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In response to the Evening Standard's call for 'a strong Conservative' government


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Every journalist should read George Orwell’s essay ‘Politics and the English Language’. It remains the best guide to writing clear, vigorous English, and is the best inoculation against waffle, lies, and ‘sheer humbug’. Orwell gives six rules:

1. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.

3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.

5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything barbarous.

An article in yesterday’s Evening Standard breaks all six. I suspect its author is also its own editor, George Osborne, since it is poorly written and fails to achieve any of its stated aims. ‘[We] believe this country needs a strong Conservative team as the next government,’ it proclaims. I’m unconvinced.

Its first sentence lacks a comma: ‘General elections are about power not protest.’ Its passive constructions leer out from nearly every paragraph. My favourite is: ‘The disappearance on the eve of poll of Diane Abbott.’ Passives have their place, of course. ‘The valley of Death’s shadow’ is pathetic compared with the King James Version’s anapaestic grandeur. A good editor would both spot and recast the passive to the active voice. Surely it is better to say ‘Diane Abbott’s disappearance on the eve of poll’?

But then I too would write in timid passives if I were defending a lie. The article’s claims are as egregious as the sentences expressing them. Its author knows that plunging straight into sycophancy will raise suspicions, so it performs its obligatory critique of the Conservative manifesto first, and then only in outline. ‘There was not enough attention given to the budget deficit,’ apparently, but ‘we are confident that the economic plan pursued by the Tories since 2010’ - another passive - ‘which created record numbers of jobs, remains intact.’ Does it?

From 2010-17 there was a 1,121,486 increase in the number of people using three-day emergency food banks, just 0.03% of whom are unemployed. The majority, 26.45%, have low income jobs; just 5.43% are homeless. As chancellor, George Osborne increased the national debt by £555 million since 2010 - more new debt than every Labour government in history combined.

The Office for Budget Responsibility forced him to renege on his borrowing forecasts for 2018-19 by £16 billion. He reneged on plans to cut disability benefits by £4.4 billion, after Iain Duncan Smith’s resignation. And he reneged on his fear-mongering emergency Brexit budget once he and the Bank of England realised it wasn’t the apocalypse and we weren’t all about to die. Whether it’s Osborne or not, the author borrows from Orwell’s 1984 in rewriting history to suit their own agenda and to cover their own record.

I suppose we may give some credit to their mentioning Theresa May’s ‘spectacular U-turn’ on social care (the so-called dementia tax). That the author mentions these U-turns in the same article as its claim that ‘Theresa May…has shown strength and stability’, however, is doublethink. According to the Prime Minister, the naughtiest thing she’s ever done is piss off a farmer by running through fields of wheat.

The article could instead have mentioned the 20,000 police job losses during her tenure as Home Secretary, losses which several security experts have said increases the chance of terror attacks. It might have mentioned three other spectacular U-turns - on national income tax, workers on company boards, and the general election itself - from a manifesto that May has not even attempted to cost. If it is true that Labour’s costed manifesto ‘doesn’t add up’, at least it admits its mathematics.

The author then writes that ‘The Institute for Fiscal Studies states again today that Jeremy Corbyn’s published plans would give Britain the highest level of taxation in its peacetime history.’ This in itself is neither good nor bad, and depends upon one’s ideology, one’s beliefs about the state’s role in society. It does not entail destroying businesses or putting people out of work - a jump in reasoning the author falsely assumes is logical. But it takes a distinctively Tory nerve to suggest that a reasonable tax increase for the wealthiest in society will ‘mean fewer resources for the NHS’, a burden that ‘will hang like an albatross around the Party’s neck for years’.

Which returns us to the author’s many word crimes. The above imagery will mean nothing to most readers; and even to those who know of its origin in Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner, it is cliché. The author has time for one more crime in the last paragraph, when they ask what kind of country we want to be, ‘future-facing or backward looking’, violating the rule that parallel constructions demand parallel expression; ‘facing’ or ‘looking’, not both.

Print newspapers still wield enormous power in this country. The only power Osborne’s Evening Sub-Standard wield over me is the power to depress.

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