I don’t tend to use this blog as a platform for having a go at people who are technically still children. It seems a bit, well, non-LD. Nor am I socialist enough to be gratuitously rude about rich people per se without a good reason. After all, many of my dearest friends are rich people. Damn them.

But the People’s Republic is in sore need of an easy target to break a recent bout of blogger’s block, and I’m willing to take a punt and say that Cheltenham Ladies’ College schoolgirls are almost certainly never going to be any of my favourite people. I can say this in safety at the grand old age of (now) twenty-nine since it is a statistical probability that I have already made the bulk of my best friends, and the chances of my having to make an embarrassing climb-down are remote (prove me wrong in the comments and see just how pink I can go). Furthermore, they make up a fabulously small and probably unremittingly Tory slice of the electorate. Plus, despite my rapid rate of ageing, I’m still in that perfect bracket where it’s permissible to have a go at young people and tell them they’re talking complete bull and not be accused of being a jealous, creaking old fartbag. No, on the whole, I am content to stand up and be counted as an enemy of Cheltenham Ladies’ College and all its works.

So, what the hell, I’m going to tear a strip off one of the simpering, over-entitled little madams for causing trees to be cut down in the cause of some self-absorbed ropey old toss called An A-Z of Teen Talk (as if any vaguely sentient person between the ages of 13 and 19 would ever describe themselves as a “teen”). How was this shocking waste of cultural brainspace allowed to happen? Apparently, she came up with the idea after her father claimed not to understand a word she and her sister were saying to each other. Somehow I find this really difficult to believe. It only takes a slightly enquiring mind to take on board new linguistic usages. My own father is currently in the habit of adding “an’ shit” onto the end of every sentence, after the Armstrong and Miller chav pilots sketches, and my mother works in Youth Services and collects new gems all the time - a recent favourite was “I mean like, go there, innit” which we agreed, over tea, to be an incredibly sophisticated construction whose interpretation is as follows:

My opinion is [filler] that one shouldn’t consider this course of action and I know it to be likely, given your various experiences in the area under discussion, that you agree [filler].

What marvellous economy and creativity went into producing that pared-down phrase. “Don’t go there” is already abstract slang - to trim it still further while retaining the meaning is a triumph of pithy sophistication. Simpering schoolgirl and I agree on that much at least.

In fact, that in itself gives me pause for thought – what normal child does this sort of thing? Whatever happened to alienation, disaffection, having your stomach pumped? Why is this chirpy media-friendly sprig embarking on a career as a by-the-till dross-spinner and beaming out of my broadsheet in a pretty polka-dot dress, rather than huddled up  on a beanbag clutching a bottle of Diamond White with over-mascara’d tears running over her pustules and plotting her revenge on an ungrateful world? I’ll tell you why, it’s because she’s a dangerously over-privileged poppet who already knows for an absolute fact that said world will never, ever shit on her. Oh bwahahaha, that’s like sooooo funny, it’s like sooo much of a like cultural trend, I should like sooooo write a book [upward emphasis].

So much for her stomach-churning good intentions to aid parental understanding. The underlying reality is of course a stone-hearted determination to keep herself in Accessorize goodies for life by publishing “updates” and probably, by and by, “commentating” on related yoof issues. Have you ever been in the Cheltenham branch of Accessorize? It is terrifying. They stop at nothing. Nothing. And nor will she. Your worldview will be contaminated with her complacent, self-important little rich girl chatter for years to come. You read it here first.

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice
Thought to be moderately diverting by Mr Stephen Tall

Mary Reid has tagged me with this ‘ere meme to ruminate publicly on my nominations for the Womens’ Blogger awards.

The People’s Republic has stayed silent on this so far because we are mindful of the ever-sage words of Don Liberali, who points out that the announcement of the Gender Balance Campaign Women Bloggers Award follows on the heels of the Cleggster’s call for the party to stop gazing at its navel. We believe this is a perfectly well made point as it stands, and are keen to avoid a practical demonstration from the Don of the difference between “introversion” and “extroversion”, using, perhaps, fingernails, or some like handy exemplar.

