I had thought, when writing my August ‘Westminster Gleanings’, with little summer excitement to glean from Westminster, that September would bring a refocusing on politics and on Gordon Brown, the prime minister, after the long, damp and quietish summer. I was completely wrong. Other than the much-reported and expected Liberal Democrat infighting over the still live and kicking if boring and ageing person of the leader, Ming Campbell, during the party’s conference in Brighton, everyone else seems to have remained in a sort of summer hibernation, especially the prime minister. Not even another outbreak of the farmers’ nightmare, foot and mouth disease, brought the invisible man into view.
This is not to say that momentous events have not been taking place as global economic conditions have brought ill-winds to blow on the domestic economy. The run on the Northern Rock mortgage lending bank has resulted in what is to all intents and purposes a re-nationalization of the Bank of England as the government has forced a change in the bank’s stated policy of not bailing out banks that fail on the back of their own lending policies. The change forces the hand of the bank, not only with Northern Rock but also with a government guarantee on deposits with all banks that gives something of a carte blanche to dodgy bank directors to take frightening risks with their customers’ money.
Whether or not this is a panicking government reaction to a tricky situation that has seen night-long queues of fearful depositors outside Northern Rock branches, or a reasonable solution to a storm in a teacup problem that a strong economy can easily absorb, remains to be seen. Gordon Brown seems to believe the latter to be the case. He emerged from behind his front door yesterday, for the first time since the bank crisis began, whether to support his chancellor, Alastair Darling, in the policy move, or to grab whatever credit might be available himself, it is hard to tell. Perhaps he is a Northern Rock customer.
Before that, the last time we saw sight or sound of the PM was during a faintly surreal teatime visit and photo-call at 10 Downing Street by the former Conservative prime minister, Margaret Thatcher. I had heard that the lady was, these days, to put it charitably, a little less sharp than she once was, but I still can’t imagine how she got herself bounced into this bizarre event in her improbably Labourite cherry-red dress. It is hard to see that it really matters a row of beans if a batty old lady, albeit one who was once an atom-breaking prime minister, goes to tea in her old house with a new incumbent who has spent most of his political life in total and voluble disagreement with everything she stands for. At the same time, it is odd and also rather unnecessary when the party whose values she has upheld to a fault continues to be at a pretty low level of support in the country. Tony Blair’s and her mutual admiration society was fairly believable, but Brown and Thatcher are so improbable a pair that her visit can really only be seen as something of a sock in the eye to the party she led and particularly to its very young and wobbly leader.
David Cameron has in fact been mercifully relatively quiet too, lately, and it has been easy enough over the last week or two, with government and opposition leaders gone to ground, to believe the rumours of an imminent general election. Brown has presumably talked himself out of that one by now. He needs to reinstate the picture of a rosy economy, managed by a chancellor whose ability he trusts, before he can risk it, although the truth is that he would win easily now against a paltry opposition. The probable lack of enthusiasm from those voters who would even bother to get to the polling stations might however be slightly embarrassing.
So far, though, Brown’s low-key approach has been unscary, and a plus rather than a minus, after the ups and downs of the latter Blair days. So it will be interesting to see at what stage he gets the gloves back on and comes out fighting. Presumably, he is going to have to come up with something to get the faithful clapping at the Labour Party conference next week in order to manage the leader’s statutory requirement of standing ovations. For the time being, logging on to the Downing Street website has become a new interest in an attempt to find out what is going on. It is, of course, quite deadly and might serve to provide food for GCSE politics essays, which have to be written at the level of information without understanding or analysis. But, I suppose, that is exactly like most parliamentary speeches these days, and equally full of language subverted to the cause of misinformation through boredom or misunderstanding.
George Orwell, the author of Animal Farm and 1984, wrote a prescient essay, “Politics and the English Language”, in 1946. He was, I have just discovered, born in what is now Bihar, but his remarkable command of the English language cannot perhaps be credited to an Indian upbringing, as he left when he was only one. The essay is so absolutely, gloriously perfect, not to mention funny, in terms of its criticism of meaningless words, words that through misuse have become meaningless or obfuscatory, and words that we choose to define to fit with our own views and leanings, that I am going to circulate it to any offices of officialdom under whose purview I come.
On top of that, Orwell successfully and succinctly attacks the double negative (I plead guilty to that), and worn-out and useless phrases like ‘acid test’, ‘hotbed’, ‘melting pot’ and ‘Achilles’ heel’. Stand up George Bush, and stand up most political leaders for the following: “In the case of a word like democracy, not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides. It is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it: consequently the defenders of every kind of regime claim that it is a democracy and fear that they might have to stop using the word if it were tied down to any one meaning. Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way. That is, the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different.”
After that I am at a loss for words and can only finish with more of Orwell, in fear that I should become more guilty of the offences he illustrates with such exquisite clarity: “modern writing at its worst does not consist in picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer. It consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug. The attraction of this way of writing is that it is easy...By using stale metaphors, similes and idioms, you save much mental effort at the cost of leaving your meaning vague, not only for your reader but for yourself.”
Enough, I think.