Saturday 20 November 2010

A View on American Politics from a British Conservative - Secondly, Midterms, President Obama, Democrats and Republicans

It seems incredible that only two years after Barack Obama's meteoric rise in 2008, from barely known junior senator of Illinois to President-elect of the United States by the end of the year, we could be standing here watching Obama described as embattled, rejected by the voters, struggling and watching the Republicans surging back to take control of one half of Congress from the Democrats.  Barack Obama's rise was incredible, both in objective terms, and even more than this, in the sheer enthusiasm with which he was greeted by not only Democrats, not only Americans, but by people around the world.

I have never seen such a wave of public-goodwill to a politician.  After the division of the Bush Years, the War on Terror and the Financial Crisis, the election of an intelligent sounding, liberal, eloquent Black man to the position unofficially known as Leader of the Free World seemed to indicate a new dawn.  To a certain extent this was understandable.  George Bush was not popular round the world, a leader on the American left was always going to be more understandable to Europeans, where the centre of political gravity is considerably further to the left than America in general.  After the battering of the Financial Crisis and the War in Iraq people needed something to believe in.  On the other hand, it was also just ridiculously out of hand.  Neither media nor public seemed to be able to keep things in sensible levels.  By the time he was elected Obama had displayed consummate skill as an electioneering politician, but beyond that no more skills than making pretty speeches and coining particularly vacuous slogans.  Yelling "Change we can believe in" was bad enough, but "Yes, we can!" was taking vacuity to bold new levels, and with the other main theme of his campaign being 'Hope', to say Obama's campaigning was somewhat light on details is like saying Gordon Brown is a bit boring.  It was so successful that is tempted the British Conservatives to try a similar thing for our election earlier this year, though with notably less success.

This is not to say Obama did not have policies: Health Care reform, Economic Stimulus, Climate Chance legislation, finishing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were ambitions enough for any politician to cover in 4 years.  But the level of hype was ridiculous.  Obama was being presented as a cross between the 2nd coming of Jesus Christ, Martin Luther King jr, and Abraham Lincoln.  This was a good for Obama at the time, because it meant all he had to do was exploit it, spout cliches, and not do anything too stupid.  Of course it helped that McCain, having started his campaign quite sensibly distancing himself from George Bush, went loopy and started spouting nonsense and somewhat crazed accusations of socialism and goodness knows what else.

The downside of all this though is that whatever Obama did, and he entered office at perhaps the most difficult time for any President since Reagan, he was bound to disappoint on a massive scale, unless he somehow pulled a few trillion dollars, a cure for AIDS, and peaceful solution for Israel-Palestine out his ass in his 1st year.  And, obviously he did not do these things, and so despite having moved heaven and earth as far as one man can over the last 2 years, he finds himself plummeting in the opinion polls and the Democrats on the back foot.  As far as he was not responsible for the hype that accompanied his election and the American political scene over the last few years it is quite unfair this has happened to him.  But to the extent he deliberately built up a wave of hype to surf to successful election he is getting what was coming to him when that wave comes crashing down.  The difference here between the experience over the last few years of the USA and the UK is interesting.  The Conservatives deliberately quite some time playing down expectations before our election, and after it, predicting gloom and doom for precisely the reason they knew there was no magic wand to wave and there has not been the same backlash against them, though there has been against the Liberal Democrats for other reasons.  Though, on the other hand, their election was certainly not greeted by the same outburst of joy as Obama's.

Some of the more enthusiastic and goldfish-brained commentators went beyond hype for Obama.  They did not only regard Obama as the second coming but also forecast, pretty much, the end of the Republicans as a threatening force.  After their loss of Congress in '06, the opprobrium of the end of the Bush years and Obama's massive victory, with the map painted Blue, it seemed that the Republicans were possibly doomed to retreat to a white, elderly hard-south and mid-west rump, unable to reach outside the shrinking white share of the population and even there restricted to relatively unsophisticated, largely poor, conservative,
areas.  Apparently all demographic trends were against them.  There was talk of a 'Liberal moment' for America.  This analysis was simple, seemed at least vaguely supported by events and, crucially, was vastly appealing to certain people.  Unfortunately, for some people, it was also dead wrong.  I remember thinking back in 2008 that it was extremely unlikely, though not outside the realms of possibility.

The problem seems to be that political commentators are not only generally  incapable of keeping a sense of perspective, and not only have a tendency to write in thick cliches, but also have an extreme short term memory problem.  The thing was, I could remember similar predictions being made, in the opposite direction, in 2004.  Then the evidence mustered was equally impressive.  Republicans had won 5 out of the last 7 presidential elections, they had held congress for 10 years, Americans were identifying as more conservative than ever, and the Democrats couldn't even win against as divisive and dubious a figure as George Bush.  America seemed to be moving in the red direction.  I also remembered at about the same time people making the same predictions about the Conservative Party here in 2005.  After 3 elections gaining 31, 32 and 33% of the vote, having failed to decapitate Tony Blair, even after Iraq, it seemed the Conservatives were stuck with their right-wing rhetoric attracting about 1/3 of the vote, unable to reach out to a more liberal, centrist Britain.  By 2008 though these predictions were already outdated, as under David Cameron the Conservatives loomed high over Labour in the polls, even as I contemplated the complete reversal, in only 4 years, of the predictions of Republican hegemony.  Looking a bit further back I knew similar things had been said about Labour after 1992, as they managed to fail to unseat the Conservatives, in seeming perfect circumstances, for the 4th time.  Those predictions were already falsified in dramatic style in 1997.  The other reason I had to be dubious about such predictions, apart from historical precedent, was that I could just about imagine the Republicans fading away if another party rose to replace them, as the Liberals did in Britain, with the rise of Labour in the 1920's.  But under America's stunningly two party system I just could not see it happening, and so I thought that in four years time we would probably see the Republicans back and alive, to give a decent challenge to Obama.

Not even I imagined though that in only 2 years the Republicans would be back, and if not sweeping all before them, then certainly in rude enough health to give Obama a bloody nose.  The answer to this conundrum seems to be simple: The Tea Party, and more broadly the economic malaise that continues to dominate American politics.  For all its weirdness, it is impossible to doubt that the Tea Party gave the Republicans a massive shot in the arm.  After it seemed they would sink from view for a while, trying to shake of the ignominy of the Bush years, the Tea Party roared into view, channeling opposition to Obama and firing up conservative leaning voters, and all without any connection to Bush.  This is not to say that the Tea Party has been an unadulterated success for the Republicans.  There are, perhaps, two very relieved Democrat senators today, who still have their seats because Tea Party activists were incapable of keeping their ideological enthusiasm in check, and selected candidates who were incapable of success where more mainstream Republicans could have succeeded (Cough, witch, cough).  But life isn't perfect, and overall the Republicans would be in a much worse place today politically were it not for the outpouring of enthusiasm the Tea Party produced.

What gave the Tea Party space to flourish though, and gain credibility, was not the Liberal-left, moderately social-democratic approach of president Obama, nor even the divisive health care legislation, though that started things off.  Rather it was the continuing malaise surrounding the American economy, that depressed confidence across the US and fired even relatively centrist, unideological voters away from the Democrats.  The American economy still seems to be in a morass.  Unemployment, in a country with historically lower unemployment than Britain or, God forbid, Europe, remains stubbornly high.  Debt continues to burst through the roof with a deficit measured in the trillions of dollars and with little obvious will to bring it down.  The Federal Reserve has just launched a further huge round of printing money in an attempt to ease credit and get the economy moving.  America seems stuck in a rut it cannot get out of.  And all the while the headlines are dominated by stories of Chinese and Indian success and dynamism, and America's continued seeming lack of an ability to score a decisive victory over a rag-tag of terrorists in Iraq and Afghanistan.  For the first time since the Cold War, America's global dominance seems challenged.  Realistically, its problems are not that bad.  Europe has a history of dealing with worse, and doing it considerably more phlegmatically.

But the fact is that so much of what America is, is just confidence.  That is the thing that marks America out, apart from from the French, its traditional overwhelming confidence; its belief, often justified, that it is the best, it is unique, it is better than anything else in the world.  Not in all my life, which has largely coincided with the period of unique American dominance globally, post cold war, have I seen that overwhelming cultural and economic confidence so battered as it seems at the moment.  It is not just the economic crisis either.  The quagmire in Iraq, the difficulties in Afghanistan, the scandal of Abu Ghraib, the feeling that America is falling behind as the world's most dynamic nation, faced with China's 10% a year growth and seemingly limitless potential, have undermined America's sheer self-belief.

