LABOUR, NEW LANGUAGE?
of the book NEW LABOUR, NEW LANGUAGE? by Norman Fairclough (Routledge)
about New Labour's rhetoric. Some words cut out by The Guardian
have found their way back in.
The main explicit claim of this book is that Tony Blair and New Labour are taking the marketing or merchandising of politics further than ever before. The main implicit claim is that this takes them and our politics further away from truth and honesty. And that less of truth and honesty lets you dilly-dally on the way towards a decent society.
Norman Fairclough is Professor of Language in Social Life at Lancaster University, and he does indeed concentrate on the language of New Labour. Numbers of uses of words in a computerized corpus of speeches, manifestos, Green Papers and what-not are counted up. There is the news, which it is possible receive calmly, that "values" turns up 64 times but never in the collocation "socialist values". We are enlightened about the populist use of the glottal stop. Also about Blair's poetic, this being discernible in his recollection of Gower St. transfigured, as it was by the people when he was on the way to Buckingham Palace after the election.
For much of the book we hear of New Labour's Third Way and of a good deal else as "discourse". But we are not to be so mundane or merely English as to take discourse to consist in a stretch of speaking or writing. Discourse is something constructed in discourse mundanely understood. Discourse can have discourse in it. It is, or it has to do with, a representation or vision of the world as it is and should be. Government is not only in but really is discourse. Late in the book it is only moderately reassuring to hear that when an army's artillery levels a village that is not just discourse.
It is pretty easy to put up with this advanced thinking because the book is also cogent. There are excellent reflections on Blair's rhetoric in his sincere and perfect words to her sons on the death of Diana. Other reflections in the book also carry conviction. It is indeed a little crooked for New Labour to go on endlessly about how it will achieve both of two things that in an ordinary understanding are irreconcileable, say marketism and social justice. Contradictions do exist, and they are necessarily false. If you say you're a good Christian and you didn't actually intend a contradiction in what you just said, you'll just have to say something else. It won't be the same. It won't be so emollient.
Our author does not tolerate the hypocritical pretence of this government, as of almost all governments, that what it wants is a necessity and that nothing else is possible. It isn't just political realism but also managerial politics to run together the inevitability of globalization with the inevitability of neo-liberal globalization. There is deception by omission with such nominalizations as "global change", which leave out the principal agents, these being the multinationals. It's not forces and economic tides, but boards of directors making money, who are responsible for other people having McJobs.
Does this sort of thing establish that with New Labour we have got a new language -- in the sense both that it has more to do with marketing than what went before and that it is further from truth and honesty?
New Labour has indeed been getting too close to the creativity of an adman as against the intelligence of a good essay or a frank conversation. It is not as straight as Michael Foot. But for me it is not further into falsehood and lying than the government that went before it. Not only Mrs. Thatcher playing St. Francis of Assisi comes to mind, but the role in a lying election of the now wonderfully rehabilitated Mr. Patten. It was also possible to lie by means of what you can call the old rather than a new spin on things, and there was a lot of that.
It does seem more the case with New Labour than its predecessors that its policies are talked into being in telly interviews and the like. Whether something becomes a commitment, or a commitment for a while, turns importantly on what it sounds like. Norman Fairclough is inclined to deplore this tendency.
But there is some hope in this fact that New Labour is still no settled thing. The party may grow averse to going so much by the sound of things. It can make you ratty at the despatch box, and it doesn't make for a good life, even with the chauffeurs. Clear truth for itself can turn out to be worth something.
This is a real book, not by a spin-doctor. Read it and worry. Read it and hope.
11 March 2000