Nonetheless, a round-up of my mixed feelings on this subject is appropriate before I proceed. My first reaction was rather similar to Jonathan Calder’s. It is right and proper that the first suspicion attaching to these things is that they are some sort of reward for being a woman. Which naturally we do not like, having always managed to run an entire Republic perfectly well without any sort of special treatment. The onus is slightly on the organisers to show that this is a good idea. On one count, their failure to do so is deafening, because as Jennie Rigg points out, there are actually more women blogging in toto than men, and among them no shortage of political women bloggers. The rare beasts are the women who blog exclusively about politics and therefore fit easily into the Lib Dem blogosphere created by men, a hierarchical, categorising, one-track world of award categories, aggregators, round-ups and so forth. And it is a leetle crazy for the CGB to be saying, hm, there aren’t enough women bloggers who blog in the same way as men, therefore we should provide an award to encourage them to do so.

I don’t in any case hold with the notion that women will find the presence of an award particularly encouraging. To my mind it just makes the blogosphere look like even more of a closed club with its own unwritten conventions, social networks and quality controls than ever. If you’re a natural techie – male or female – and have that instant sense of entitlement to online presence, you’ll have no trouble blogging. If, like me, you’re not, you won’t see yourself as a natural blogger. There’s something about the printed word – even onscreen – that is still artificially mystical to the averagely technical person. I have written thousands upon thousands of words over the years in letters, in emails, in journals, in various private and public mental exercises. Writing is what I do, how I get through the day. The fact that someone as naturally inclined to splurge words as I am could look at the blogosphere even for one moment and see it as nothing particularly to do with me (granted that it didn’t then take me long to get stuck in) should tell its own story. Women, for a whole host of cultural reasons, are more inclined to assume that a self-sufficient system like the Lib Dem blogosphere has closed doors. But when I did start blogging properly I was almost instantly absorbed into the community, and what had looked, from the outside, like closed doors turned out to be no doors at all. This is the message we need to be putting across to women, that the doors aren’t there, not that there’s a chance they could win something if they get through them.

Having said all that, there are nominations I am itching to make, and so I have an alternative paradigm. I am going to try to see the award in terms of fostering a peculiarly female writing style, and a peculiarly female political style. Because women, on the whole, do write a little differently, and do politic a little differently. I am interested in the question of whether this will enable us, over time, to make a unique contribution to liberal discourse that the male-dominated blogosphere alone could not have made. Perhaps, if we invoke the spirit of Mary Wollstonecraft and gaze at our navels enough, we might discover what this contribution is.

I’m going to be a bit naughty and subvert the meme because not being, as I say, an instinctive blogger type, I don’t actually read that many blogs – of either gender or any allegiance. I will be interested to see what my tags come up with.

Best Lib Dem women’s blog

No question on this one – Charlotte’s my girl. She’s thoughtful, honest, wry, infectiously passionate, incredibly prolific and has an enviable knack of writing posts that attract world class comment threads, in which she is always a keen and facilitatory participant. There is something distinctively female about the way she writes as well – in the best possible way, she is asking her readership for its opinion, as much as pronouncing her own. And her position evolves as the discussion progresses as well (how rare is that?). If you don’t read her, you should. She’s easily a better blogger than many of the mediocre men out there who feel themselves entitled to vomit their inflexible opinions into the multiverse (well, this is a feminist topic; I can be a bit rude). Go girl.

I also love reading Bridget Fox and Paula Keaveney (Paula, to my dismay, seems to be inaccessible from the aggregator at this time).

Best Lib Dem womens’ blog post

Jo Christie-Smith on what female politicians should look like - made me think, made me stare, made me lose my . . . suit. Jo has told me on one of my own comment threads that there is a “tipping point” in positive discrimination; when a legislative body is composed of at least 30% women, the culture changes. More common sense, less aggression, less peacock display . . .  less suits? Roll on that day.

Best non-Lib Dem women’s blog

I’ve never met Jennie Rigg. But she strikes me as a force for good in the world. Her blog is hilarious and compassionate and liberal and warm and cynical (and purple); she is the perfect exemplar of the female blogger who mostly blogs about politics but not always. Her (happily increasingly) frequent contributions to Lib Dem Voice are also the apogee of constructive criticism. We all need a little Jennie in our lives.

