Politics-speak is the art of saying nothing, but with fancy words that sound impressive. At least, they sound impressive to some listeners. And it’s not only politicians who use them.
For those who aren’t politics junkies, it may be useful to know that when a newspaper runs a story criticising an organisation (or a government), the organisation is usually given a right of reply. That reply often appears in full at the end of the critical article.
Those replies are great places to find political buzzwords.
Or bromides, if you prefer.
Gives you a chance to count them. Or to laugh at their absurdities?
Buzzwords in practice: at pace
Take this example from a national newspaper which had run an article criticising Brexit and the Environment Department for leaving “the door ajar for invasive species to enter the UK.” The article focused, in particular, on the Asian hornet that kills native bees. The official reply from Defra ran as follows:
The UK operates one of the toughest borders in the world in protecting the nation from the introduction of pests and diseases. Whilst our analysis shows the arrival of Asian hornets on imported potted plants is very unlikely, we continue to work at speed to locate and investigate any reports of Asian hornets, and urge the public to continue to play their vital role in identifying and reporting them.
What caught my eye was the phrase I’ve put in bold: “we continue to work at speed”. I haven’t seen “at speed” used in a context like this for, oh, months and months. The true buzzword for this context is surely “working at pace“, isn’t it?
How many times, during the pandemic, were we told that everyone in government was working at pace?
And the working at pace continues (ahem) apace, apparently.
Back in 2020, the British and French governments were, yes, “working at pace on a plan to halt migrant Channel crossings“. Remember how that went?
Then a few months ago, civil servants were said to be working at pace on the fan-led review of football governance. Nothing had actually happened there for at least 12 months.
And when the UK Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, was recently questioned about the failure to set up a compensation framework at the infected blood inquiry, his response was that work continued “at pace”. Which told us what exactly about the compensation framework?
Working at pace. What does it mean? Anything at all?
No, it’s a classic misdirection. The question asked is usually of the form, “What have you achieved?” or “What have you delivered?”. The at pace answer says, effectively, “We haven’t actually delivered anything, but we’re working on it, honest guv. Something will appear. In due course…”
And in due course is another of those useful political expressions that no one can nail down, not even a ranting Dame…
Getting behind the jargon
But it could equally well mean snail’s pace.
And too often, it does.
It’s up to us, the consumers of this political jargon, to decide what it all really means. If it means anything at all.
In the PM’s case, at the infected blood enquiry, the listeners certainly did decide.
They heckled him and jeered.
What does it really mean?
If you want to know what a buzzword really means, you have to replace the jargon with its opposite and see if that would make sense to listeners and readers.
Can you imagine a politician saying “We are working slowly to fix this problem” ? Or perhaps “working lazily to fix it”?
No, of course not.
And if the opposite makes no sense, then the buzzwords are telling us precisely nothing.
They are artificial foam, whipped up on the top of the water, meant to prevent anyone from seeing the murk underneath.
Is your jargon fit for purpose?
Sometimes, political buzzwords can do more harm than good, but most politicians haven’t cottoned on yet. Those buzzwords seem to be programmed into their speech circuits. (I have offered to re-educate them, for a very reasonable fee. They think they are fine and don’t need my help. They think their English is clear and that their communication is first-class. Yes, quite.)
What about a phrase like “not fit for purpose” then? Heard that one lately?
“Not fit for purpose” was born as a political buzzword when John Reid was Home Secretary back in the noughties. He was referring to the Home Office, his latest department, and using a phrase that stems from the Sale of Goods Act 1979 where it has legal force.
He was saying, in reality, that the department he had just taken over didn’t work and couldn’t work without major change.
But politicians often want to dress up their messages in high-flown language. So, instead of saying the Home Office couldn’t function properly, Reid borrowed a legal term and said the Home Office wasn’t “fit for purpose”.
I recall that when Reid first said that, it provoked mirth from commentators. They probably didn’t know that it was a proper legal term and might have assumed Reid had made it up.
But “not fit for purpose” has since become standard for any politician or commentator who wants to rubbish an organisation.
That’s how political buzzwords are born.
Buzzwords are hard to swat (like those pesky hornets)
Once they enter the political lexicon, buzzwords can acquire a life of their own. And like the Asian hornets killing precious honey bees, they can be difficult to get rid of.
In fact, they can become so common that civil servants sometimes run sweepstakes on how often the latest jargon will be used in a debate or an interview.
Expressions such as “damaging uncertainty” aren’t heard so often now, for example, but were very common back in the 80s and 90s. I remember a sweepstake on that one. Sadly, I only came second, so the whisky went to someone else. (I don’t think the winner cheated but who knows?)
These days we have, instead, the “optics of an issue”, for example. (I did warn you that politicians like their words to sound impressive, didn’t I?)
“Optics” generally means that the issue looks bad and will produce bad headlines. The political remedy is not to fix the problem but to dress up the outcome so that it looks less bad.
In hopes that the punters will be fooled.
They might even say that they’re working on it. At pace 😉
Or there’s the “political calculus” which is similarly high-flown and means, roughly, “How can we make this policy look a great deal better than it really is without actually changing anything?”
You probably have more examples that you can cite?
The unvarnished truth? Plain English?
What if those in positions of power told us the truth?
Or at least told us what they really meant, in plain English?
So no more calculus or optics. And certainly no more working at pace.
What about confessing that they don’t actually have a policy because it’s too difficult?
Or that they can’t decide which set of voters to offend so they’re putting off any decision at all until after the election?
Honest, yes. Politics? No, sadly not.
They know, and we know, that if they were straightforward and honest, very few of us would vote for them. So maybe we get the political jargon we deserve?