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6 October 2022

How “deliver” became an unavoidable political buzzword

On 5 September, Liz Truss declared, “we will deliver, we will deliver, and we will deliver”. What, if anything, does she mean?

By Peter Williams

As a sub-editor, it’s my job to interrogate the choices that writers make. Why, for example, “follow through” when you can persist? Why “action” something when you can do it? Why “gear up” when you can prepare? Why, for that matter, “interrogate” when you can question? And why, I find myself asking most of all, must we always “deliver”? 

True, it is a flexible and multifaceted word. In the sense of “bring unto us”, postmen deliver letters and midwives babies; in the sense of “orate”, academics deliver lectures and politicians speeches. Pugilists deliver blows. Your local dandy highwayman will demand that you stand and deliver, while your local dandy counterterrorism unit will attempt to deliver a hostage from captivity.

In recent years, however, these meanings have been overtaken by deliver’s broadest application – as a substitute for “achieve” or “fulfil”. Modern businesses promise to deliver or “deliver on” their objectives, say on net zero – gearing up to action follow-through while they’re at it. They don’t make change, they deliver it (all the better if it’s “transformative change”). Media companies deliver content. On a construction site near NS Towers, the lead contractor declares that it “delivers great places”, rather than building them. 

Politicians across the spectrum love to deliver too, or to say they are going to: in the 2019 election, Labour’s manifesto had 47 “deliver”s, while the Conservatives had 42 – together pledging to deliver everything from full-fibre broadband, an economy that serves the many, not the few, and world-class public services to Crossrail for the north and all the advantages of leaving the EU.

But our new prime minister seems especially, unusually susceptible to the disease.

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In the early days of the summer Tory leadership contest, when the possibilities seemed interminable, the then chancellor Nadhim Zahawi roared that under his, deeply hypothetical, leadership his priorities would be “delivery, delivery and delivery”. In the acceptance speech that finally put the contest to sleep on 5 September, Liz Truss demonstrated her commitment to innovation and enterprise by lightly adapting Zahawi’s dismal tagline from noun to verb, declaring, in her peroration: “My friends, I know that we will deliver, we will deliver, and we will deliver,” adding, “and I know we will deliver a great victory for the Conservative Party in 2024.”

History may judge that every part of this sentence, from “my friends…” onwards, was a lie. And since then, Truss has kept on delivering. On her disastrous round of local radio interviews, sounding more than ever like a glitching Thatchertron 5000 throwing out error messages (“I don’t accept the premise of your question…”), she insisted she would be “delivering for places like Stoke in the long term, delivering the investment, delivering the higher-wage jobs…”.

Maybe overuse of the word is supposed to suggest dynamism and physicality, an attempt to compensate for everything that Truss’s public speaking isn’t. Perhaps it is meant to make vague, jam-tomorrow pledges seem personal, bespoke, evoking the cheerful neighbourhood postie of yore, before Royal Mail’s decline and the advent of one of the gig economy’s principal algorithm slaves, the drop-and-scarper delivery driver.

[See also: The Brexit revolution devours its children

Maybe she is referencing the term’s antecedents, the Middle English deliveren, meaning “save, liberate”, which partly derives from the Latin liberare (“to free”), in a sly etymological nod to her vision of Britannia unchained. Of a nation loosed from the dead weight and diktats of nannyism, wokeism, abacus economics, the civil service, trade treaties, international law, green crap, the Office for Budget Responsibility, institutional investors, the International Monetary Fund and the whole Project Fear of reality – sprinting brave and headlong into the blast furnace of the future. 

More likely, though, it reflects nothing more than an unthinking corporatism, and delivery’s pre-eminence in the company mission statement, the quarterly results release, the policy review, the executive summary. In terms of what management-speak aims to do, deliver offers a full house. It is euphemistic, designed to mask the underwhelming or negative connotations of what is being said (see also “identify efficiencies” and “leveraging synergies” as cuts are made), and bombastic: a fussy, almost convoluted way to describe a simple action.

It is part of a lexicon invented to pretend that becoming a manager of some description isn’t most often an accident of fate, a consequence of staying in the same career lane, and to distract from the drudge reality of leadership: of admin, balance sheets, endless meetings, invoices, keeping people just un-unhappy enough that they don’t leave, of taking the credit and the discredit for others’ work, of sweating to keep your own job; ultimately, of riding your luck. 

It speaks also, of course, of the obverse: of an implicit, defensive contempt for those less elevated. And so: doing is for the little people. We don’t merely do. We deliver. 

But this government isn’t trying to dumb down its language to speak to the core Conservative vote, to the delivering classes. Its language comes pre-dumbed. It doesn’t have anything else.

When Truss’s idol Margaret Thatcher came to power, she quoted St Francis, “Where there is discord, may we bring harmony. Where there is error, may we bring truth. Where there is doubt, may we bring faith. And where there is despair, may we bring hope.” These are words both prime ministers might have done well to reflect on, as they suggest that communicating and implementing your actions with due sensitivity is as important as the substance of what you do. Instead, Truss, throwing out the language of the annual report and the free-market think tank, carried on regardless. Instead, she finds herself having to admit to Laura Kuenssberg that she should have “laid the ground better” for the mini-Budget, and tweeting that “we get it and we have listened”, as if the government was a groovy supply teacher and the electorate a disruptive class.

In these austere times, we should not expect poetry or high oratory from our leaders. A government that could speak to the electorate without condescension or puffery, which could use plain language that ordinary people understand, and which didn’t reflexively try to euphemise, evade or obscure – that would be something really worth delivering.  

Someone should probably action that.

[See also: The problem with Liz Truss’s attack on the “anti-growth coalition”]

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