Simon Carr's Week

A Way With Words
Jan. 22 2002 2:38 PM

Simon Carr's Week

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When train operators make an effort to be frank, they find they just can't do it. Language has decayed so much in Britain that they find it increasingly difficult to take responsibility for anything: "We apologise for the delay of the train arriving at Platform 1", I heard recently. "The delay has been caused by delays". When I caught a train from Oxford to London, as I regularly do, my "cheap day return" ticket was rejected by the collector. The reduced terms were only valid, he said, for travel after 9 a.m. I pointed out that the train (which was delayed) had left the station at 9.15. "For the purposes of ticketing, the train is deemed to have left on time", the fat ticket collector said. When I objected, he scoffed: "You know the score. You've been on this train many times before". Only by viciously suppressing a burst of train rage did I avoid adding to the year's casualty figures. Now we see that Arriva Trains North doesn't have enough train drivers, so they are carrying passengers by 16-seat minibuses. The minibuses are designated as "trains" by the Strategic Rail Authority. Newspeak is gaining ground in this New Britain. A bus is a train, for the purposes of timetabling.

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But this tendency isn't confined to the lower reaches of public life; it goes all the way to the top. "By how much has the tax burden risen since New Labour came to power?" It's a question that has been asked frequently in the two years I've been watching parliament on behalf of the Independent. The answer is, more or less, by 2.5 percent of Gross Domestic Product: about £25 billion (about $36 billion). But when faced with the question, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury has an interesting answer. "The tax burden", he says, "is falling". In an even balder misstatement, Tony Blair insists that the House of Lords blocked the hunting bill, which it didn't, while he dismisses a charge against his Deputy Prime Minister—the charge that John Prescott has a cheap flat from his sponsoring trade union, a benefit worth some £10,000 ($14,000) a year, totalling by now a quarter of a million pounds ($370,000)—as "the usual rubbish".

In this world of Alice in Wonderland linguistics, our Government sets targets for health, education, and transport knowing they will never be achieved. When they're not achieved, the Government proposes even more ambitious targets on an even longer time scale. Where we had five-year plans, now we have 10-year plans. Except in the matter of child poverty, where it is a 20-year plan. This last target is particularly perverse because poverty is not something that can ever be abolished (anyone who lives on half the national wage is defined as being in poverty). Our leaders only really know that in five, 10 or 20 years, the voters, the media, the interest groups will all have forgotten what has been promised. And their fatuous plans, their cross-cutting, interdepartmental, overarching national strategies will have been overtaken by other plans, other statements, other aspirations, targets, and benchmarks.

Why are words important in politics? As Rosencrantz—or possibly Guildenstern—said in Tom Stoppard's play, "They're all we've got to go on". Occasionally, a linguistic blow is struck for the forces of righteousness. One of the senior BBC team told me how Robin Cook was defeated by the Foreign Office. When he was appointed Foreign Secretary, Mr. Cook wanted to get a woman friend (now his wife) into his departmental office. The Foreign Office was aghast at the idea, but was unable to say quite why; not face-to-face anyway. The civil servant gravely told his master: "I'm afraid, Minister, it will be impossible for the lady to be appointed. Investigations have pointed to the fact that she seems to be having an affair with a senior member of this office". The old Civil Service would mislead its victims by saying nothing at all. In modern politics, the victims—essentially, all of us—are misled every time anything is said.