Partially this sense of subconscious self-doubt was the reason Obama was greeted with such jubilation at first.  After the difficulties of the latter Bush years here was a saviour who would put everything to rights.  The fact that he has not done this, despite his seeming best efforts, not to mention trillions of dollars and a huge quantity of arguing, is the underlying reason why the American public seems to have fallen so quickly out of love with him.  There are less fundamental reasons as well of course.  Obama seems to have become as poor a communicator in office as he was a good one when campaigning for it.  Having excelled at poetry his whole administration seems to struggle in prose.  He seems to come across as what he, quite frankly, is, an aloof, well-educated, University professor, a member of the elite and having come down the mountain, now not the best man to seem to communicate with or relate to ordinary, working class Americans in the way Reagan, Clinton or even Bush seemed more able to.  This pales though beside the underlying sense of economic and social stall that America is struggling with.

All these reasons where why the Republicans, despite having no obvious solutions to these problems themselves, benefited so strongly in 2010.  Obama may have made all the right calls, but it doesn't feel like anything has particularly improved in America, and so Obama has received no credit for it.  The stimulus may have stopped America sliding even further into the morass, but a lot of voters don't feel better off from it, so it just seems like several hundred billion dollars spent with no benefit.  Americans hence look around to see what else might be on offer, and thus we get the Republicans surging back in the House, and only avoiding retaking the Senate by the fact its elected in 1/3rds, and is hence almost impossible in one go.  

At this point I should declare my interest in this.  I actually have no particular dog in this mid-term fight.  As a British Conservative I am nominally lined up along side the Republicans, as the fellow conservatives in America, and against the Democrats who are the vaguely liberal-left-ish party on offer.  However, as a British Conservative, which is these days a lot more like being a European conservative than an American one, I support things like a Socialist National Health Service, a strong welfare state, general social liberalism, and a state of such a size as most Republicans would find absolutely anathema.  And on all of which positions are actually well to the 'left' of even the official Democrat program.  On the other hand the Democrats are certainly not perfect either.  They seem to harbour various strange leftist and 'liberal' ideological threads, a closeness to trade unions, a loose fiscal approach that I find somewhat ridiculous.  Also I remember growing up amidst Bill Clinton's troubles with the law, hardly the Democrat party's most shining moment either.  To be honest as far as I can tell, given my own personal political preferences, I would be either, in American terms, a very liberal republican or a very conservative democrat.  Both beasts in considerably greater supply in prior times than today.

Back in 2008 when we had the election I wanted Obama to win, as did most of Europe, and I have generally agreed with what he's done.  The Republican opposition to Obama seems to have been confused and at times descending into the outright bizarre.  Accusations of Socialism, being a Muslim, and a particularly ludicrous conspiracy theory involving Obama's birth certificate, were pushing the boat out in terms of weirdness even for Americans.  Generally the Republicans seemed to largely descend into a confused haze, before picking themselves up somewhat before the Mid-terms, driven, presumably, by the need to look at least vaguely electable at an election time.  In this they seemed to be copying the strategy of Labour in the UK, becoming the party of 'No', opposing actually everything without bothering to ever state what they might do instead.

From my position as a British Conservative: Obama was right to push a cap and trade bill, right to attempt to widen the ludicrous system of American healthcare, right to commit more troops to Afghanistan and right to reach out to the Muslim world.  On a more trivial level he was right to attempt to close Guantanamo Bay, right to speak out in favour of the so-called 'Ground Zero Mosque' and right to criticise Israel over its building policy.  The sign of a great man is that he (at least) attempts great things, rather than just stay in the shallow waters.  And Obama has shown the willing to do this.

On the other hand I also have some sympathy for the worries that the Tea Party raise, and that has motivated that movement, if certainly not with some of its more wacky fringes.  Obama was right to try to widen access to healthcare in the US, from around 80% to 90% of the population and try to end some of its more painful features, such as insurers refusing to touch people who had been already ill.  But it not only does little to bring down the incredible cost of US healthcare, about $4,500 per person, compared to $2000 in the UK and between about $1500-2500 across the rest of the developed world, but it actually will cost a trillion dollars more, and with the absence of the important public option for healthcare provision, was gutted in comparison to the original plans.  Obama hesitated in committing more troops to Afghanistan, he and his administration took an unnecessarily simplistic and jingoistic line over the BP oil spill, he ended the plans for NASA to return men to the moon.

All these are pretty minor quibbles though.  The biggest point where I disagree with the Democrats and agree with the direction the Tea Party argues for it is in terms of the economy.  What marks the British Conservatives out from European conservatives or (mostly) American conservatives, is that we have made true fiscal conservatism, in the form of a detailed program to reduce our deficit and move towards a balanced budget over the next 5 years, the core of the current government, and our platform at the last election.  The US, like Britain, and like the rest of Europe, risks drowning under a sea of debt, both private and most significantly Public, if serious measures are not taken.  We risk piling more and more liabilities onto following generations, at a time when our populations are aging generally, that risk undermining our economic position over the long term.  We especially risk losing the economic initiative to the more disciplined and hard-working emerging powers whether China, India, or others, if we take the easy way out of our current problems rather than facing up to the difficult issues.  And I believe that politically, considering the lack of stability and political maturity that is still so evident outside the western world, this is an extremely dangerous circumstance to be facing.

The American budget deficit is, as a % of GDP, about the same size as the current UK deficit, (10.7%) both of which are pretty much the largest in the world (apart from really screwed countries like Ireland or Greece).  The difference is that whereas the UK government is focusing on bringing this figure down over the medium term, and has committed to taking some pretty difficult decisions to make it happen, the US government seems to have no such plan.  Obama seems to be committing himself to some ultra-Keynesian effort, entirely relying on a $800 billion fiscal stimulus, quantitative easing and America's pre-eminent economic position to bring the deficit down.  This just will not work though.  Stimulus on its own is not a painless solution.  Too much of the money gets lost, especially in America's leaky political system, with its pork-spending, earmarks and bridges to nowhere.  It will help to get America over the worst of the rut, but on its own is not a fiscal solution, that requires real hard decisions to restore America's fiscal credibility.  

This is not to say the Republicans have really done any better.  They started the deficit off, turning Bill Clinton's surplus into an impressive deficit even before the recession hit.  Bush signed off his own bizarre stimulus bill, to prop up, at massive public expense, America's car industry.  They have opposed the repealing of parts of the Bush tax cuts, as well as any serious spending cuts except in totemic areas like Obamacare or Obama's own stimulus, and are seemingly committed to their own bizarre Keynesian myth, that just cutting taxes enough will magically produce enough economic activity to cut the deficit, and over-ride the money lost by cutting taxes in the first place.  Now, when taken sensibly this is a perfectly economically reasonable substitution effect, famously known as the Laffer curve, and like a fiscal stimulus is a real effect.  When taxes are cut, more or less depending on the tax, economic activity will rise and thus also (relatively) revenue, going some of the way to cover the money lost by the initial cut.  Just like a stimulus though this alone is not nearly enough to cover the money lost, especially something as vast and varied as the US economy.  The US fiscal problems, like the UK's, is a deep seated structural problem and simplistic solutions, whether involving widening the deficit by boosting spending, or widening the deficit by cutting taxes, is just not going to do the job.

Only from the Tea Party has any outspoken voices coming actually suggesting that seriously cutting US spending may be necessary to get debt down and hopefully balance the books.  Or even that balancing the books should be a political priority over the next few years.  To Obama's credit he has planned to reverse the Bush tax cuts, undoubtedly a necessary step.  But he has seemed to express even less political willing than the Republicans to actually cut spending, or show particular leadership on this issue.  It is not his fault.  No-one in American politics seems particularly willing to face up to this issue, but he certainly does not seem to be leading the field.

To compare the situation to plans laid out by the Conservative-led Coalition government here.  Here the government has prioritised deficit reduction.  This has meant a measured program of tax rises, to the tune of £29 billion, or 2% of GDP, as well as a program of spending cuts over the next 4 years of £81 billion, or 5.8% of GDP.  The equivalent figures for America would be about $290 billion of tax rises and about $810 billion of spending cuts.  Also these measures have been spread widely across the population and across government spending.  Apart from state healthcare and International Aid, we have seen tax rises on the rich and on everyone else, and spending cuts across government departments, including education and defence, as well as significant cuts on welfare and spending on capital projects.  All these are necessary together if one is really serious about fiscal conservatism and restoring fiscal stability and almost no-one on in America seems willing to face up to these facts.

If anyone was really serious about restoring fiscal balance in America there are a number of clear opportunities.  Increasing taxes for a start, especially the efforts to repeal the Bush tax cuts that Obama is already intending.  Cutting social security, especially for the elderly, and cutting the military.  A good clean 10% cut on bloated defence spending would go a considerable way to solving America's budget problems, netting some $90 billion a year.  Chopping pensions back would help as well, as would ending the political culture of earmarks and pork and local bribes attached to every single government bill.  Real reform of healthcare would be essential as well.  Obamacare goes a little bit of the way, but US healthcare is still horrendously expensive.  And even though Obama's measure don't shift healthcare onto the government in anything like the way the NHS does in the UK, the US government still almost manages to spend the same amount as a % of GDP and it is arguable if Obamacare will bring this down at all.

Basically were I an American citizen I would feel honour bound to seek out my local candidates and try to vote on the grounds of which appeared saner on the above criteria.  These obviously cut across party lines to a certain degree.  I agree with most of the democrat platform on most policy issues, but I am naturally more fiscally conservative than either of the main party lines over recent periods.  A particularly fiscally conservative democrat would be perfect, a more reasonable, moderate fiscally conservative republican would do as well.  It would come down to the people involved, as it perhaps should in such elections.

How I would have voted if I had a vote is pretty irrelevant though.  The result of the election was clear, Republicans majorly up, Democrats majorly down, and I can draw a few points from it.  America seems to have, at the moment, a political atmosphere based considerably on a sense of dissatisfaction with the way things have been going, a wave of enthusiasm that seems to wash dramatically over the more prosaic policy disputes that actually exist beneath it.  I have mentioned before how the importance of confidence to America and this is something that seems to pervade American political life.  In both 2008 and 2010 American politics seemed to be motivated by, primarily, an anti-politician mood.  A feeling that the government is not working, that something is not working with America, in a manner that is almost not entirely conscious or consciously framed, but is real none-the-less.  In 2006 and 2008 this anti-establishment, anti-politician mood hit the Republicans, sweeping them from office, in 2010 it was now the Democrats turn to be the people in office, swept away under a tide of anti-government rhetoric.  In either case though it seems to be the same troubled mood that is underlies both.  In 2008 Obama was able to ride that wave to victory, posing as the quintessential outsider, totally different to the current administration.  Now Obama's Democrats are the ones battered by a wave of expectations, and falling victim to people playing the role of simple-talking common sense.

In a way, if I may be slightly rude, this seems a somewhat delusional atmosphere.  Americans feel that the world is changing and is slipping away from them but they don't yet seem entirely willing to face up to the harsh truths that means, whether higher taxes, lower spending, more expensive oil, or the fact their politicians cannot wave a magical wand and it make these issues go away.  On the other hand though, their politicians have to take a lot of the blame.  It is their job to provide leadership, it is their job to stand up and say the difficult things, whether people want to hear them or not.  That is the mark of a decent politician.  If politicians will offer simplistic solutions, telling their electorates they can achieve a balanced budget by cutting taxes, or by raising spending, then it is no surprise their electorate begins expecting magic solutions, and complaining when any pain comes along.  Even still, though, it seems that the American people somehow fundamentally know that something is wrong.  The consistently, shockingly low approval ratings for Congress point to it, the plunging of Obama's own approval ratings, the stunning low of Bush's before him, the emergence of the Tea Party outside the formal party structure, all point to the fact that the American people fundamentally feel something is deeply wrong with business as usual.  In elements of the Tea Party we have perhaps the start of the process of facing up to some difficult truths.  In President Obama's health care reforms we have a step in the right direction in another area, that an area of America's current social model might not in fact be the best choice, not just in terms of tinkering round the edges, but in terms of its fundamental structure.  And quite frankly, this is a good thing for any country, not just America, to face up to every now and again.

This is certainly not the end of the road for Obama though, not anything like it.  As said elsewhere, a split congress may actually help.  Now neither Republicans or Democrats can exclusively drape themselves with the colours of the outsiders, though they will both undoubtedly still try.  Republicans have power, but certainly not control, and a smart play by Obama can force them to play along, to a degree, and thus share some of the blame and credit rather than carping from the sidelines.  A congress and government with shared responsibility may improve Bi-partisan relations, at least in practical terms, if not in terms of rhetoric, as one side can no longer take the role of just trying to valiantly oppose everything.  Not being in a position of dominance, or eternal opposition is good for politicians.  It forces them to actually come up with new ideas and try to push new solutions, rather than just rehashing the same old chants and cliches.

Also, Obama is not a Prime Minister and is not facing a legislative general election in 2012, on which his re-election depends.  He is a President and as such he is only up against that particular other person whom the Republicans will scrape together to face him.  At this point he will be able to play to his strengths, and that Republican will very much have to present a better alternative.  George Bush did not exactly have positive qualities oozing from every pore on his skin, but he won because his Democrat alternative managed to be even less credible and inspiring, and offered no coherent positive alternative for the voters to rally.  Chances of Republican victory in 2012 rely on them finding a candidate that seems both competent, reasonable (if not outright moderate) but can still fire up conservative voters and carry at least the partial blessing of the insurgent Tea Party movement.  If they can get all these things together, and reconcile the contradictions inherit therein, they have a good chance of beating Obama, something that would have seem laughable only 2 years ago, when the general assumption seemed to be that Obama would cruise to a 2nd term without serious trouble.  It may still not be enough, but they would at least have a fighting chance, whereas if they pick a candidate that lacks the ability to inspire America, at least a little, and appears credible, to both their conservative base and moderate, centrist, independents, then Obama can sleep easy, knowing his re-election is almost assured.  To be quite blunt, without a credible candidate they will lose.  

Saturday 6 November 2010

A view on American politics from a British Conservative - Firstly, it's just plain confusing.

3rd November 2010, and across the Atlantic the opinion polls and the pundits were almost exactly right. The Republicans took more than 60 seats, taking a majority in the House of Representatives and the Democrats kept control of the Senate, though with a dramatically smaller majority.

President Obama and his Democrat administration face dealing with a legislature half controlled by a party bitterly opposed to almost everything they are trying to achieve. With the House of Representatives under Republican control, the Senate largely gridlocked by absurd filibuster rules and the Presidency Democrat there is a serious possibility of near total gridlock in the American federal government system over the next two years. Indeed, ironically, the Republicans retaking the House may help Obama's re-election in 2012, with Republicans once again forced to actually take responsibility for decisions, rather than merely carping from the sidelines.

This is fascinating from a British perspective, both in political and constitutional terms. The first thing to note though is that, to the British or European observer, more used to our politics, it is just plain confusing in so many ways. Just to give the general idea I'll give a few examples.

For the British even the names are confusing. We have a Parliament, and we use this word to describe the European equivalents, something that generally fits them. But it does not fit Congress at all, and so we call it Congress instead, and then try to work out what that means. The Republicans have won a majority in the House of Representatives, which is the lower house of congress, like the House of Commons in parliament, except it is not nearly as important as the House of commons, and, because 'House of Representatives' is too long a name and 'the Representatives' is still quite long, it is often just called 'the House', which is just unhelpful if you don't already know what it is.

The British media do not really know what to do with American congressional elections. They tend to roughly equate US presidential elections with our general elections, as the most important nation-wide election in a rough manner. But this doesn't work because our general elections are really like Congressional elections and Presidential elections rolled into one. But in America they are separate and one can have the situation where the Congress and the Presidency are controlled by opposing parties. To British and generally European minds that is bizarre. Commanding a majority in the main house of the legislature is what makes you a government in the UK. Without it you're nothing, you're in opposition, that graveyard of political impotence. No such thing as 'In Opposition' really exists in America, though if you don't have the Presidency then you are generally considered to be losing. In Britain, and most of Europe, to be in government you also have to be in parliament, otherwise you don't qualify. In America on the other hand, you cannot be both in Congress and the executive branch, it is against the law. Apart from the president nobody in the cabinet is elected, and they are actually not allowed to be.

Now 'the House' (House of what? People ask) is the lower house, and was broadly modelled on the British House of Commons and broadly is the democratically representative chamber (hence the name). But it is, if anything, the least important and prestigious branch of the government structure, compared to the Senate or the Presidency or even being the governor of a state. And the party that dominates it is led in political action and general machinations, not by a prime minister as in Britain and Europe, but by the Speaker of the House, which in Britain is a job which has no party political role and, in fact, is so scrupulously unbiased that the person in the job is not only has to renounce his party loyalty when he takes the job, but isn't even allowed to identify with a party afterwards when he leaves the job, or for the rest of his career. And the Speaker of the House in the US, who will now be a Republican, will now be spear-heading their battle against the President, who is also sort of like our Prime Minister, but has nothing to do with either house of the legislature. Right.

In Britain we only have one set of elections of any importance: General elections, which decide the legislature and the executive, parliament and government. We also have local councils and European elections, but they don't really seem to matter to that many people, partially because they have little control over major policy, and partially, because they have almost no control over money, almost of all which is decided by Parliament and the Government. This is not so in America, where there are Presidential elections and Congressional elections and also important State elections. There is even a great, unique word for the elections for state governors, the mini-presidents of individual states: Gubernational elections. A word that still makes me smile every single time I hear it.

Even the parties involved are odd. America maintains a stranglehold of a two party system that the two main parties in Britain could only dream of. No party has representation at the national level apart from Republicans and Democrats and hasn't for decades. These two parties have been dominant for 150 years, over which time they have almost entirely swapped geographic and demographic bases of support and ideology at least once. Until the 1920's there would have been barely a single black man in all America who would have voted for any party but the Republican party, a party explicitly founded to oppose slavery, which led America into a civil war for that purpose, which was based in the north east and the north industrial districts, and for almost a century never held a single state in the old South. Now, 93% of Blacks vote for the Democratic Party, the party of slavery, the party of the Confederacy, the party of the Klu Klux Klan, the party that held the loyalty of Southern Whites without question. Now the Republicans dominate the South and the democratic party is dominant in the North-East; now the Democratic party is the party of minorities and 'liberal' and 'progressive' society, and largely all thanks to one courageous decision taken by Lyndon Johnson, a politician for once putting principle and morality straight above electoral advantage.

And Americans continue to stick with their two parties. The Republican and Democrat parties continue to uniformly gain more than 95% of the vote in any nationwide or gubernational election, bar the very occasional independent. And despite record levels of discontent with their politicians and the whole political process neither does there seem any serious chance that any other parties will break through. It is a testimony to the sheer breadth of the two parties and the relative homogeneity of America, even in its diversity, that Americans seem quite willing identify with one banner or the other, whether from Oregon or Maine, Chicago or Texas, with none of the fragmentation on ethnic or local grounds we see in political systems elsewhere. Britain has three main nationwide parties, an additional major party that operates in each of wales and Scotland, and about 5 more parties that only operate in Northern Ireland. This is all for various complicated historical reasons. European countries tend to have anywhere between 3-12 main parties, who often get about 5-20% of the vote each, for every possible shade of the ideological spectrum, though they sometimes coalesce into two big ideological coalitions for the purposes of general elections, thus leaving everyone back pretty much where they started.

To British ears the names are odd as well. There is a Republican and a Democratic party and these are deeply opposed, except every single Republican would also claim to be a democrat, and every single Democrat would claim to be a republican (in the British sense) as well. It makes one more grateful for simple explanatory names like Conservative, Liberal Democrat, and Labour parties, who are generally respectively staffed and supported by conservatives, liberals and the working classes. It is especially strange that America has no Liberal or Conservative parties, despite the fact that in America a lot more people actually use and identify with these terms than here. In fairness, though, it must be said that European party names are often even worse, being both unnecessarily long and totally indecipherable. France, for example, (always a good example) is currently ruled by the 'Union for a Popular Movement' (whatever the hell that is) in coalition with (among others) 'the National center of Independents and Peasants' (Riiiight) and 'Hunt, Fish, Nature, Traditions', which is just bananas; but I suppose at least has the advantage of sounding quite dynamic, and lets face it is about as cool as any political party name is ever going to get.

To be fair, though, British politics is just as confusing for Americans, and for totally different reasons to the ones I have stated above. I remember talking to an American friend, who was astonished at sheer amount of the British constitution and legal system over which there is no codified, written, legal basis. And in fairness it does seem a bloody odd way of doing things at first glance. America, like most other countries in the modern world has a written constitution, which outlines how their political and legal system should operate. In Britain we have no such thing. There is nowhere one can go to find or to look up the rules on which the British legal and political system is based, no charter on which parliament is run and organised. No such document exists.

It is stranger than that though.  For example, until 13 years ago there was not British law guaranteeing freedom of speech. Another example: The most powerful person in Britain is the Prime Minister, but again there is no written legal basis for that position, it exists entirely by unwritten convention. The Prime Minister's own residence, 10 Downing Street is occupied by the Prime Minister, not on the legal basis of being Prime Minister, but rather by that of being 1st Lord of the Treasury, an entirely ceremonial position, which the prime minister holds so that he may have some official position in the hierarchy, since the position of Prime Minister has no written legal basis. This would seem an incredible way to run a state.

Americans also find it strange to realise that we have a whole house of parliament that is entirely occupied by unelected, appointed persons: The House of Lords.  And, not only this, but also until 1997 we had members of that House who were still there solely on grounds of inheriting an aristocratic title from their ancestors, i.e. being Earl of this, or Duke of that. We also still have Christian Bishops of the Church of England sitting in the House of Lords, able to vote on laws, even though no other religious group has this privilege and most of the population has long ceased to be part of the Church of England.

We have a Prime Minister, who is the most powerful man in the country, but is merely an MP, and is only actually elected by his own constituents. I have never voted for David Cameron, nor Gordon Brown before him, and I will almost certainly never have the chance to vote for any Prime Minister that comes after him. We also still have, not only a Monarchy, but a law banning the heir to the throne from marrying or being a Roman Catholic. That is right, we have no written law outlining the authority of our parliament, but we do have a written law banning our head of state from joining a certain religion or, indeed, marrying anyone who belongs to a certain religion. Moreover one held by millions of British citizens and one billion people worldwide. And what is even more weird is that practically no body in the entire country gets particularly upset about these facts.

Americans are also confused by the fact that we have almost no formal checks and balances. These are things that Americans are very proud of having, and they are all told at school that they are the cornerstone of any well constructed democracy. We have traditionally had almost none, though that has changed slightly, recently. Our Executive are all members of our legislature, indeed they have to be. Our most senior judges are all members of part of the Legislature: the House of Lords. The head of our judiciary is in the executive, and the legislature. Whereas Americans have always had a Bill of Rights and a complex series of powers given to the president, and the congress, and the individual state governments we have a Sovereign parliament. Parliament could, tomorrow (well, really in a few weeks), by a simple majority, vote to reintroduce slavery, or abolish local government, or end free speech, or ban trousers, or frankly anything else they pleased.  And with no more difficulty than passing a law demanding minimum standards for bus stops.

The only check against them doing this is that it would annoy a lot of people and they would be voted out at the next election. The only check against them voting to abolish elections is that we would all rise up and rebel if they did. There is no formal, legal constraint on them doing any of these things, no piece of paper anywhere saying they do not have the right to do it, only convention, meaning everyone knows it should not be done, and the assumed fact that no-one would vote/stand for it. To those few Americans who actually know what the British political system looks like this seems a somewhat lax way to run a country. We are leaving the freedom and stability of our political system down to the assumption everyone knows the rules and will abide by them. Our whole constitution operates on the level of a gentleman's agreement, and our entire political and legal system goes the way it does on little more concrete basis than that it is traditional to do it this way.

So in fairness, a decent amount of confusion goes both ways. It is a good thing to be aware of as well, we get so caught up in our own tensions we forget how indecipherable these things are to people who stand outside them. None of this is to say that there is not a good justification for the British way of doing things, nor more serious issues about the American way. And that's not to even begin on the particular political situation that comes up with the mid-terms, which was my original purpose (whoops, got sidetracked). But that is for another time.

Monday 25 October 2010

George Orwell, "Politics and the English Language," 1946.

Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way, but it is generally assumed that we cannot by conscious action do anything about it. Our civilization is decadent and our language -- so the argument runs -- must inevitably share in the general collapse. It follows that any struggle against the abuse of language is a sentimental archaism, like preferring candles to electric light or hansom cabs to aeroplanes. Underneath this lies the half-conscious belief that language is a natural growth and not an instrument which we shape for our own purposes.

And so begins this classic essay by George Orwell. Recently I've read some truly awful pieces of prose, especially about politics, which I have always noticed is cursed with being more densely infested by cliche than almost any other area of writing. There is nothing I could say about this that has not already been said better in this essay by George Orwell. It is piercingly intelligent, accurate and really funny. It is all about some necessary features for writing well and clearly, but should be of interest not only to anyone who writes but also to anyone who wants to think clearly in words (and that should be everybody). It also about how language is particularly abused when dealing with politics. It challenges some of our pre-conceptions about what makes good and clear writing and is not too long either. 

It is especially interesting if you have read 1984, Orwell's masterpiece, with its sections on Newspeak, because much of what George Orwell puts into Newspeak in 1984, he discusses in this essay. This is an important feature of Orwell's writing often not understood. He was mainly a journalist and campaigner, using his writing as a weapon, and only secondarily a writer of fiction. Features of his work always correlate with features of reality. And whereas Animal Farm was a parable of recent history, 1984 was a piece of prophecy, in the true sense of the word.  The prophets in the Bible did not just, or even mainly, tell what was going to happen in the future, but what would happen IF certain things continued to occur, often for the purpose of stopping them happening. Jonah prophesied Nineveh would be destroyed if the people did not repent. But he was so effective they did repent, and he then felt pretty stupid when they were then not destroyed.