Special mention

They’re not on there now, but Jo Anglezarke’s early goon-humour posts made me rock with laughter – I couldn’t comment on them appreciatively because at that point Jo was blogging on MySpace, and frankly the People’s Republic doesn’t need another interweb outlet to waste its life on. But it sometimes strikes me that fresh humour is desperately what the Lib Dem blogosphere needs, and I salute Jo accordingly.

Three women I would like to see blog

Dame Fiona Caldicott, Principal of Somerville College, Oxford

Jenni Murray

The Queen

My tags

These may overlap with others’ tags, so apologies in advance:

Andy Mayer


Jock Coats

Rob Fenwick

Will Howells

Following the whole Fairytales of New York malarkey, I had noticed Alex Wilcock’s unlikely-sounding account of the derivation of the word “faggot”, and was forced to weigh my deep-seated concern for sound etymology against the fact that I weally, weally wuv him, especially when he is having righteous anger. Love won (doesn’t it always) but then Jonathan Calder dismantled Alex’s flight of fancy anyway, so I am free to follow up.

Merriam-Webster offers this:

Main Entry:
earlier and dialect, contemptuous word for a woman or child, probably from 1fagot
usually disparaging : a male homosexual 

And the “1fagot ” definition referred to in there is as follows:

Main Entry:
or fag·got \ˈfa-gət\
Middle English fagot, from Anglo-French
14th century
bundle : as a: a bundle of sticks b: a bundle of pieces of wrought iron to be shaped by rolling or hammering at high temperature

The date of the word’s modern usage is given here as 1914, which fits with the account given in the passage Jonathan quotes, but the meaning shows that it was a much older dialect word. Originally, it was a perjorative for women and children, presumably later extended to men considered effeminate. It is said to be ultimately derived from the Middle English term for a bundle of something, usually firewood.

That clarified things somewhat, as Jonathan’s quote seemed to suggest that the word sprang into existence in the early twentieth century which is almost never the case. That last step about the firewood seemed a little odd to me though, and I started working on an alternative derivation (one of the most fun things I have ever learnt is that dictionary etymologies are often guesswork and sometimes just wrong) based on the stem of “faggot” being the same as that in “fey”, “fairy” etc, and the “-et” sounding suffix just being the usual diminutive you get in lots of Middle English words (piglet, cygnet etc). Then it occurred to me that there are two related casual insults for old women: “baggage” and “bundle”. Are these milder disparagements the surviving siblings of the word “faggot” perhaps, both applied to older women while “faggot” was applied to younger ones and children, before it was translated across to gay men where it acquired properly nasty overtones?

There is probably much more I could extrapolate, but I see that you have to go and wash your hair.

I discover to my delight that one of the parliamentary guidelines for writing Early Day Motions reads as follows:

  • no unparliamentary language or irony should be used

Oh, that’s like, so inconvenient. So is sarcasm ok? Satire? Superciliousness? Parody, so long as it’s well done and references its source? And in any case, is it acceptable to frame your motion with the words “Oh my god, it’s like . . . [text of motion] . . . innit though”?

Tomorrow the Plain English Campaign will award its annual prizes for clear language and its justly celebrated Golden Bulls for the, er, not quite so clear. The press release quotes the Bulls in mocking detail, if you fancy a smile.

It has always seemed to me that the Campaign suffers from a couple of key misapprehensions, which will have to be overcome if it is to remain relevant. I mean, naturally the People’s Republic believes it is a Good Thing. After all, its front page says that . . .

Since 1979, we have been campaigning against gobbledygook, jargon and misleading public information

. . . and so have I, so that’s splendid! And ninety per cent of what its main guidance leaflet has to say is sheer common sense. Two quibbles only. The less serious is that it recommends staying away from passive verbs and I have an unreasonable love of the passive. It’s just another verb construction. It means a slightly different thing to the active sense. There’s nothing innately scary about it. Compare:

The king overturned the council’s suggestion.

The council’s suggestion was overturned by the king.

These are subtly different meanings. They each imply a whole alternative web of interrelations between king, council and the thing suggested. Here’s a little comprehension exercise for you to do for each version, just like at skool:

1. Are the king and the council in the same room?

2. Was the king expected to interfere with the decision, or did his intervention come as a surprise?

3. Suppose what happened next was that the council  sent a representative to the king to argue the point: how would you find yourself linguistically tilting this fact?

But I’m splitting atoms here. The Plain English Campaign is not meant for me and my superfine abstract discrimination and my kings and councils. It is meant for people writing letters and public information. Fair nuff.

The other quibble, though, I think is more serious. The booklet linked to above carries the following list of proscribed words, with suggested alternatives in brackets:

· additional (extra)· advise (tell)· applicant (you)· commence (start)· complete (fill in)· comply with (keep to)· consequently (so)· ensure (make sure)· forward (send)· in accordance with (under, keeping to)· in excess of (more than)· in respect of (for)· in the event of (if)· on receipt (when we/you get)· on request (if you ask)· particulars (details)· per annum (a year)· persons (people)· prior to (before)· purchase (buy)· regarding (about)· should you wish (if you wish)· terminate (end)· whilst (while)

Hm. Some of these I agree with. It’s only silly crossword-loving romantics like me who still use “whilst” before a vowel. But imagine you are an immigrant without much English (or perhaps you have been), and you are crossly working your way through a letter about council tax or bank accounts or some other unutterably boring topic with a well-thumbed dictionary. Alternatively, think about how you translate something from Italian, if you’re not that familiar with Italian. Is it the long words that trip you up? Of course not – you can look them up and write the meaning down.

It’s the colloquial constructions, isn’t it. If you don’t know that qu’est-ce que c’est means “what is” you could spend hours painstakingly looking up each element and end up with something like “what is it that it is”. An even better example in English is the phrase “put up”. Think of all the contexts that gets used in. You can put up a shelf, put up with something, or put up someone for the night. Of course, some items in the list recognise this point – substituting “if” for “in the event of” can rarely be a bad idea (unless you’re me, but we’ve already established that none of these rules apply to me). But “make sure” and “keep to” are exactly the kind of phrases I would exclude (keep out) if I wanted to make my letter comprehensible to everyone from all backgrounds.

The distinction in the list is that, for the most part, the proscribed words are Norman French and Latinate in origin, while the bracketed words are from Germanic English. In linguistics, Norman French words are said to be the “higher register” of English, a socio-linguistic consequence of the Norman invasion that is still with us. But there is nothing innately more comprehensible about Germanic English. Often, as in many places here, the Norman French word is actually punchier and more precise, and doesn’t need clumsy common verbs linked to it to make it work. These words have stayed in the language for a reason – there wasn’t a word meaning that precise same thing already.

The point about my scenario with the non-English speaking immigrant and the dictionary is that it is a 2007 scenario, not a 1979 scenario. We’ve all changed a lot in 28 years but I get the feeling that the Plain English Campaign is lagging a bit.

I am too afraid of commitment to go to the cinema very often. Going to see a film involves sacrificing time and money with no certain guarantee that enjoyment will result. If I start a book and don’t like it, I can put it down again. If I go to the pub and it’s no fun, I can leave. If I watch a film on tellybox and it only half holds my attention, I can make some tea or paint my nails, read the IKEA catalogue or do a bit of blogging perhaps. But to walk out of a cinema is an admission of entertainment failure and a wanton waste of eight pounds fifty, which you only handed over in the first place so that someone else could control your environment, shroud you in over-heated darkness, crick your knees into arthritic shapes, put small, rumbustuous children behind you and the tallest man in Holland in front of you, give you a raging thirst and a queasy popcorn-filled stomach, and then finally churn you abruptly out of this isolation tank into a somehow unnervingly different world from the one you departed three hours earlier, blotchy-sighted, dehydrated and poorer by some twenty quid. No, you may keep the cinema as far as I am concerned.

Withal, being in the business of making my hangover a chicken and mushroom risotto this evening, I was pleased to find Elizabeth on terrestrial because it falls into the vast category of films I have always badly wanted to see, but didn’t go to the cinema for because it didn’t have the words “Pirates”, “Lord” or “Rings” in the title. I am a creature of habit, you see.

I think I and my hangover were just a little disappointed, after the several years’ low-key build-up. Visually it was gorgeous, and the emotional journey of the young queen from nervous tender-hearted moppet to divine untouchable was subtly drawn – so subtly that I only really noticed that this was what the film was all about in the last twenty-five minutes. I told you I don’t go to the cinema much.

