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  1. Politics
18 December 1998

The new political dictionary

Nick Cohen on words that mean just what you want them to mean

By Nick Cohen

English, as we are often told, is a living language whose meaning changes as the world changes. This is particularly true of politicians’ English, which has always employed ever more ingenious forms of doublespeak. To help you keep up with the latest developments, of which you will find the most choice examples on Radio 4’s Today programme, we offer the following glossary to stick to your radio.

The people: Orig. a body of persons from whom all democratic authority in a nation state flows. Leaders still deploy this sense, and praise popular virtue to excess. In practice, they fear the people mightily and refuse to allow them to vote for Ken Livingstone, Rhodri Morgan or other inappropriate politicians. Archaic and often oxymoronic: “the people’s princess” and so on. Prefer consumers.

Gut-wrenching: Incurable intestinal agony that afflicts a minister when he discovers the press barons disapprove of a rash stand on principle.

Pain: A trivial sensation felt after the death or suffering of strangers. Must be shared, often with public tears.

Spin: (1) What English cricketers can neither deliver nor receive. (2) A lie received by English journalists which can never be traced to the deliverer.

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Lying: A vice unknown in England since lobby journalists, the Speaker of the House of Commons, Chatham House and libel lawyers suppressed it.

UK plc: Islands off the coast of western Europe, formerly known as Great Britain. Now incorporated as a limited company with a mission statement which deplores all moral, aesthetic, educational and sentimental values that inhibit profitability.

MPs: (1) Members of Parliament elected from a specific constituency. From the late-19th century, MPs generally supported the programme of a national political party but were expected to defend the interests of their constituents and rebel on matters of principle. Archaic. (2) Lower-middle managers without character or initiative whose position in the marketing department is dependent on the favour of the chairman of the board. “We have to get real. I was voted in because I was a Labour candidate. Few people, if any, voted for me as a person. I have a sneaking suspicion that my husband voted for me because I was me, and I voted for me because I was me – but if I had not been the Labour Party candidate, I would not have voted for me either” – Shona McIsaac (Lab, Cleethorpes) to the Commons.

Consumers: Inhabitants of UK plc, formerly people or citizens. They consume corporate policies but have no role in their manufacture. “Trust matters. In all walks of life people act as consumers, not just citizens” – Tony Blair, introduction to the Government’s Annual Report, 1997/98.

Devolution: Management theory which holds that UK plc’s headquarters should be downsized and its administrative functions transferred to branch offices able deliver just-in-time services. Managers required in Scotland, Wales and London willing to follow HQ’s instructions.

The national press: A group of about 800 journalists living in the better districts of inner London who write about each other, their love of power and hatred of the poor.

Tax-and-spend: What all governments do, but will never admit to doing in public. See old-style.

Modern: A device that allows the speaker to silence argument by asserting that he is new and his opponent is old and must be consigned to the dustbin of history, regardless of the merits of his position.

Modernisation: The implementation of Conservative Party policies by a Labour government.

Old-style: Code words for the intellectual policing operation which has progressively rounded up and imprisoned without fair trial inappropriate ideas. Old-style socialism was caught while sleeping after lunch in the Gay Hussar. Old-style tax-and-spend was slaughtered in the prawn- cocktail offensive. Old-style social democracy was at liberty in France and Germany until the press squealed. Old-style liberalism is still on the run, but the gang leader is negotiating with the authorities and yearns for the captive life.

The elite: A powerless, irrelevant group who admire 20th-century opera, civil liberties and the dramas Trevor Nunn will never stage. Also known as the liberal elite. See not relevant.

Inappropriate behaviour: (1) In the case of a powerful person, sins of the flesh, receipt of bribes or theft from the public purse, which have been regrettably exposed and for which admission to such is sufficient contrition. (2) On the part of a subordinate person, smoking, drinking, wit, lunching away from the office, exuberance, asking for the right to vote for the wrong politicians, setting fire to management consultants, staying up after bedtime, for which dismissal, imprisonment or general abuse are necessary penalties.

Not relevant: Any person who insists on intellectual honesty and consistency from political parties and their leaders.

Independence: In medieval Europe, the freedom of clergy to worship a jealous god without being constrained by the civil authorities. In modern Europe, the right of bankers (as in independent Bank of England) to worship dear money and high unemployment without being constrained by elected representatives. Concept expressed clearly, if tactlessly, by DeAnne Julius of the Bank of England’s monetary policy committee: “Even well-intentioned politicians are less able to make fine judgements about complex economic forecasts than professional economists.”

Democracy: A rare and demanding system of government imperfectly practised in southern Europe in the fifth century BC, France 1791-93 and in other parts of Europe, from time to time, since 1945. The British have never understood it.

The writer is an “Observer” columnist