Legacy of Lockerbie: part 1 – Vacuous and semi-literate: the state of political language in Scotland


By Kenneth Roy

Political language is bad, often very bad, and a current illustration can be found in the Scottish Government’s official statement on the death of Megrahi. The statement is in the name of Alex Salmond, but it is difficult to believe that the first minister, who used to write well and probably still does, is more than formally responsible for it. Even this busy man should check before he signs off the stuff.

Look and squirm at the first sentence:

Our first thoughts are with the families of the Lockerbie atrocity, whose pain and suffering has been ongoing now for over 23 years.

This is scarcely literate. Presumably it is a bureaucrat’s way of conveying sympathy for personal grief, but the language is so stale that it feels ritualistic. The Scottish Government had months – years, as it turned out – to prepare for Megrahi’s death. If it had any genuine concern for the families, it could have found a more sensitive way of expressing it. It could have started by respecting the English language.

Pain and suffering has is bad enough. I don’t fancy ‘over 23 years’ when ‘more than’ would have taken a second longer to type. But ongoing is horrible. The once-trendy ‘ongoing’ may be just about permissible in official documents – in the sense that any abuse of language seems to be permissible in official documents – but in a message of condolence it is inexcusable. Worse, we have ongoing now. When do the pain and suffering cease to be ongoing now? No doubt when all concerned are conveniently dead.

It is open for relatives of Mr Megrahi to apply to the Scottish Criminal Case Review Commission to seek a further appeal.

‘Open to’ rather than ‘open for’ would have been better usage, but the real howler in this sentence is the incorrect reference to the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission. If the people responsible for this statement – we should remind ourselves that they had years to prepare it – can get the name of this organisation wrong, we’re entitled to wonder how much else they get wrong; seriously wrong.

Mr Megrahi’s death ends one chapter of the Lockerbie case, but it does not close the book

conforms to one of the main rules of political language. It is not only a cliché, but a meaningless one. It is so vague that it could signify anything or nothing. It is probably also disingenuous. It implies some desire on the part of the Scottish Government to go on with this book which has caused successive administrations on both sides of the border so much trouble for so many years. How our masters must long for that liberating word ‘Finis’ to be written across the final page of the accursed tome. But, of course, it is expedient to convey some cloudy suggestion of activity, a hint of ongoing now.

This metaphor, like most metaphors in political language, is designed to conceal. It is lacking in precision; it spares its author the effort of communicating plainly.

The Scottish Government’s statement is about to deteriorate sharply. But before it does, a background note from 1946, when George Orwell identified a number of dying metaphors in political language. He defined this language in general terms as a succession of phrases ‘tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated hen-house’. The Megrahi statement is a perfect vision of the hen-house. Yet there is a reluctant word to be said in its favour, since it does not include any of the following dying metaphors:

take up the cudgels
toe the line (aka tow the line)
ride roughshod over
no axe to grind
grist to the mill
stand shoulder to shoulder

Orwell thought that the two most risible dying metaphors – exploring every avenue and leaving no stone unturned – had disappeared from common use. He was being over-optimistic. Sixty-six years later, pompous cops continue to explore the avenue and leave no stone unturned, often in search of a male person or persons as they do so. But the male person who thought of leaving no turn unstoned deserves our gratitude for helping to boo the original off the stage.

I’m surprised that Orwell neglected to mention dying sporting metaphors. We are about to be drowned in them during the many weeks of the Greater London egg and spoon race. Surely, however, he would have savoured the following gem from the Megrahi statement:

…what emerged is that the Scottish Government were the only ones playing with a straight bat…

A straight bat, indeed. Think of this. At Lockerbie, 270 precious lives were lost. But that was a long time ago. More than – or over – 23 years later, it is safe to refer to the tragedy in terms of cricket, a jolly nice English sport, one of the few in which the first minister has expressed little if any interest. Put aside the circular ugliness of the sentence construction – ‘what emerged is that’ etc – and concentrate on the choice of this dying metaphor. Why cricket? Why bats? Straight in what way, exactly? Where do they keep their bent ones?

This metaphor, like most metaphors in political language, is designed to conceal. It is lacking in precision; it spares its author the effort of communicating plainly. The metaphor is a disgrace; the statement as a whole is a disgrace. It reveals only that we should not necessarily believe a word we are told about Lockerbie.

Courtesy of Kenneth Roy – read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review