Alan Duncan's "grammar fascism" is good news for us all

Minister of state is "leveraging" ban on "going forward".

This morning, I find myself experiencing a somewhat unexpected and alien feeling - a warm glow of affection for Alan Duncan, Conservative minister of state for international development. The kind that makes you feel sorry for perhaps having judged someone too quickly in the past, and thus  look upon the whole world with slightly more hopeful eyes.

What could Duncan have done to deserve such approbation, I hear you ask? Simple - he’s ordered all those who work for him at the Department for International Development (DfID) to start talking and writing in a way that other, non-government, people can understand.

Christopher Hope of the Telegraph reports that Duncan has issued a memo to his civil servants “accusing them of damaging Britain’s reputation abroad by using ‘language that the rest of the world doesn’t understand’”.

The minister of state provides a few well-chosen examples:

[He] would prefer that we did not ‘leverage’ or ‘mainstream’ anything, and whereas he is happy for economies to grow, he does not like it when we ‘grow economies’.

Nor is he impressed with the loose and meaningless use of ‘going forward’, either at the beginning or the end of any sentence. Thus we do not ever ‘access’, ‘catalyse’, ‘showcase’ or ‘impact’ anything. Nearly as depressing for him is reading about DFID’s work in ‘the humanitarian space’.

Duncan happily describes himself as a “grammar fascist” in this memo, aware no doubt that there will be a lot of comments in the vein of “stupid bloody pedant” made as he passes people’s desks from now on, especially if the desks’ occupants are engaged in the fifth redrafting of a document, returned to them because they’d left yet another a participle hanging. If it is fascism, though, it’s an unusually collaborative kind - the memo concludes by saying that Duncan is “always willing to be challenged about his judgement on grammatical standards and will not take offence at a properly reasoned opinion.”

In December last year, it emerged that a similar set of guidelines was in place at the Department for Transport. At the time, Labour’s Jim Fitzpatrick commented: “You would have thought ministers would be focusing on sorting out the nation's transport system – not micromanaging civil servants to dot their i's and cross their t's.”

I’m sure he’s not alone in thinking that government ministers should and do have better things to do with their time. However, I’m not sure that’s right. Communication, both with each other and with everyone else, is the beginning and end of everything politicians do, and the clearer it is, the better they are at their jobs.

I don’t think I’m overstating it when I say the idea that using the kind of jargon and poor constructions Duncan is trying to do away with makes you sound more intelligent or informed is one of the biggest and yet most prevalent fallacies I’ve ever come across. As anyone who has ever really tried to write a clear, simple, meaningful statement knows, it’s a far greater skill to be straightforward than it is to be complicated.

Pedantry purely for pedantry’s sake (enjoyable though it is for the likes of me) is a hobby, not a tool. But that’s not what this is about. In his memo, Duncan states: “All our communication must be immediately explicable to the non-DFID reader. Clear language conveys clear thought. Its poor use suggests sloppy thinking.” If, by tightening up his government’s language, he can tighten up their thinking, I don’t think anyone will have any problems with Duncan’s fascination with grammar any more.

Pedantry, grammar fascism or, as I prefer, good clear writing, has just one goal in mind - that the reader or listener should immediately understand what you are trying to communicate with no distraction or confusion. If Alan Duncan can purge Whitehall of the desire to “leverage”, “go forward” and “catalyse”, he will have done us all a good turn.

 

 

Alan Duncan addressing Conservative Party Conference in 2006. Photograph: Getty Images

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

Chuka Umunna speaks at the launch of Labour's education manifesto during the general election. Photograph: Getty Images.
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After so badly misjudging the leadership contest, how will the Blairites handle Corbyn?

The left-winger's opponents are divided between conciliation and aggression. 

When Labour lost the general election in May, the party’s modernisers sensed an opportunity. Ed Miliband, one of the most left-wing members of the shadow cabinet, had been unambiguously rejected and the Tories had achieved their first majority in 23 years. More than any other section of the party, the Blairites could claim to have foreseen such an outcome. Surely the pendulum would swing their way?

Yet now, as Labour’s leadership contest reaches its denouement, those on the right are asking themselves how they misjudged the landscape so badly. Their chosen candidate, Liz Kendall, is expected to finish a poor fourth and the party is poised to elect Jeremy Corbyn, the most left-wing leader in its 115-year history. For a faction that never ceases to underline the importance of winning elections, it will be a humbling result.