George Orwell, in 1948, prophesied in 1984 what could happen if the worst trends he saw around him came to dominate society. It is a worst possible outcome but not a fantasy, in the sense that all the things he put in that book, and feared for our world, were things that he saw actually occurring or developing in the world, and had fought, spoken and written against his whole adult life. And many of those relating to the abuse of language he argues against in this essay, using real world examples. It's a fascinating bridge between the world presented in 1984 and the real world Orwell fought with in 1948.

It is also interesting because it argues a middle path between two views often subconsciously accepted in our intellectual society. Firstly, that language is something we have complete control over, an entirely neutral tool we may shape as we wish. And secondly, in the opposite direction, that the language we use defines and forces our thoughts and ideas, like a straitjacket we can't reach out of. The truth is, as almost always, somewhere in between. Like with any tool what we can do is shaped by what we have at our disposal. The language and vocabulary we have does exert pressure on our vision of the world and ourselves, subtly, and often totally outside our awareness. But, we are not slaves of our language.  We can make new words, new phrases, to match new ideas and ways of thinking, or just use different words and thoughts from the stock we already have, to change and express ourselves differently. But this requires conscious effort, to use our imagination and our knowledge to encourage ourselves in different directions. Enough of me though, I give you the words of Orwell himself, and they are well worth the read.

Now, it is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes: it is not due simply to the bad influence of this or that individual writer. But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely. A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts. The point is that the process is reversible. Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration: so that the fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers. I will come back to this presently, and I hope that by that time the meaning of what I have said here will have become clearer. Meanwhile, here are five specimens of the English language as it is now habitually written.

These five passages have not been picked out because they are especially bad -- I could have quoted far worse if I had chosen -- but because they illustrate various of the mental vices from which we now suffer. They are a little below the average, but are fairly representative examples. I number them so that i can refer back to them when necessary:

1. I am not, indeed, sure whether it is not true to say that the Milton who once seemed not unlike a seventeenth-century Shelley had not become, out of an experience ever more bitter in each year, more alien [sic] to the founder of that Jesuit sect which nothing could induce him to tolerate.

Professor Harold Laski (Essay in Freedom of Expression)

2. Above all, we cannot play ducks and drakes with a native battery of idioms which prescribes egregious collocations of vocables as the Basic put up with for tolerate, or put at a loss for bewilder .

Professor Lancelot Hogben (Interglossa)

3. On the one side we have the free personality: by definition it is not neurotic, for it has neither conflict nor dream. Its desires, such as they are, are transparent, for they are just what institutional approval keeps in the forefront of consciousness; another institutional pattern would alter their number and intensity; there is little in them that is natural, irreducible, or culturally dangerous. But on the other side, the social bond itself is nothing but the mutual reflection of these self-secure integrities. Recall the definition of love. Is not this the very picture of a small academic? Where is there a place in this hall of mirrors for either personality or fraternity?

Essay on psychology in Politics (New York)

4. All the "best people" from the gentlemen's clubs, and all the frantic fascist captains, united in common hatred of Socialism and bestial horror at the rising tide of the mass revolutionary movement, have turned to acts of provocation, to foul incendiarism, to medieval legends of poisoned wells, to legalize their own destruction of proletarian organizations, and rouse the agitated petty-bourgeoise to chauvinistic fervor on behalf of the fight against the revolutionary way out of the crisis.

Communist pamphlet

5. If a new spirit is to be infused into this old country, there is one thorny and contentious reform which must be tackled, and that is the humanization and galvanization of the B.B.C. Timidity here will bespeak canker and atrophy of the soul. The heart of Britain may be sound and of strong beat, for instance, but the British lion's roar at present is like that of Bottom in Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream -- as gentle as any sucking dove. A virile new Britain cannot continue indefinitely to be traduced in the eyes or rather ears, of the world by the effete languors of Langham Place, brazenly masquerading as "standard English." When the Voice of Britain is heard at nine o'clock, better far and infinitely less ludicrous to hear aitches honestly dropped than the present priggish, inflated, inhibited, school-ma'amish arch braying of blameless bashful mewing maidens!

Letter in Tribune

Each of these passages has faults of its own, but, quite apart from avoidable ugliness, two qualities are common to all of them. The first is staleness of imagery; the other is lack of precision. The writer either has a meaning and cannot express it, or he inadvertently says something else, or he is almost indifferent as to whether his words mean anything or not. This mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence is the most marked characteristic of modern English prose, and especially of any kind of political writing. As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated henhouse. I list below, with notes and examples, various of the tricks by means of which the work of prose construction is habitually dodged:

Dying metaphors. A newly invented metaphor assists thought by evoking a visual image, while on the other hand a metaphor which is technically "dead" (e.g. iron resolution) has in effect reverted to being an ordinary word and can generally be used without loss of vividness. But in between these two classes there is a huge dump of worn-out metaphors which have lost all evocative power and are merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves. Examples are: Ring the changes on, take up the cudgel for, toe the line, ride roughshod over, stand shoulder to shoulder with, play into the hands of, no axe to grind, grist to the mill, fishing in troubled waters, on the order of the day, Achilles' heel, swan song, hotbed. Many of these are used without knowledge of their meaning (what is a "rift," for instance?), and incompatible metaphors are frequently mixed, a sure sign that the writer is not interested in what he is saying. Some metaphors now current have been twisted out of their original meaning withouth those who use them even being aware of the fact. For example, toe the line is sometimes written as tow the line. Another example is the hammer and the anvil, now always used with the implication that the anvil gets the worst of it. In real life it is always the anvil that breaks the hammer, never the other way about: a writer who stopped to think what he was saying would avoid perverting the original phrase.

Operators or verbal false limbs. These save the trouble of picking out appropriate verbs and nouns, and at the same time pad each sentence with extra syllables which give it an appearance of symmetry. Characteristic phrases are render inoperative, militate against, make contact with, be subjected to, give rise to, give grounds for, have the effect of, play a leading part (role) in, make itself felt, take effect, exhibit a tendency to, serve the purpose of, etc., etc. The keynote is the elimination of simple verbs. Instead of being a single word, such as break, stop, spoil, mend, kill, a verb becomes a phrase, made up of a noun or adjective tacked on to some general-purpose verb such as prove, serve, form, play, render. In addition, the passive voice is wherever possible used in preference to the active, and noun constructions are used instead of gerunds (by examination of instead of by examining). The range of verbs is further cut down by means of the -ize and de- formations, and the banal statements are given an appearance of profundity by means of the not un- formation. Simple conjunctions and prepositions are replaced by such phrases as with respect to, having regard to, the fact that, by dint of, in view of, in the interests of, on the hypothesis that; and the ends of sentences are saved by anticlimax by such resounding commonplaces as greatly to be desired, cannot be left out of account, a development to be expected in the near future, deserving of serious consideration, brought to a satisfactory conclusion, and so on and so forth.

Pretentious diction. Words like phenomenon, element, individual (as noun), objective, categorical, effective, virtual, basic, primary, promote, constitute, exhibit, exploit, utilize, eliminate, liquidate, are used to dress up a simple statement and give an air of scientific impartiality to biased judgements. Adjectives like epoch-making, epic, historic, unforgettable, triumphant, age-old, inevitable, inexorable, veritable, are used to dignify the sordid process of international politics, while writing that aims at glorifying war usually takes on an archaic color, its characteristic words being: realm, throne, chariot, mailed fist, trident, sword, shield, buckler, banner, jackboot, clarion. Foreign words and expressions such as cul de sac, ancien regime, deus ex machina, mutatis mutandis, status quo, gleichschaltung, weltanschauung, are used to give an air of culture and elegance. Except for the useful abbreviations i.e., e.g., and etc., there is no real need for any of the hundreds of foreign phrases now current in the English language. Bad writers, and especially scientific, political, and sociological writers, are nearly always haunted by the notion that Latin or Greek words are grander than Saxon ones, and unnecessary words like expedite, ameliorate, predict, extraneous, deracinated, clandestine, subaqueous, and hundreds of others constantly gain ground from their Anglo-Saxon numbers.* The jargon peculiar to
*An interesting illustration of this is the way in which English flower names were in use till very recently are being ousted by Greek ones, Snapdragon becoming antirrhinum, forget-me-not becoming myosotis, etc. It is hard to see any practical reason for this change of fashion: it is probably due to an instinctive turning away from the more homely word and a vague feeling that the Greek word is scientific.
Marxist writing (hyena, hangman, cannibal, petty bourgeois, these gentry, lackey, flunkey, mad dog, White Guard, etc.) consists largely of words translated from Russian, German, or French; but the normal way of coining a new word is to use Latin or Greek root with the appropriate affix and, where necessary, the size formation. It is often easier to make up words of this kind (deregionalize, impermissible, extramarital, non-fragmentary and so forth) than to think up the English words that will cover one's meaning. The result, in general, is an increase in slovenliness and vagueness.

Meaningless words. In certain kinds of writing, particularly in art criticism and literary criticism, it is normal to come across long passages which are almost completely lacking in meaning.† Words like romantic, plastic, values, human, dead, sentimental, natural, vitality, as used in art criticism, are strictly meaningless, in
† Example: Comfort's catholicity of perception and image, strangely Whitmanesque in range, almost the exact opposite in aesthetic compulsion, continues to evoke that trembling atmospheric accumulative hinting at a cruel, an inexorably serene timelessness . . .Wrey Gardiner scores by aiming at simple bull's-eyes with precision. Only they are not so simple, and through this contented sadness runs more than the surface bittersweet of resignation." (Poetry Quarterly)
the sense that they not only do not point to any discoverable object, but are hardly ever expected to do so by the reader. When one critic writes, "The outstanding feature of Mr. X's work is its living quality," while another writes, "The immediately striking thing about Mr. X's work is its peculiar deadness," the reader accepts this as a simple difference opinion. If words like black and white were involved, instead of the jargon words dead and living, he would see at once that language was being used in an improper way. Many political words are similarly abused. The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies "something not desirable." The words democracy, socialism, freedom, patriotic, realistic, justice have each of them several different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another. In the case of a word like democracy, not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides. It is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it: consequently the defenders of every kind of regime claim that it is a democracy, and fear that they might have to stop using that word if it were tied down to any one meaning. Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way. That is, the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different. Statements like Marshal P├ętain was a true patriot, The Soviet press is the freest in the world, The Catholic Church is opposed to persecution, are almost always made with intent to deceive. Other words used in variable meanings, in most cases more or less dishonestly, are: class, totalitarian, science, progressive, reactionary, bourgeois, equality.

Now that I have made this catalogue of swindles and perversions, let me give another example of the kind of writing that they lead to. This time it must of its nature be an imaginary one. I am going to translate a passage of good English into modern English of the worst sort. Here is a well-known verse from Ecclesiastes:

I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

Here it is in modern English:

Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.

This is a parody, but not a very gross one. Exhibit (3) above, for instance, contains several patches of the same kind of English. It will be seen that I have not made a full translation. The beginning and ending of the sentence follow the original meaning fairly closely, but in the middle the concrete illustrations -- race, battle, bread -- dissolve into the vague phrases "success or failure in competitive activities." This had to be so, because no modern writer of the kind I am discussing -- no one capable of using phrases like "objective considerations of contemporary phenomena" -- would ever tabulate his thoughts in that precise and detailed way. The whole tendency of modern prose is away from concreteness. Now analyze these two sentences a little more closely. The first contains forty-nine words but only sixty syllables, and all its words are those of everyday life. The second contains thirty-eight words of ninety syllables: eighteen of those words are from Latin roots, and one from Greek. The first sentence contains six vivid images, and only one phrase ("time and chance") that could be called vague. The second contains not a single fresh, arresting phrase, and in spite of its ninety syllables it gives only a shortened version of the meaning contained in the first. Yet without a doubt it is the second kind of sentence that is gaining ground in modern English. I do not want to exaggerate. This kind of writing is not yet universal, and outcrops of simplicity will occur here and there in the worst-written page. Still, if you or I were told to write a few lines on the uncertainty of human fortunes, we should probably come much nearer to my imaginary sentence than to the one from Ecclesiastes.

As I have tried to show, modern writing at its worst does not consist in picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer. It consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug. The attraction of this way of writing is that it is easy. It is easier -- even quicker, once you have the habit -- to say In my opinion it is not an unjustifiable assumption that than to say I think. If you use ready-made phrases, you not only don't have to hunt about for the words; you also don't have to bother with the rhythms of your sentences since these phrases are generally so arranged as to be more or less euphonious. When you are composing in a hurry -- when you are dictating to a stenographer, for instance, or making a public speech -- it is natural to fall into a pretentious, Latinized style. Tags like a consideration which we should do well to bear in mind or a conclusion to which all of us would readily assent will save many a sentence from coming down with a bump. By using stale metaphors, similes, and idioms, you save much mental effort, at the cost of leaving your meaning vague, not only for your reader but for yourself. This is the significance of mixed metaphors. The sole aim of a metaphor is to call up a visual image. When these images clash -- as in The Fascist octopus has sung its swan song, the jackboot is thrown into the melting pot -- it can be taken as certain that the writer is not seeing a mental image of the objects he is naming; in other words he is not really thinking. Look again at the examples I gave at the beginning of this essay. Professor Laski (1) uses five negatives in fifty three words. One of these is superfluous, making nonsense of the whole passage, and in addition there is the slip -- alien for akin -- making further nonsense, and several avoidable pieces of clumsiness which increase the general vagueness. Professor Hogben (2) plays ducks and drakes with a battery which is able to write prescriptions, and, while disapproving of the everyday phrase put up with, is unwilling to look egregious up in the dictionary and see what it means; (3), if one takes an uncharitable attitude towards it, is simply meaningless: probably one could work out its intended meaning by reading the whole of the article in which it occurs. In (4), the writer knows more or less what he wants to say, but an accumulation of stale phrases chokes him like tea leaves blocking a sink. In (5), words and meaning have almost parted company. People who write in this manner usually have a general emotional meaning -- they dislike one thing and want to express solidarity with another -- but they are not interested in the detail of what they are saying. A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus: 1. What am I trying to say? 2. What words will express it? 3. What image or idiom will make it clearer? 4. Is this image fresh enough to have an effect? And he will probably ask himself two more: 1. Could I put it more shortly? 2. Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly? But you are not obliged to go to all this trouble. You can shirk it by simply throwing your mind open and letting the ready-made phrases come crowding in. They will construct your sentences for you -- even think your thoughts for you, to a certain extent -- and at need they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even from yourself. It is at this point that the special connection between politics and the debasement of language becomes clear.

In our time it is broadly true that political writing is bad writing. Where it is not true, it will generally be found that the writer is some kind of rebel, expressing his private opinions and not a "party line." Orthodoxy, of whatever color, seems to demand a lifeless, imitative style. The political dialects to be found in pamphlets, leading articles, manifestoes, White papers and the speeches of undersecretaries do, of course, vary from party to party, but they are all alike in that one almost never finds in them a fresh, vivid, homemade turn of speech. When one watches some tired hack on the platform mechanically repeating the familiar phrases -- bestial atrocities, iron heel, bloodstained tyranny, free peoples of the world, stand shoulder to shoulder -- one often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy: a feeling which suddenly becomes stronger at moments when the light catches the speaker's spectacles and turns them into blank discs which seem to have no eyes behind them. And this is not altogether fanciful. A speaker who uses that kind of phraseology has gone some distance toward turning himself into a machine. The appropriate noises are coming out of his larynx, but his brain is not involved as it would be if he were choosing his words for himself. If the speech he is making is one that he is accustomed to make over and over again, he may be almost unconscious of what he is saying, as one is when one utters the responses in church. And this reduced state of consciousness, if not indispensable, is at any rate favorable to political conformity.

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism., question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them. Consider for instance some comfortable English professor defending Russian totalitarianism. He cannot say outright, "I believe in killing off your opponents when you can get good results by doing so." Probably, therefore, he will say something like this:

"While freely conceding that the Soviet regime exhibits certain features which the humanitarian may be inclined to deplore, we must, I think, agree that a certain curtailment of the right to political opposition is an unavoidable concomitant of transitional periods, and that the rigors which the Russian people have been called upon to undergo have been amply justified in the sphere of concrete achievement."

The inflated style itself is a kind of euphemism. A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outline and covering up all the details. The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink. In our age there is no such thing as "keeping out of politics." All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia. When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer. I should expect to find -- this is a guess which I have not sufficient knowledge to verify -- that the German, Russian and Italian languages have all deteriorated in the last ten or fifteen years, as a result of dictatorship.

But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought. A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation even among people who should and do know better. The debased language that I have been discussing is in some ways very convenient. Phrases like a not unjustifiable assumption, leaves much to be desired, would serve no good purpose, a consideration which we should do well to bear in mind, are a continuous temptation, a packet of aspirins always at one's elbow. Look back through this essay, and for certain you will find that I have again and again committed the very faults I am protesting against. By this morning's post I have received a pamphlet dealing with conditions in Germany. The author tells me that he "felt impelled" to write it. I open it at random, and here is almost the first sentence I see: "[The Allies] have an opportunity not only of achieving a radical transformation of Germany's social and political structure in such a way as to avoid a nationalistic reaction in Germany itself, but at the same time of laying the foundations of a co-operative and unified Europe." You see, he "feels impelled" to write -- feels, presumably, that he has something new to say -- and yet his words, like cavalry horses answering the bugle, group themselves automatically into the familiar dreary pattern. This invasion of one's mind by ready-made phrases (lay the foundations, achieve a radical transformation) can only be prevented if one is constantly on guard against them, and every such phrase anaesthetizes a portion of one's brain.

I said earlier that the decadence of our language is probably curable. Those who deny this would argue, if they produced an argument at all, that language merely reflects existing social conditions, and that we cannot influence its development by any direct tinkering with words and constructions. So far as the general tone or spirit of a language goes, this may be true, but it is not true in detail. Silly words and expressions have often disappeared, not through any evolutionary process but owing to the conscious action of a minority. Two recent examples were explore every avenue and leave no stone unturned, which were killed by the jeers of a few journalists. There is a long list of flyblown metaphors which could similarly be got rid of if enough people would interest themselves in the job; and it should also be possible to laugh the not un- formation out of existence*, to reduce the amount of Latin and Greek in the average sentence, to drive out foreign phrases
*One can cure oneself of the not un- formation by memorizing this sentence: A not unblack dog was chasing a not unsmall rabbit across a not ungreen field.
and strayed scientific words, and, in general, to make pretentiousness unfashionable. But all these are minor points. The defense of the English language implies more than this, and perhaps it is best to start by saying what it does not imply.

To begin with it has nothing to do with archaism, with the salvaging of obsolete words and turns of speech, or with the setting up of a "standard English" which must never be departed from. On the contrary, it is especially concerned with the scrapping of every word or idiom which has outworn its usefulness. It has nothing to do with correct grammar and syntax, which are of no importance so long as one makes one's meaning clear, or with the avoidance of Americanisms, or with having what is called a "good prose style." On the other hand, it is not concerned with fake simplicity and the attempt to make written English colloquial. Nor does it even imply in every case preferring the Saxon word to the Latin one, though it does imply using the fewest and shortest words that will cover one's meaning. What is above all needed is to let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way around. In prose, the worst thing one can do with words is surrender to them. When you think of a concrete object, you think wordlessly, and then, if you want to describe the thing you have been visualizing you probably hunt about until you find the exact words that seem to fit it. When you think of something abstract you are more inclined to use words from the start, and unless you make a conscious effort to prevent it, the existing dialect will come rushing in and do the job for you, at the expense of blurring or even changing your meaning. Probably it is better to put off using words as long as possible and get one's meaning as clear as one can through pictures and sensations. Afterward one can choose -- not simply accept -- the phrases that will best cover the meaning, and then switch round and decide what impressions one's words are likely to make on another person. This last effort of the mind cuts out all stale or mixed images, all prefabricated phrases, needless repetitions, and humbug and vagueness generally. But one can often be in doubt about the effect of a word or a phrase, and one needs rules that one can rely on when instinct fails. I think the following rules will cover most cases:

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

(ii) Never us a long word where a short one will do.

(iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

(iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.

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

(vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

These rules sound elementary, and so they are, but they demand a deep change of attitude in anyone who has grown used to writing in the style now fashionable. One could keep all of them and still write bad English, but one could not write the kind of stuff that I quoted in those five specimens at the beginning of this article.

I have not here been considering the literary use of language, but merely language as an instrument for expressing and not for concealing or preventing thought. Stuart Chase and others have come near to claiming that all abstract words are meaningless, and have used this as a pretext for advocating a kind of political quietism. Since you don't know what Fascism is, how can you struggle against Fascism? One need not swallow such absurdities as this, but one ought to recognize that the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language, and that one can probably bring about some improvement by starting at the verbal end. If you simplify your English, you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy. You cannot speak any of the necessary dialects, and when you make a stupid remark its stupidity will be obvious, even to yourself. Political language -- and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists -- is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind. One cannot change this all in a moment, but one can at least change one's own habits, and from time to time one can even, if one jeers loudly enough, send some worn-out and useless phrase -- some jackboot, Achilles' heel, hotbed, melting pot, acid test, veritable inferno, or other lump of verbal refuse -- into the dustbin, where it belongs.

Many thanks to Mount Holyoke's College, Massachusetts, Woman's Liberal Arts College, for the text of this essay

Thursday 14 October 2010

Dealing with the Deficit! (3) - Cutting Defence.

Of Military spending, Trident, Cuts, Cabbages and Kings (And why the sea is boiling hot and whether pigs have wings - well, not really.)

This article follows on from previous articles outlining the economic arguments around the Coalition's budget plans and introducing the structure of the public finances and the plans for reducing the deficit.  It's followed by looking at popularly proposed schemes for cutting the deficit more efficiently/morally by raising taxes and cutting ring-fenced spending and a final article on fairness and (my) opinion of the government's plans.   I've separated them out to try to keep them shorter.  

The current government's approach to cutting the deficit is to take a broad based attack on the problem, raising some money in taxes, and also taking money from across government departments (apart from ID and Health) as well as capital spending and welfare, at varying rates decided on due to various other considerations. All these choices can and have been questioned, most completely by the Labour party's plans, but also by a range of commentators and public bodies. As Polly Toynbee notes, 'What's your cut?' has become a popular game in the media, with various people suggesting their own swinging cuts of things they just don't care about, or they claim are unimportant, or of raising taxes they claim are painless or intrinsically 'fair' compared to the government's plans. These suggestions can be divided into two classes, those such as the Labour party's, which take a similarly broad approach to the coalition, though differing in detail, and those that take a narrow approach and suggest massively attacking a few narrow areas of policy, believed to be particularly unworthy by the suggester, with the belief that this could mean saving most of the pain elsewhere. (Though of course there's also a range in the middle.) These narrow suggestions seem to be uniformly based on the principle that their proposers believe there to be vast pots of money somewhere either just waiting to be painlessly taken in taxation, or being totally wastefully spent that can just be excised without much harm to our general body politic.

These suggestions seem to be largely motivated by the belief that our financial problems are not complicated, deeply based and systematic issues with our economic and political structure but rather a simple problem with an obvious and largely cosmetic solution. The problem with this idea is that it is total bunk, and with most of these ideas underwritten by faulty logic or data. A common thread with these ideas is that either the tax rises proposed could not easily raise nearly as much money as suggested, or the simple spending cuts would not save nearly as much money as their starry eyed proponents would hope, at least not without causing serious damage. These suggestions can be roughly divided into right-wing ideas and left-wing ideas, though both share similar characteristics, as they do with other similar examples of simplistic, near conspiratorial thinking.

The first category for bizarre left-wing approaches to solving the budget deficit is the stop-spending-money-on-defence school. The most bizarre and radical form of this idea comes from Simon Jenkins who proposes saving £44 billion a year by entirely eliminating the armed forces, and thus saving the entire defence budget. Yes, you heard that correctly.  But sentiments along the same lines, if a lot less precise, are expressed widely as a throwaway line by left-wing commentators.  A lot of the desire to be rid of defence spending seems to be based on an emotional dislike of funding things whose sole purpose is to wage war. This is an understandable concern. Ask any person whether they'd rather spend money on healing the sick, educating the ignorant, or purchasing new and better ways to kill people, it is pretty clear, which anyone would chose. There is also the fair criticism that post-Cold war the level of traditional military threat to the UK is unsure.

However, sadly the world is not so simple. In defence of the armed forces there are a number of serious points. Despite the progress mankind has made, we still live in a dangerous world where violence rages all around us. Although Britain itself is relatively unlikely to be invaded anytime soon there are many calls on our armed forces, whether defending British territory abroad, such as the Falklands, or in fighting threats against other peoples and innocent countries. Nor can we be sure that this state of affairs will continue. Europe enjoys unparalleled peace and prosperity, but around exists a deeply unstable world. Whether Russia, the Middle east, China, Africa or other areas the danger of violence increasing in an increasingly populated world struggling over natural resources, changes in climate and political and economic problems. And the terrifying truth is that it only requires a brief period of military unpreparedness to have terrible consequences. We maintain armed forces all the years we don't need them because the possible risk of a situation when we do need them is just so great. Also, an inability to defend ourselves is itself a temptation to less morally scrupulous groups to attack us, knowing we are not strong enough to resist. Even if one does not go as far as Simon Jenkins tentatively suggests there is a temptation to say, well, why don't we hold minimal armed forces then. But this is not a real option, there is no point having a military that cannot quite win in a conflict, considering the damage that can ensure that is hardly better than having no military at all.

