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
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.