Labour, New Language
London & New York: Routledge, 2000.
£10.99, 192 pages, ISBN 0415218276.
I must confess that I was not too hopeful about Professor Faircloughs
book on language and the British Labour Party under Tony Blair after
reading the back-cover blurb. Its 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, Blairs fuzzy middle road
beyond left and right, and it continues with a critique
of Blairs own personal style, New Labours 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 Partys
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 Blairs spin doctors have revolutionized
the British political establishments sensitivity to how important
word choice is to influencing public opinion. The discussion of NATOs
involvement in Kosovo would have been an ideal opportunity for this
kind of argument. At every turn, however, the analysis is coloured
by the authors 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
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 authors 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 Faircloughs 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 Blairs 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 suchmany 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
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