But my main problem with it was that I judge historical films by how successfully they wrestle reality out of history – and I am not, for all the love of heaven, talking about historical accuracy. I really couldn’t give a toss about historical accuracy. No history is accurate anyway, fictional or not. It’s a non-starter to set out to reproduce a historical personage’s mind, opinions, speech, the way they moved through the world and the way that world acted upon them. Your portrayal of even the best recorded individuals, in the most well-documented periods, is never, ever going to amount to even ten per cent of the “truth”, even if we could agree on what the truth is, so you are really better off not bothering and serving the needs of your story instead.

In the case of Elizabeth, that means running a few different plots and happenstances together in a fairly freewheeling way, and it means involving a few people with things they were probably not, in fact, involved in. Fair enough, if it suits the story. I’m no expert anyway – I never could get on with the Tudors, ever since we “did” them twice at school, and “doing” history before GCSE mainly involves colouring in pictures of Henry VIII’s wives. What bothers me far more is that I have no better conception, having watched the film, of what sixteenth-century England was all about. And I think if you fail to answer – even to ask – that question, you have failed to create a piece of working, breathing historical fiction.

This may surprise, but my favourite historical film in the whole entire world ever is Gladiator. Now that I went to the cinema for, and I have never before or since walked home from seeing a movie in such an altered state. It was breathtakingly true to the Roman world. The storyline was an almost complete fabrication from start to finish, but everything I had ever read and thought about Rome was there in the very warp and weft of it – the centrality of family, household gods, the republican ideal, the elevation of talented generals to positions of power, bread and circuses, patricide, the pointlessly bloody frontier provinces, the influx of provincial talent to the political arena. The notion of being a good Roman, and what that was.

The opening and closing images of the film, as Maximus dreams of his modest estate and then returns to it in death, are pretty much an inspired recreation of the sturdy Roman landowner who leaves his farm only to vote or fight when required to do so for the good of Rome. He has done his work for the patria, now he returns to till the soil. The Catos, Elder and Younger, are the source material here, the Elder for his writings on agriculture and the Younger for his famously humourless integrity. The Catonian tradition of the noble, hard-working Roman, master of the world but humble in the home. I’m no fan of either – it’s hard to be, especially when they’re talking about knocking slaves on the head when they get old and feeble – and the ideal selfless Roman aristocrat was a myth even in their day, never mind by the period in which Gladiator is set, but I don’t care. Someone had immersed themselves so thoroughly in the memes, instincts and forces of a long-dead era that the story rang true, so true it provoked an emotional response in me which had nothing to do with the fate of the characters. Hector in The History Boys has it right, though he is talking about written fiction, when he says that coming across a thought in a book identical to one of your own is like “having someone reach out and take your hand”. And if you are thinking this is a rather elevated sentiment to be applying to a Ridley Scott movie, I riposte that Hector is famously an enthusiast of the lowbrow alongside the high.

And they didn’t stop at the Ladybird Book of Rome either. The staging and scripting of the palace scenes between Commodus and his sister are practically an open homage to Robert Graves’ I, Claudius. Any piece of story-telling that draws on both original material and other stories that have previously been based on it, and makes them into a flowing narrative entire of itself, is a sophisticated day’s work. Put simply, Gladiator tells you what Rome is all about, what it was about at the time and what it is about now, to us. Yes, it does this with almost ludicrous inaccuracy, including the biggest lie of all in the implication that the Republic was restored after Commodus’ death (which needless to say did not take place in the arena). But it gets away with it, because this is a story conceived by person or persons unknown who are actually interested in the period, interested in what ideas were floating around and what made the political machine tick. They are not interested in staging one-damn-thing-after-another history, or in making a contemporary point. Accusing the film of inaccuracy is as irrelevant as complaining that there are too many different surviving versions of the legends of King Arthur.

Contrast all this with the diabolical shambles that was Braveheart. This film ought on the face of it to please a historian more because it has considerably better claims to your poor old threadbare “accuracy” than either Gladiator or, for that matter, Elizabeth. But it’s not really about twelfth-century Scotland. It’s about eighteenth- and by extension twentieth-century America. If you’re going to have authentic historical personages all but saying the word democracy, it’s safe to say you’re not in the slightest bit interested in the twelfth-century or what you can do with it, and you’re making the wrong film. I do wonder why on earth Crazy Mel bothered. The fact that Patriot came out a year or so later should tell its own story.

