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.

Show Hide image

Boris Johnson isn't risking his political life over Heathrow

The anti-Heathrow campaigner was never a committed environmentalist. 

A government announcement on expanding London’s airports is expected today, and while opposition forces have been rallying against the expected outcome - a third runway at Heathrow - the decision could also be a divisive one for the ruling Conservative party. A long consultation period will allow these divisions to fester. 

Reports suggest that up to 60 Conservative MPs are against expansion at the Heathrow site. The Prime Minister’s own constituents are threatening legal action, and the former London mayoral candidate, Zac Goldsmith, has promised to step down as MP for Richmond rather than let the airport develop.

But what of Boris Johnson? The politician long synonymous with Heathrow opposition - including a threat to lie down “in front of those bulldozers” - is expected to call the decision a mistake. But for a man unafraid to dangle from a zipwire, he has become unusually reticent on the subject.

The reticence has partly been imposed upon him. In a letter to her cabinet ministers, Theresa May has granted them freedom from the usual rules of collective responsibility (under which cabinet ministers are required to support government positions). But she has also requested that they refrain from speaking out in the Commons, from “actively” campaigning against her position, and from calling “into question the decision making process itself”.  

Johnson is not about to start cheering for Heathrow. But unlike Goldsmith, he is no committed environmentalist - and he's certainly a committed politician.  

Boris’s objections to the expansion at Heathrow have all too often only extended as far as the lives of his London constituents. These local impacts are not to be belittled – in his role of mayor of London, he rightly pointed to the extreme health risks of increased noise and air pollution. And his charisma and profile have also boosted community campaigns around these issues. 

But when it comes to reducing emissions, Johnson is complacent. He may have come a long way since a 2013 Telegraph article in which he questioned whether global warming was real. Yet his plan to build an alternative “hub” airport in the Thames Estuary would have left the question of cutting UK aviation emissions worryingly un-resolved. This lack of curiosity is alarming considering his current job as foreign secretary. 

And there are reasons to be concerned. According to Cait Hewitt at the Aviation Environment Federation, the UK fails to meet its targets for CO2 reduction. And the recent UN deal on aviation emission mitigation doesn’t even meet the commitments of the UK’s own Climate Change Act, let alone the more stringent demands of the Paris Agreement. “Deciding that we’re going to do something that we know is going to make a problem worse, before we’ve got an answer, is the wrong move”, said Hewitt.

There is a local environmental argument too. Donnachadh McCarthy, a spokesperson from the activist group “Rising Up”, says the pollution could affect Londoners' health: "With 70 per cent of flights taken just by 15 per cent of the UK's population... this is just not acceptable in a civilised democracy.”

The way Johnson tells it, his reason for staying in government is a pragmatic one. “I think I'd be better off staying in parliament to fight the case, frankly," he told LBC Radio in 2015. And he's right that, whatever the government’s position, the new “national policy statement” to authorise the project will likely face a year-long public consultation before a parliamentary vote in late 2017 or early 2018. Even then the application will still face a lengthy planning policy stage and possible judicial review. 

But if the foreign secretary does fight this quietly, in the back rooms of power, it is not just a loss to his constituents. It means the wider inconsistencies of his position can be brushed aside - rather than exposed and explored, and safely brought down to ground. 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.