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 assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

Getty
Show Hide image

Should the UK get militarily involved in Syria?

There is a ceasefire, in name only, agreed by all parties, including Russia.  But it is not enforced 

The foreign secretary Boris Johnson remarked on Thursday that the "UK would find it very difficult to refuse a US request to strike Syrian regime targets in response to another use of WMD". Hopefully, is an indication, at last, in a change in British policy towards Syria. 

After six years of fighting, over 500,000 dead, four million refugees, 11 million internally displaced people, and most of the country raised to the ground, it is clear to most that our policy of acquiescence, along with many others, is not working. Had we intervened at the beginning the crisis, the situation could not possibly have been worse. 

Johnson's comments caused controversy. But in fact, too many MPs in Westminster seem inward-looking, inexperienced and unworldly. Their fear of repeating the mistakes of Iraq has paralysed their thoughts and actions. This I find most frustrating. There are WMD in Syria and Assad is prepared to use them and against his own people. Our inactivity has in no small measure fuelled the rise of Isis, which as we now know is a direct threat to those MPs in Westminster and the country as a whole. Turn the other cheek to both Isis and Assad, and we should expect it well and truly slapped, again and again.

It is right and proper, as the closest ally of the US and a member of the UN Security Council that we take our responsibilities to protect the innocent seriously, wherever they are in the world. The UK must reinforce the red line, and taboo of using WMD to the absolute degree. Some in Westminster would have our nuclear deterrent and military confined to the barracks, and would avoid confrontation at every opportunity, in the hope that the worlds’ despots, dictators and terrorist will ignore us. This naivety could lead to the terminal decline of the UK as a global honest broker, our marginalisation on the world stage and an easy target for those who would do us harm.

But it is not direct military action by the UK against Assad that will resolve the crisis in Syria. The Geneva Process, which even the Russians are a part of, provides the framework for a political and democratic solution. However, without UN military support it has virtually no hope of success.

The first and overriding requirement in Syria is a ceasefire. There is one, in name only, agreed by all parties, including Russia, in Astana earlier this year.  But it is not enforced and never will be without the UN monitoring it. Just this month alone, the regime and Russian jets have attacked and destroyed seven hospitals run by the Union of Medical Care and Relief Organisations (UOSSM) in Idlib Province.

The UN must police this ceasefire with monitors and peacekeepers. I hope Mr Johnson, who also previously offered British troops to this task, will now, after his comments on Thursday be good to his word. The second requirement for peace is Safe Zones. Millions of civilians are without the bare essentials in life and are besieged by the warring factions. UN military personnel are required to protect these people, and to enable the millions of tonnes of aid, which sits gathering dust in Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan to get to where it should be, and to support reconstruction of the shattered infrastructure.

With the bare essentials of a ceasefire and safe zones in place, monitored and protected by the UN, there is just a fighting chance that the Geneva Process can progress.  It is Russian President Vladimir Putin who holds all the cards, and I cannot believe that the combined influence of the other members of the UN Security Council, or at least the US, UK and France, that together vastly outcompete his deterrent, cannot persuade him to come to the negotiating table. This could mean relaxing sanctions against Russia and allowing its forces a naval and air base in the Mediterranean. If this is viewed as "humble pie", it might be worth eating.

So I for one welcome the foreign secretary’s comments. Israel has shown this week that it will strike targets at will in Assad’s heartland and against his Allies with impunity, to protect its people. Russia, Syria and Iran do not lift a finger or comment in the face of these attacks, knowing that Israel has no qualms at using all its military capabilities to protect itself. 

Sometimes you just have to use force when all other options are exhausted. It is now time for the UN to use its collective military capability to force the peace in Syria. I hope the UK is in the vanguard of this battle.

Hamish de Bretton-Gordon OBE is a chemical weapons expert who has visited Syria many times during the war. He is the director of Doctors Under Fire and an adviser to UOSSM.

0800 7318496