political novelist Anthony Trollope, writing in 1855-56.
This is what he said: “It is the trade of the opponent
to attack, it is the trade of the newspaper
to be indignant, it is the trade of the Minister
to defend, and the world looks on,
believing none of them.” Sounds familiar. Pure Leveson country, to bring it back
to our domestic affairs of today. And Trollope’s Britain remember,
was a country of political titans, Peel, Gladstone, Disraeli. We can and should go back,
even further, for deep wisdom on this theme, to the Chinese philosopher Confucius
and his Analects, in the 5th century B.C. Confucius was asked, what he would do if he was invited to run his country. And here’s what he said: “Correct the language. If language is not correct,
then what is said, is not what is meant, and what ought to be done,
remains undone. Morals, the arts, will deteriorate.
Justice will go astray. And the people would stand around
in helpless confusion.” The nearest I’ve come to finding
a British Confucius writing on this theme is the incomparable political writer,
social observer and novelist, George Orwell, an austere hero of mine, who died far too young in 1950. In April 1946, just under a year
before I was born, Orwell published a classic essay,
which has given me my title for today, “Poltics and the English language.” In the latest Penguin paperback edition,
it’s only a dozen or so pages long. Orwell, who loathed totalitarianism
and tirany in all their forms, was still reeling from the violent hijacking
of political language by the recently defeated fascist parties
of World War II. And he hated the way stilted language was used by Stalin’s Soviet Union
as a weapon of propaganda and deceit. He was almost as hard
on Western governments and authors for their slovenly
and jargon-laden use of language. And Orwell’s thesis
was thoroughly Confucian. Here’s Orwell in full flow: “Now it is clear
that the decline of a language must ultimately have
political and economic causes. It is not done simply to the bad influence
of this or that individual writer, but in effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause
and producing the same effect in an intensified form,
and so on indefinitely.” Orwell went on:
“A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely,
because he drinks. It is rather the same thing
that’s happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate
because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language
makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.” Every political generation,
ladies and gentlemen, is blighted by a version of this. In our own time, it’s a peculiar mixture
of the evangelical — the language of the mission tent — and business jargon,
the curse of management consultees. Have you noticed that everyone,
but everyone in politics, business, or even in my beloved university world, is expected to have a vision? When I was a young boy, growing up
as a Catholic in North London in the 1950s we left visions to mystics which is where they belong.
(Laughter) The straplines that go with these visions
and mission statements often take the form
of prefabricated one-liners, stale and worn with repetition
and overfamiliarity. “People are our greatest resource,” “change is our ally,” “quality in the pursuit
of excellence is our aim,” bollocks on stilts, all of it. (Laughter) And have you noticed
that the word ‘solution’ has spread everywhere like a rash? You see a lorry on the motorway:
“Transport Solutions.” Unbearable.
(Laughter) Political programmes are always rolled out
as if they were so much pastry. A generation back, it was the grocery trade which was
the linguistic pacemaker. We were forever on the receiving end
from our governments of packages of measures. Top executives receive
compensation packages or, in our language,
yours and mine, pay and perks. Now, endless initiatives
are rolled out going forward. (Laughter) Even our dear monarch has to endure this,
when she reads out the Queen’s Speech at the beginning
of each session of Parliament. I don’t know how she does it.
Unendurable. I am not sure that she thinks that,
I certainly wouldn’t know, but I couldn’t manage it, — one of the many reasons
you’ll be relieved to hear why I do not aspire to be
your constitutional monarch. (Laughter) Other Confucian and Orwellian questions, even more acute in the early part
of the 21st century, — and in one sense they are,
and why is this? Because the perpetually intrusion
of round-the-clock media and the constant presence of cameras
in the age of electronic news gathering, in the vicinity of political figures, — all the time, pretty well,
if they are senior — means that they dare not think aloud, they cannont resist spontaneity. They resort, therefore, to carefully prepared
and highly spun one-liners, or to staccato paragraphs, tailor-made
for their endless news bulletins. The best you can hope for
from them, these days, are, what are known in the trade
as well-rehearsed spontaneities. I think, ladies and gentlemen, great prizes await for the first
top politician or politicians, who rationale their appearances,
refuse to succumb to the temptation of perpetual self-assertions
of insight, foresight and purpose, and break with their instinct
for instant rebuttal of those political opponents
who hurl accusations at them. It would take nerve to do this,
and a very high degree of self-confidence, but it would pay dividends amongst people
in the deeply sound-bitten society, [and] it was Trollope
who said all those years ago: “Remain undeceived.” Yet, for all my anxieties,
I am an utter romantic about Parliament, paraliamentary traditions, and the indispensability
of genuine government-by discussion. For example, I never fail to be moved
by Winston Churchill’s words at a very grim moment
during the First World War. Imagine the scene —
just down the road — it’s March 1917, late one night Churchill is leaving the House of Commons with MacCallum Scott,
a fellow Liberal MP, who recorded
what happened in his diary: “As we were leaving the House that night, he called me into the Chamber
to take a last look round; all was darkness, except a ring of faint light,
all around under the gallery. We could dimly see the table,
but walls and roof were invisible. ‘Look at it,’ he said, ‘Look at it!’ This little place is what makes
the difference between us and Germany. It is in virtue of this
that we shall muddle through to success, and for lack of this,
Germany’s briliant efficiency leads her to final destruction. This little room is the shrine
of the world’s liberties.” Wonderful, incomparable stuff. I’m one of those parliamentarians for whom the walls
of the Palace of Westminster talk. I hear the sounds of those
who have gone before, and I sense the presence of those
on whose shoulders we seek to stand when we try to debate
and legislate as wisely as we can. And for me, in parliamentary terms, that liberty of which Churchill spoke is bound with hoops of gold to the careful use of language
as the key medium of political exchange. I am not a pessimist, though that’s how I may sound
to some of you today. George Orwell wasn’t a pessimist
either, back in 1946. “The point,” he wrote,
“is that the process is reversable. Bad habits which spread by imitation
can be avoided,” he declared, “if only people would take the trouble.” Orwell rounded off
his classic essay with six rules, which, if I had my way,
would be placed on a card and presented to each new member
of the House of Commons, and the House of Lords, and hung on the walls of every party
political press office, media newsroom, and that penumbra of politically charged
think tanks and pressure groups, which between them
seek to influence Government, and sway Parliament. Here’s Orwell sextet: “One: Never use a metaphor,
simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print. Two: Never use a long word
where a short one will do. Three: If it is possible to cut
a word out, always cut it out. Four: Never use the passive
where you can use the active. Five: Never use a foreign phrase,
a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think
of an everyday English equivalent.” And finally, a sixth rule,
which is very, very Orwell: “Break any of these rules sooner
than say anything outright barbarous.” Today I’m sure,
and some of you will have noticed, I’ve broken several of the Orwell’s rules, in what I’ve said, now I’ve said it, but the ‘Orwell’s Six’
are our gold standard. The decencies and effectiveness
of our politics and our democracy, and therefore our liberty, depend upon us aspiring to them
with humility and determination, and suffering remorse, when we fall short. Thank you so much
for having me with you this afternoon. (Applause)

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