NEWS: Why Joy Johnson is right to blast Blair the obscure

Fair dos. Having lashed Joy Johnson for her impractical views on killing the Parliamentary Lobby, I ought now to record my agreement with the ex- BBC political news editor who lasted but a troubled year as campaigns director in Labour’s over-crowded and frenetic spin-surgery.

Fair dos. Having lashed Joy Johnson for her impractical views on killing

the Parliamentary Lobby, I ought now to record my agreement with the ex-

BBC political news editor who lasted but a troubled year as campaigns

director in Labour’s over-crowded and frenetic spin-surgery.



She has just used the New Statesman to lambast the style and content of

Labour’s language which, she says, has become more elaborate and

obscure. In fact, her real target was Labour’s inability to pass the

Johnson soundbite test which combines mood with credibility and

memorability. She has no liking for such alien phrases as ‘British

dream’ (American), ‘young country’ (Australian) or the meaningless word

‘renewal’ as in economic, democratic or social renewal.



But, as Barbara Castle’s ex-speechwriter in the late 1960s, I know what

Ms Johnson is getting at but sadly did not develop. Let me try to define

it. It is not really writer’s block. Nor is it a feeling that you

haven’t a clue what you are talking about. Indeed, you feel very

confident of what is in your principal’s mind. But can you find

ordinary, respectable four letter words in which to express it clearly

and concretely? Can you hell.



You try every which way you can to generate excitement and enthusiasm

with your leader’s ‘vision’ but you end up on crutches. Before you know

where you are, you are stringing together sentences full of

superficially arresting or cosy, mellifluous abstractions such as Harold

Wilson’s ‘white heat of technology’ or Tony Blair’s ‘new’, ‘young’,

‘dream’ and, of course, that splendid word ‘renewal’. ‘Revolution’ is

another of these overworked words which usually end in ‘shun’. Mr

Wilson’s phrase was at least memorable. It might even have worked. He

did - just - become Prime Minister in 1964. Mr Blair may also succeed

with his resort to uplifting, if obscure, words or phrases. But none of

this kids old speechwriters like me - or Ms Johnson. We want to know

what, if any substance, lies behind the studied comfort of the language.



‘What does it mean?’ Margaret Thatcher used to scream when people talked

of ‘compassion’ (‘with other people’s money!’), ‘vision’ (to which she

was averse) and, of course, ‘society’ which led her to define it and

not, as myth has it, to reject the notion.



This does not mean that the Tories have abandoned, still less banned,

abstractions. Everyone needs these sticks, especially when they are

playing for time or thinking their way towards new policies or

approaches - as Mrs Castle was in her union-reforming ‘In Place of

Strife’ days.



But the people, and not just speechwriters, can recognise waffle at five

yards. This, I think, is what Ms Johnson is getting at. She is right to

prescribe more grit than treacle in Labour’s diet.



Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Register
Already registered?
Sign in

Would you like to post a comment?

Please Sign in or register.