Intended for healthcare professionals

Book Book

New Labour, New Language?

BMJ 2000; 320 doi: (Published 27 May 2000) Cite this as: BMJ 2000;320:1480
  1. Jeff Aronson, clinical reader in clinical pharmacology
  1. Oxford

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    Norman Fairclough

    Routledge, £9.99, pp 178

    ISBN 0 415 21827 6

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    “I can suck melancholy out of a song,” says Shakespeare's Jaques, “as a weasel sucks eggs.” Hence the phrase “weasel words,” coined for political purposes in the United States at the end of the 19th century and used (most famously by Theodore Roosevelt, criticising President Woodrow Wilson) to describe rhetoric that sounds as if it has substance but is actually empty of specific meaning, or is at best ambiguous and vague. All competent politicians know, often purely instinctively, how to coin weasel words, or at least how to use them. But none is as good at it as Tony Blair and “new Labour,” according to Norman Fairclough in this penetrating disquisition, refreshingly free of sociolinguistic jargon and bolstered by linguistic evidence and analysis.

    Some short words make superb weasels. Like “we.” Not much ambiguity there, you might think. But “we” can be completely exclusive (the royal we, the authorial or editorial we) or completely inclusive (everybody). And in between are all shades of grey—I, you and I, the Cabinet, the government, parliament, the country, the world, the solar system, the universe. The trick is to make the meaning slide ambiguously from clause to clause, from sentence to sentence. Don't specify who “we” is, and everyone feels included. Inclusion, after all, makes you part of new Labour's “one nation,” what John Major less successfully described as a classless society. It also means that you can participate in “public-private partnership”—in other words, privatisation. And it contrasts with “social exclusion”—what we once called poverty. The Tory party used to call itself the natural party of government; now, by pandering to our desires to be included, new Labour tries to claim that unrealistic role for itself.

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    “Britain deserves better.” But did it deserve New Labour?


    Some other weasels also bare their teeth ambiguously: “values” (economic, political, or moral?) and “reform” (destruction or transformation?). Some are undefined: “work” and “change.” And some involve shifts in meaning: “trust” (defined as the “recognition of a mutual purpose”) and “dialogue” (which means not discussion but diatribe). Even “the” is not exempt—it is used to give verisimilitude to non-existent entities (“the international community”). Other weasels need no gloss: “quality,” “evidence,” “governance”—we have all come to know what they mean, or think we have.

    But some of this subtlety subverts itself. When Blair evokes “joined up government” has he forgotten that joined up writing is what children aspire to but adults consider trivial? Probably—politicians are too often fooled by their own rhetoric (remember Mrs Thatcher's famous pronouncement that “we are a grandmother”?). And when he talks about the “third way,” does Blair really want to raise echoes in our minds of the Third World—countries that we used to call underdeveloped? Or even the Third Reich?

    Some of the rhetoric is even derisory. “The Tories stand only for the privileged few,” says Blair. “We stand for the many.” Now this is just a rehash of Mr Spock's Star Trek dictum that “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” But in the hands of new Labour's rhetoricians, such trite sentiments are intended to catch votes, not to express real policies. The rhetoric creates the policies, not the other way round. Indeed, the rhetoric hides the absence of policies. Although Professor Fairclough curiously fails to note this fact, he does point to what he calls the reality-rhetoric dichotomy, exemplified by the contrast between rhetoric about open government and the restrictive reality of the Freedom of Information Bill.

    Lest you doubt his interpretation, Professor Fairclough presents the evidence—an analysis of word counts and collocations in two bodies of writings and speeches, one from new Labour and one from the old left. He shows how words like reform, business, values, and work are no longer used to mean what they once did—that the weasels have got more weaselly. Disappointingly, he fails to compare these two bodies of texts with a comparable body of right wing texts (although he does occasionally cite Mrs Thatcher and President Clinton for comparison). Nor does he point to the rhetorical device of talking about “the old left,” which is pejorative, rather than “old Labour,” which has a resonance of its own.

    But the message is clear. If you don't want to be too weaselly misled, look out for the weasel words and structures in everything you read. Look for them in the political manifestos, in executive directives, in the next letter from your friendly consultant. Oh yes, and even in book reviews.

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