And while Elizabeth is nothing like that crass, I am still left with the impression that someone at the heart of the making of that film failed to move beyond the lazy, cliched cloak-and-dagger stuff you learn while colouring in Anne Boleyn’s dress aged nine and a half. What is this “power” that keeps flowing around everywhere and getting into the bedhangings (of which there are many)? Why does everyone sit at the end of long oak tables and talk about their enemies “moving” against them? What does that even mean? What is the actual stuff and substance of all the skulduggery that is supposedly happening at court under the cover of a well-executed quadrille? What do people engaging in skulduggery actually say to each other?

Prithee, my lord, it is time for our skulduggery. The Spaniards look more powerful by the day.

Indeed, see how the ambassador’s eyebrow is a half-inch more lowering than it was heretofore. But soft, my lord! The Lord Chancellor is near. Let us retire to this shadowy recess and plot.

These aren’t people, these are cardboard cut-outs. This isn’t a recreation of the politics of an era, it’s a dead-end alternative world conjured out of a simplistic textbook by someone who hasn’t stopped to ask themselves how it all worked. The glossiness of both production and direction only just disguises the fact that one plotline scene succeeds another like the worst sit-up-and-beg tv thriller. The acting and decent, clean scripting mercifully free of cod-Elizabethanisms ultimately save Elizabeth, but Blackadder II lampooned the hell out of this stuff over a decade before it was was made. The film is interested in the personal journey of an ordinary young woman who suddenly faces great responsibility, and this it succeeds in putting across. But it’s not remotely interested in Tudor politics and it’s only interested in the most wet-palmed way in religious strife, and ultimately that just means the one storyline that is successful gets held up.

Why bother creating fictive history if you’re not interested in the history itself? No-one can be the master, Robert Graves, but film-makers can and should emulate the love he had for his subject. I, Claudius was of course televised very successfully. I chanced upon an old post by Alex Wilcock about this, and I think everything he says about the memorable high-drama moments, the mafiosi overtones, the vividness of the character portraits underlines very effectively what a well-conceived body of work the books were. That’s why they translated so well to screenplay despite being virtually a dialogue-free zone. The world they depict is a real, operative model, the twisting and heavily populated storyline hangs from one conceptual peg. Most importantly, Graves was a man convinced that the slice of history he was remaking was important. Not interesting, not diverting, not scenic, important. And that is what makes good historical fiction, because it’s one of our oldest traits as creatures with a consciousness to recognise internal conviction in a narrative, and to respond to it.

You’re here in the People’s Republic of Mortimer either because you know me, or you are a Liberal Democrat. (Unless of course you found me by accident, and I would like to extend particular apologies to the person who clicked through on the search term “Italian banker sex position” – did you find it, and how did it go? Or unless you are the person who has been googling me nearly every day for the past week, in which case would the right honourable gentleman please stand up.) 

Anyway. If you are in the same friendship group or party as moi, the chances are you have the kind of sure-fire, built-in, congenital bullshit detector that can fell rocket-guided missile systems. “Empowering local communities”, “Time for change”, even the seemingly more substantial “1p on tax for education”, “Save the planet now”. You know the whole business of slogans for the utter moribund toss it is. You know damn well these are artificially foreshortened whimpering little mini-bites that achieve nothing and inform no-one, whether they are conceptual or factual, whichever party is spewing them out. You know that because you read the polls or because you’re one of the uninspired polled, you know it deep down even if you help to write the moribund toss.

We laugh at David Cameron for speaking in catchphrases, and then we subscribe to the same feeble, obsolete methods of communication. This morning someone either-important-or-not calling themselves “Leader in waiting” did it on Lib Dem Voice, and I hope they won’t take it personally (hell, like they’ll be reading anyway) if I quote in a rather damning manner their notion of what constitutes the ideal Liberal Democrat message, because I think they’re so fundamentally wrong it breaks my heart:

Our values: Community, enterprise and freedom

The approach: Politics in your neighbourhood

You can’t argue with “community, enterprise and freedom”, but that doesn’t mean it does the job of persuading people to your way of thinking. You haven’t told them a bloody thing about your way of thinking. Who among your opponents is going to be founding their campaign on “isolation, self-doubt, repression”?

Here are two sad, sad truths. One, a few buzz words strung together mean absolutely bugger all to anyone who isn’t already bought into making them mean something. Two, “4p off the basic rate” does not make an instinctive sense to the world in general, it really doesn’t. I’ve been to the pub, and I know. The reason political language doesn’t reach most people is because it is not really designed to reach most people – it is unwittingly designed to reach the people who can already make sense of those words using their existing knowledge. But to hear press officers, activists and agents talk you would think “the message” is a magic formula – one that we admittedly haven’t quite got right yet seeing as turnout is at an all-time low and nobody can really tell the difference between one party and another, and no-one would be able to say what we stand for even if the chief press officer tied their pet rabbit down under a dangling meat cleaver suspended by a burning rope, but we will get there one day if we just keep plugging away at it!

There’s a branch of science that involves a never-ending search for a simple solution using tools that have never once, never even partially, had the desired effect. That branch of science is alchemy.

Where has it come from, this idea that boiling down the fruits of seventeen working parties and literally thousands of hours of expert thought to a couple of nouns and a linking preposition is the right way to communicate plans for a system of government? Shorter does not mean simpler, or easier, or more comprehensible, or more memorable in the true sense of that word. It means shorter.

We could blame advertising, so I will. They (by “they” I obviously mean the Wizards of Advertising and other Bad People) started the whole business of competing for an attention span for commercial purposes, and when their concepts get tired and stop selling things they lend them to politics. With few exceptions, people in public life seem to accept these tenets without question. Shorter. Simpler. Catchier. More active verbs. Short, simple and catchy with verbs in are the great levellers that will put my gigantic conceptual political brain on the same wavelength as your tiny rude mechanical one. And there are fashions in these things, which makes them all the more treacherous. Right now, a widely-used conceit is “intelligent whatever” – “intelligent design”, “intelligent finance”, even “intelligent living” on a forum the other day. But if little me knows about it, it’s probably over-exposed and on its way out.

Don’t misunderstand, I don’t think for one moment that the writers of political messages are being cynical or patronising in their constructions – and we shouldn’t be too ready to guffaw at the really piss-poor efforts either. On the contrary, it is quite instructive to take them seriously for, oh, at least a minute. Of course they’re going to think “Empowering local communities” is a good turn of phrase if they’ve just sat round a table with five other jolly clever people and chewed over exactly what it means and how best to express it. I’ll tell you why that is – it’s because they, unlike the poor saps who are going to be on the receiving end of this garbage, have gone through a process. They’ve swapped ideas and stories and they’ve spent an entire working day addressing the question that someone asked right at the beginning of the meeting: “So, what’s it really all about? When you get right down to it?”

When you have a plan for government and a vision for the society it is going to create, you are envisaging a process. People are actually very good at understanding processes if they are explained in the right way. You can’t survive as an animal with a consciousness without being able to pick up processes. First A happens, then we’ll do B, as a result there will be C, we must be wary of D but provided X responds in the right way, we will implement Y, therefore Z. What people are not good at is reading all your plans, all your ideas, all your dreams for society into four or five peaky, modish words that a lifetime’s semantic study could not fully unravel. Look at how much ink has been spilt on “I think therefore I am.” I actually do like a lot of Lib Dem slogans – “Let’s make Britain carbon neutral”, “It’s time to leave [superimposed on a map of Iraq. Visual cue. Nice]”. They are simple and functional. So why does my bullshit radar still tremor so?

It’s because the better Lib Dem slogans are a good version of a very, very bad idea. No-one’s saying we should write an essay on why the Lib Dems should be in government and pin it to trees, but actually if someone was saying that, at least it would be a genuinely new idea. We’re limited in how effectively we put policy across because our policies are bigger and better than the methodology we use to promote them.

Of course all I am doing is uselessly agreeing that there is a communications problem, something the whole party has agreed on for twenty years. Well done, Mortimer, no flies on you. And I’ve read a bit more on the recent history of the calls for “narrative” over the past couple of days, but there is surely a further backlog of communications discussion and best practice – perhaps some wiser, sadder soul who is bored or insomniac enough to have read this far could advise me, that I may blog more productively?


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