Though the crash has been sudden, the Blairites have long been in decline. Gordon Brown won the leadership unchallenged and senior figures such as John Reid, James Purnell and Alan Milburn chose to depart from the stage rather than fight on. In 2010, David Miliband, the front-runner in the leadership election, lost to his brother after stubbornly refusing to distance himself from the Iraq war and alienating undecided MPs with his imperiousness.

When the younger Miliband lost, the modernisers moved fast – too fast. “They’re behaving like family members taking jewellery off a corpse,” a rival campaign source told me on 9 May. Many Labour supporters agreed. The rush of op-eds and media interviews antagonised a membership that wanted to grieve in peace. The modernising contenders – Chuka Umunna, Liz Kendall, Mary Creagh, Tristram Hunt – gave the impression that the Blairites wanted to drown out all other voices. “It was a huge mistake for so many players from that wing of the party to be put into the field,” a shadow cabinet minister told me. “In 1994, forces from the soft left to the modernising right united around Tony Blair. The lesson is never again can we have multiple candidates.”

While conducting their post-mortem, the Blairites are grappling with the question of how to handle Corbyn. For some, the answer is simple. “There shouldn’t be an accommodation with Corbyn,” John McTernan, Blair’s former director of political operations, told me. “Corbyn is a disaster and he should be allowed to be his own disaster.” But most now adopt a more conciliatory tone. John Woodcock, the chair of Progress, told me: “If he wins, he will be the democratically elected leader and I don’t think there will be any serious attempt to actually depose him or to make it impossible for him to lead.”

Umunna, who earlier rebuked his party for “behaving like a petulant child”, has emphasised that MPs “must accept the result of our contest when it comes and support our new leader in developing an agenda that can return Labour to office”. The shadow business secretary even suggests that he would be prepared to discuss serving in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet if he changed his stances on issues such as nuclear disarmament, Nato, the EU and taxation. Were Umunna, a former leadership contender, to adopt a policy of aggression, he would risk being blamed should Corbyn fail.

Suggestions that the new parliamentary group Labour for the Common Good represents “the resistance” are therefore derided by those close to it. The organisation, which was launched by Umunna and Hunt before Corbyn’s surge, is aimed instead at ensuring the intellectual renewal that modernisers acknowledge has been absent since 2007. It will also try to unite the party’s disparate mainstream factions: the Blairites, the Brownites, the soft left, the old right and Blue Labour. The ascent of Corbyn, who has the declared support of just 15 MPs (6.5 per cent of the party), has persuaded many that they cannot afford the narcissism of small differences. “We need to start working together and not knocking lumps out of each other,” Woodcock says. There will be no defections, no SDP Mk II. “Jeremy’s supporters really underestimate how Labour to the core the modernisers are,” Pat McFadden, the shadow Europe minister, told me.

Although they will not change their party, the Blairites are also not prepared to change their views. “Those of us on this side of Labour are always accused of being willing to sell out for power,” a senior moderniser told me. “Well, we do have political principles and they’re not up for bartering.” He continued: “Jeremy Corbyn is not a moderate . . .
He’s an unreconstructed Bennite who regards the British army as morally equivalent to the IRA. I’m not working with that.”

Most MPs believe that Corbyn will fail but they are divided on when. McFadden has predicted that the left-winger “may even get a poll bounce in the short term, because he’s new and thinking differently”. A member of the shadow cabinet suggested that Labour could eventually fall to as low as 15 per cent in the polls and lose hundreds of councillors.

The challenge for the Blairites is to reboot themselves in time to appear to be an attractive alternative if and when Corbyn falters. Some draw hope from the performance of Tessa Jowell, who they still believe will win the London mayoral selection. “I’ve spoken to people who are voting enthusiastically both for Jeremy and for Tessa,” Wes Streeting, the newly elected MP for Ilford North, said. “They have both run very optimistic, hopeful, positive campaigns.”

But if Corbyn falls, it does not follow that the modernisers will rise. “The question is: how do we stop it happening again if he does go?” a senior frontbencher said. “He’s got no interest or incentive to change the voting method. We could lose nurse and end up with something worse.” If the road back to power is long for Labour, it is longest of all for the Blairites. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses