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20 August 2001

Do you speak New Labour?

Nick Cohen discovers a little-known pamphlet published by Jessica Mitford in 1956 and finds a little

By Nick Cohen

Nancy Mitford’s Noblesse Oblige made her better, if not better-known, sister shudder. Jessica (Decca to family and friends) Mitford’s reaction to Nancy and the rest of an aristocratic family that was a touch too fond of fascism, even by the standards of the Thirties, had been to convert to communism and flee, via Spain, to America. When a copy of her sister’s Noblesse Oblige, with its elucidation of U (upper-class) and non-U language, reached her in exile, she retaliated with a cyclo-styled pamphlet for friends and lefty bookshops, a copy of which I found recently among my father’s papers.

Left-wingers, she thought, were unlikely “to find much of practical value” in the knowledge that the best society said “hall” rather than “lounge”, substituted “false teeth” for “dentures”, and preferred “napkin” to “serviette”. A crash course in “L” (left-wing) and “non-L” terminology would be far more useful to those mystified by Marxist rhetoric, she thought. “A spot-check has convinced us that the need for such a course, both for beginners and for more advanced students, has long been felt by many,” she wrote.

Lifeitselfmanship or How to Become a Precisely-Because Man was published in 1956 under her married name, Decca Treuhaft, and sold for “1/-“, five pence in new money. She begins with helpful translations:

“Non-L: ‘Time will tell whether that plan was OK.’

“L equivalent: ‘The correctness of that policy will be tested in life itself.’ (Alt., ‘in the crucible of struggle’).

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“Non-L wife to husband: ‘I’m having tea with Mrs Snodgrass this afternoon. Some of the nursery school mothers will be there; we’re going to talk about expanding the school.’

“L wife to L husband: ‘I’m going to spend the afternoon doing mass work.’ (Alt., ‘at a meeting of my mass org.’) ‘We are projecting some expanded goals on the Woman Question.’ “

After readers had grasped the basics, Mitford interrogated them, asking, for instance: “What must we do soberly?”

“Evaluate, estimate, assess, anticipate (correct answers); go down to the nearest bar (incorrect answer).”

Or: “List various kinds of struggle.

“Answer: All out, political, class, cultural, principled, many-sided, one-sided, inner-party.”

The exam wasn’t exhaustive, she accepted, but she “sincerely hoped and believed that more qualified scholars” would take up where her paper left off. Students, she continued, would “no doubt be anxious to dig in further and learn more about the correct approach to L-usage”.

All an ambitious young person can learn from Mitford today is that there’s nothing new about political correctness. If he or she (and I must make it clear that “he” is always followed by “or she”) were fool enough to follow her advice and talk of “lackeys of the bourgeoisie” or “Wall Street galloping to its own destruction”, the seat in the House of Lords or the chairmanship of the BBC governors would be lost for ever.

Maybe a new century demands a guide to NL (New Labour) usage. In his first speech to the Labour Party conference, Tony Blair had the cheek to list among Britain’s advantages speaking “the world’s first language, English”. But when he got into power he blurted out that he had found “you really have to learn a whole new language”. Quite so. Novices must first master NL theory.

False synthesis

As Professor Norman Fairclough, the Noam Chomsky of NL linguistics, has argued, NL speakers reject the hitherto dominant belief that choices must be made. Opposites are crushed by NL into harmony. For example, the government’s 1997/98 annual report offers a false synthesis – “A belief in social justice and economic dynamism, ambition and compassion, fairness and enterprise going together” – since an examination of modern Britain tells you ambitious dyn-amos are cosseted, while social justice, com-passion and fairness are in the doghouse.

Exterminate all the verbs

Traditional grammarians maintain that a sentence must have a subject and a verb. They are keen on an object, too. Keith Waterhouse and others have countered that there can be sentences without verbs – “Not so.” “Of course.” “Definitely.” These are rare in non-NL English, but are everywhere in NL. It was probably after listening to speakers at an NL party conference that the compilers of the Oxford English Dictionary were reduced to offering the despairing definition of a sentence as: “Such a portion of composition or utterance as extends from one full stop to another.”


National decline is hidden behind inflated language. When NL won the 1997 election, it was determined to stick to Tory spending programmes. Reform was impossible. The self-imposed restriction didn’t prevent Tony Blair proclaiming in 1997: “Today I say to the British people: the chains of mediocrity have been broken, the tired days are behind us, we are free to excel. We are free to build that model 21st century, to become that beacon to the world. Creative. Compassionate.”

Working-class heroism

Despite being members of the most right-wing and unaccountable Labour government to date – a regime dominated by patronage and place-seeking, rather than the ballot box and the legislature – NL speakers pose as the tribunes of the masses fighting aristocratic enemies. “For too long, we have been undermined by weaknesses of elitism and snobbery.” (NL’s 2001 Manifesto).

Resourcing the humans

Much of NL should properly be con-sidered as a dialect of the mother jargon of corporate America. US influence rationalises the superficially absurd working-class heroism (in the United States, it is “elitist” to criticise multinationals which, after all, democratically give the public what it wants) and is at the root of stagflation (on Madison Avenue, it is a commonplace to refer to a new computer programme or training shoe as “revolutionary” or a “liberation”). Above all, the American connection explains NL’s otherwise inexplicable devotion to the fads and delusions of the burst Wall Street bubble: the “new economy, new paradigm, internet revolution”. There are scores – maybe hundreds – of Americans who will know what David Blunkett meant by: “Investment in human capital will be the foundation for success in the knowledge-based economy.”

Understand these principles and the NL answers to the following non-NL questions will make a kind of sense to moderately able learners and perfect sense to star pupils (possible answer in italics).

1. Why are you going to see Mrs Snodgrass this afternoon?
She is starting up the forum of the Pre-School Alliance for Lifelong Learning Partnerships for the Minus-Fives.

2. What turns you on, baby?
“I feel really excited by the prospect of the One-Stop Shop Website.” (Actually said by Christine Butler, Lab, Castle Point, to the Commons.)

3. List as many desirable types of change as you can think of.
Sensibly radical; radically centrist; structured; managed; bold; unprecedentedly technological (but only if managed to help people cope); fundamental (of the old Labour Party only); overdue; real and immediate; step.

4. My watch has stopped. Do you have the time?
It’s 2001, not 1945.

5. How would you describe fellow citizens who take to the streets to protest that the gap between rich and poor is too large?
“The forces of conservatism, the cynics, the elites, the establishment” (Blair); “white people from privileged countries” (Clare Short); people who should “prefer to be at home with their own families” (Blair again).

6. What is to be done?
What works.

7. What works?
Targets; performance indicators; roll-outs; springboards for success; partnerships; caring with purpose; prudence with a purpose; reinforcing our values; no longer fighting yesterday’s battles; toughness; cracking down hard.

8. Does the public admire independence of spirit?
“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 . . . if I had not been the Labour Party candidate, I would not have voted for me either.” (Shona McIsaac, NL, Cleethorpes)

9. What is the ideal government?
“Not only pro-environment, but pro-growth; not just pro-labour, but pro-business, too.” (Bill Clinton)

10. What do we want?
“Ours, y’know is a simple enough vision. But it will require a supreme national effort. It is the task for the whole people. Not just a government. But great rewards for all of us if we can rise to them – as we can. As one nation.” (Tony Blair) OR

“Causes worth fighting for. Let us seize our opportunity. And let us use it well.” (Gordon Brown)

11. What should I do with my leaky tap?
Form a quality private-public partnership with a plumber. Allow him to borrow at the highest rate and then to triple his profit margin to take account of the genuine risk of the depreciation of your washers. Pay him back by signing an irrevocable 30-year rental contract which also permits him to sell off your kitchen as a best-value asset. Uniformly high consumer focus will be delivered.

Given the abundance of material, I’m painfully aware of the inadequacy of a short course. Like Ms Mitford, I hope more qualified scholars will take it from here.

Non-L Poem
(From “A Psalm of Life”, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1838)

Tell me not in mournful numbers,
Life is but an empty dream!
And the soul is dead that slumbers,
And things are not what they seem.

Let us, then, be up and doing,
With a heart for any fate;
Still achieving, still pursuing,
Learn to labour and to wait.

L translation
(Decca Mitford, 1956)

Do not project to me in moods of pessimism and despair
The perspective that no positive conclusions can be drawn from the present relationship of forces.
For we must focus attention on the key issues.

Let us therefore mobilise the broad masses
To a realisation of their historic task within the political climate.
We shall continue to win victories in the crucible of struggle.
As we develop correct tactics to the concrete situation.

NL translation

Look. The elitists sneer we cannot have more.
Hope. The future caring.
A beacon worth fighting for.
But the indicators say. Be daring.

Let us then seize our springboards.
Leaping, to higher, not lower, targets.
Partnering upward. Breaking old cords.
Tightening benefits. Expanding stock markets.

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