There was a wonderful outbreak of wit and erudition at Parliament this morning. The sketch-writers Simon Hoggart and Matthew Parris appeared before the Public Administration Select Committee to discuss the perils of political jargon. Simon Hoggart kicked off by imagining Churchill’s war-time speeches re-written by a local government wonk. ‘We will fight on the beaches’ turned into ‘an ongoing programme of hostile engagement in littoral sectors.’
The committee chairman, Tony Wright, wondered if his anxiety about jargon was misplaced. ‘Does this drivel matter or does it just irritate us?’ Matthew Parris pointed out that jargon is attractive because it confers an aura of learning and makes idiot politicians sound like world experts. ‘But the public aren’t fooled when they hear “passion”, “vision” and “core values.” They recognize it, they discount it. So it damages politicians’ credibility.’
Simon Hoggart likened the politician who talks about ‘co-terminous stake-holder engagements’ to a child with a bit of Lego. One piece is harmless enough but if you fit more and more bits together ‘eventually you produce something which is nothing at all.’ The danger is that jargon deludes both the speaker and the audience. A phrase like ‘care in the community’ is composed of lovely, cosy, familiar, warm-sounding words. ‘But we all know what it means,’ said Hoggart, ‘poor, mad women exposing themselves in Victoria Gardens.’
What’s the solution? For Matthew Parris it’s mockery. ‘Keep up a constant barrage and they’ll realise it’s not clever.’ Both men were asked to offer advice about speaking to the new Speaker. Simon Hoggart was supportive. ‘He’s shutting people up more – but not as much as I’d like.’ Matthew Parris whetted a gleaming arrowhead. ‘He should be less ponderous. And not talk as if someone were chiselling his words into granite as he spoke.’
Cumbersome, unmusical and intellectually corrosive as jargon may be, both men seemed quite grateful it exists. ‘If it didn’t,’ said Dr Wright to Simon Hoggart, ‘you’d have nothing to put in your column.’ ‘Yes’ he said cheerfully, ‘I’d be out of work.’
And with that, everyone in the room headed back to the level playing field to stimulate outflows of positive customer outcomes in front-line centres of excellence.