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New Labour, New Language
Normal Fairclough
London & New York: Routledge, 2000.
£10.99, 192 pages, ISBN 0415218276.

Joseph Pearson

I must confess that I was not too hopeful about Professor Fairclough’s book on language and the British Labour Party under Tony Blair after reading the back-cover blurb. ‘It’s time to bin the spin!’ it proclaimed. No doubt this exhortation was the creation of a Routledge editor looking for a niche market and poor Professor Fairclough had, like so many before him, been the unwilling victim of an increasingly corporate academic publishing world. But alas, this feeling of compassion vanished as soon as I read the preface and what followed. Indeed, Professor Fairclough had coined his own slogan: and in its curt construction lies a clue to the fundamental flaws in his piece of writing.

The book walks a middle road: intended for both the specialist and for a broad readership, with a glossary, reading guides, simply stated conclusions and dressed down end-notes. Six chapters including an introduction compose the work. It begins with a discussion of the language of the ‘third way’, Blair’s fuzzy middle road ‘beyond left and right’, and it continues with a critique of Blair’s own personal style, New Labour’s language of government and finally, a discussion of ‘rhetoric and reality’, which uses the NATO bombings of former Yugoslavia as a case study.

What must confuse the general reader and irk the more specialized one is that the author does not have a very precise idea about the relationship between so-called ‘rhetoric’ and ‘reality’. Is the author arguing that there is a difference between events and what we say about them? Or is the author trying to make semiotic observations about how words represent what they describe? Fairclough mixes both approaches. When he refers to the history of the Labour Party’s use of language, very little history is told. Blair may be more conscious of how to use words than other governments, but we are given little indication of how other British governments have used language to provide a standard of comparison, although examples from the Clinton administration and other countries do provide an inter-cultural frame of reference. Without a historical sense of what went before, it is difficult to argue that Blair’s spin doctors have revolutionized the British political establishment’s sensitivity to how important word choice is to influencing public opinion. The discussion of NATO’s involvement in Kosovo would have been an ideal opportunity for this kind of argument. At every turn, however, the analysis is coloured by the author’s old-Labour political prejudices (such as pacifism) instead of his desire to see how language works in action. Careful comparisons between policy and language would have benefited a reader more than half-hearted Derridean dissections of speeches taken out of context, nebulously brought back to the events of the ‘Balkan Wars’ in general with hardly any mention of the arguments behind humanitarian intervention.

As this book fails to deliver on the relationship between events and language, it is simply naive in its treatment of spin versus the ‘real meaning of language’. Here lies my objection to the original exhortation: ‘Bin the Spin!’ Fairclough seems to think that ‘binning the spin’ is actually possible and that he is the one to do it. The author’s definition of ‘real meaning’ without ‘spin’, presented if you will static or stable, tends to be conveniently in line with his own political point of view. I have some sympathy with Fairclough’s anger that Blair makes decisions that have broken with the Labour tradition of the past, the abandonment of pacifist foreign policy and a rapprochement with Big Business that seem to have more in common with Thatcherism than the recent history of his own party. In the end, however, his interpretation of Blair’s language which he calls ‘real meaning’ are actually only more self-interested ‘spin’.

Perhaps what is most difficult for the author to accept is that it is not useful to talk about the nature of ‘rhetoric’ and ‘reality’ as such—many good Continental semioticians have worked hard in that field. It would be more pertinent to look closely at processes surrounding different events. The dualist obsession with the distinction between ‘rhetoric and reality’ is reconciled somewhat in the conclusion, but in the form of a extraordinarily long hyphenated meditation in which the author makes an effort to come to grips with recent and not so recent development in philosophy of language.

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