Even ignoring this though,although the moral argument that we should not be spending such vast sums on what are in effect weapons of death is a powerful one, but I would say there is an equally powerful opposite argument. As far as the world is a dangerous place, and it is, and this is something we must be aware of then we have an active duty to both provide for our own defence ourselves and also to maintain capability to help others. Europe today has a habit of spending relatively little on defence and criticising the USA for spending relatively more. But this is disingenuous in as far as Europe still benefits from he implicit or explicit protection of American forces and strength, as it did to a huge extent in the Cold War and also the 2nd World War before that. More generally, even if we ourselves are not threatened we have a moral duty to help others who are. And others are most definitely threatened. Neutrality and isolation, a la, Switzerland or Ireland or Sweden, is nice for us, but it sucks for everyone else, and in the larger analysis is really an abdication in the face of evil. We no more really have a moral option of walking by on the other side of violence and military oppression than we do of poverty or sickness or ignorance, and this fact carries the corollary of we, who can afford it, maintaining the military forces to help others who cannot afford it. Whether the first world war, the 2nd world war, the Korean war, the gulf war, Sierra Leone, Kosovo, Afghanistan, the Falklands, fighting pirates off Somalia or peace keeping engagements around the world our military forces are primarily engaged in defending others, often for our own benefit as well, but significantly in defence of those who cannot defend themselves. Indeed, except for the example of Iraq, that particularly divisive conflict, then the main examples of the failure of peacekeeping efforts are examples of the western world not acting decisively enough to stop great evil, whether in Rwanda or in Srebrenica or elsewhere. Elsewhere in a more continuous example, today the security of Taiwan is probably only guaranteed by the promise of military support from the United States in the event of any conflict. Otherwise it is highly likely Communist China would have destroyed this small country. The sad truth is that in a dangerous world we must be able to defend both ourselves and all other peoples of the world, even as we work for a reduction in arms and the threat of force in international and intranational politics. And this is not to mention the central role our military has in relieving disaster zones around the world. Along with our international aid spending, our defence forces are our main ability to actively project our power around the world for the better.

That would be the moral case for military spending (as odd as that may sound), but assuming one does not go quite as far as the complete abolition idea for our armed forces there are practical issues as well. Unlike some departments, such as Health, Education, Welfare, spending on Defence held pretty much flat in real terms throughout Labour's 13 years, while public spending in total increased by around 60%. Our armed forces are already stretched thinly after years of running the forces on an effectively frozen budget. We are also still engaged in a war in Afghanistan, putting additional pressure on the military budget. On top of this defence effectively already has its own internal deficit. Military procurement is legendarily bad value for money. We sink huge sums into purchasing equipment over several years, and by the time it comes it is largely out of date for the threats we face. We are, in procurement terms, always fighting the last war. Also due to the financial pressures of War in Iraq and Afghanistan eating into the military budget the government attempted to save money by stretching out the contracts for major purchases for the armed forces. Like other instances of, effectively, borrowing money over the long term this just means that we end up paying more money in the end, than we would have originally. Talk of inefficient procurement may make it sound as though there is plenty of room for efficiency savings in the armed forces, and hence strengthening the argument for cuts, but what it does mean is that although there is considerable scope for doing things more efficiently in the future, in the present we face looming bills from prior mistakes that we cannot get out of. We would have trouble maintaining our armed forces at their present standard even were funding to remain the same due to this looming internal deficit. In the face of even relatively modest cuts (compared to other budgets, as is planned now) we are going to lose a significant part of our military capability.

That is the broad argument surrounding the inability to solve the deficit through attacking military spending. One important sub-set of this argument is the widespread argument that scrapping the Trident nuclear deterrent should be the first call in cutting the deficit, advocated in a limited sense by the Lib Dems and more strongly by the Greens, SNP, Plaid, as well as a host of organisations and commentators. This bears even greater immediate appeal than the standard cut-the-military argument. Nuclear weapons, by definition, can never be actually used except to deliberately cause massive civilian casualties. Their only legitimate purpose is deterrence. Especially in a post-Cold War world there seems relatively little purpose holding expensive nuclear weapons. There is a problem with this, though, similar to the argument above. The number of unstable countries either with nuclear weapons or seeking to gain them continues to increase: China, Russia-ish, North Korea, Iran, Pakistan and possibly others. As more countries gain nuclear weapons the possibility of an unstable future situation involving nuclear blackmail at the hands of one of these non-democratic countries increases and this is something that is deeply to be avoided as once we get in that situation there is no way we can respond. There is also a feasible argument that nuclear weapons actually reduce conventional conflict, by making it not worth people's time. Between their founding in the late 1940's and their acquiring nuclear weapons in the 1970's Israel and its Arab neighbours and India/Pakistan engaged in three wars each, but since these states acquired nuclear weapons there have been no major wars. On a grander scale the threat of Nuclear war may have contributed to the peaceful (at least in Europe) conduct of the Cold War, that could so easily have turned into a 3rd World War of immense proportions.

If we accept the importance of some respectable nation having nuclear weapons to counter the possible threat from less stable nations, soon or even in the relatively more distant future, then there comes the criticism that it is unnecessary for us to maintain nuclear weapons, as some people correctly suggest there is no conceivable situation where we would use nuclear weapons independently of America. So why not just let them pay for them and scrap our own capability? The argument is, again, moral. To push the responsibility of maintaining a nuclear capability for the "good guys" onto the USA is to abdicate a responsibility to others. It is to say that it is acceptable for American taxpayers, soldiers, politicians etc to bear the essential responsibility of defending the enlightened world in this most extreme manner, with the danger of retaliation that entails, but it is not a danger and cost that it is worth us bearing. This is an abdication of moral responsibility, and a remarkable one at that, seeing as how it explicitly places us as a strategic dependent of the United States. What is particularly odd about this is that it is generally the same people who claim to be most worried about the UK being subservient to America, or following too closely America's foreign policy, who advocate most strongly that we abandon this major independent capability for independent action and policy and effectively cede this entire area of independent strategic policy to the US in its entirety.

That is, again, the theoretical case for maintaining our nuclear deterrent. The practical issue in terms of deficit reduction is that even entirely scrapping Trident and our whole Nuclear deterrent would not save that much money. And this itself it not something that any major political party supports. Pre-election the Lib Dems went the furthest in supporting an alternative cheaper system than Trident, though they never actually said what system. This is one of those topics for which reliable statistics seem most in need. Numbers given for the actual cost of the Trident system and its renewal vary dramatically depending on the person giving them, as well as contextual factors such as whether figures given involve just the cost of purchasing the system, the cost of running it over the next parliament, over the entire lifetime of the system or something else. And of course those who give the statistics do not make this clear when they give them. Possibly depending on which of these features one takes into account or just what your ideological bias is, it is possible to read statements running from £20 billion to as high as £100 billion I read in one commentary piece, for the cost of replacing the Trident system.

 Actual official estimates for replacing the system, as opposed to whatever numbers column writers come up with, tend to be at the lower end of this continuum, with estimates in the range of around £20 billion for replacing the system and around £1.5 billion annual running costs. It is only possible to get the higher range estimates for costs should we take the possible costs over the entire life-time of the system, some 20-30 or more years. Looking at the total cost of a nuclear deterrent is a reasonable thing to do in general but in a conversation about a budget deficit it is not, since that is mainly concerned with annual cost. One could take a similar approach and produce monstrous figures that the cost of housing benefit is £400 billion, but neglect to mention that is over the next 20 years. On an annual basis, assuming the cost of purchase is spread over a 20 year period, Trident makes around a £3 billion a year contribution to the deficit. Getting rid of it is evidently not going to solve our budgetary problems or really even make more than a small dent in the hole. And these savings are for the outright scrapping of the nuclear deterrent. Trident is already assessed as one of the cheapest long term option for an independent nuclear deterrent. Any other system, even if was cheaper, would still have significant costs running in the billions of pounds and so relative savings would be even smaller.

This is not to say that some savings cannot be made in planning for the nuclear deterrent. It is possible to lengthen the lifetime of the Trident system by refitting submarines and missiles, rather than replacing the system now, as well as reducing from the current level of Continuous At Sea Deterrent (CASD). Full replacement could be put off until we don't have a desperate budget crisis and there is more money to go around. It is estimated that postponing Trident's replacement could save some £11 billion over the next 5-10 years. This is definitely worth doing in a time when money is tight, and the nuclear threat over the next few years is tight. But neither cuts to defence nor the nuclear deterrent particularly are either a wise nor useful solution to cutting the budget deficit, except as small part of a much wider program of savings and tax rises.