Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Tag: Kenneth Clarke

The Blair Years Part One

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday October 20 2016 where it was given the title Saviour or Serpent.

Colman's Column3

Tony Blair has announced that he may return to British politics. This is somewhat surprising considering the universal loathing that is today felt for the man following the repercussions of the ill-advised invasion of Iraq in 2003 and his more recent sordid quest for riches, a quest which has led him to consort with many dodgy dictators.

An examination of Blair’s rule may be enlightening for those masochistic Sri Lankans who believe that this island nation’s polity is supreme in its incompetence, inefficiency and corruption and its politicians unrivalled in their practice of the dark arts of Machiavellian manipulation.


I for one have not forgotten the euphoria which greeted Blair’s election. On the bright morning of 2 May 1997, I wandered down to the Imperial War Museum. A complete stranger, a very tall man conducting a poll for MORI, embraced me, shouting “Isn’t it great”. I was as enthralled as he was. I even got a job with MORI. This was like a new dawn after 18 years of Tory rule. Blair introduced the longest-lasting non-Tory government since 1762.



In 2006, when Blair made his final speech to a Labour Party conference, a MORI poll put the public’s ‘satisfaction’ rating of Blair at 20 per cent, lower than Thatcher on the eve of her fall. There had been a time during Blair’s premiership when approval ratings surged to levels of surpassing those conjured up in totalitarian regimes.

I voted for Labour in that 1997 election and felt that I had personally achieved something. Many of us were drunk with joy. It was a sobering experience to walk around the Imperial War Museum and to see the remembrance of so many lost lives. My grandfather had fought in the First World War. I wonder if my father’s experience in the Second World War had truncated his life so cruelly. Little did I suspect on that morning at the museum that Blair would be complicit in so many needless deaths.

Dawn and Disillusion


Professor Anthony King described the Labour landslide, as being akin to “an asteroid hitting the planet and destroying practically all life on Earth”. Blair entered Downing Street on a wave of optimism and good will, promising to restore trust in politics and breathe new life into Britain’s tired institutions.


Much of the reason for the voters’ distaste for the Major administration was because of what became known as the “sleaze factor”. There was what seemed like an endless succession of sex scandals. It was later revealed that boring old Major himself had had a four-year affair with health minister Edwina Currie. During Blair’s stewardship sleaze continued and the tired institutions continued to languish.


“Our mission will be the renewal of our public services. There is nothing more important to making Britain a fairer and stronger country.” Did he succeed?


I was working as a management consultant in the NHS when Conservative Health Secretary Kenneth Clarke introduced his “reforms”. The “internal market” introduced in 1991 split health authorities (which commission care for their local population) from hospital trusts (which compete to provide care). GP fundholding gave some family doctors budgets to buy care on their patients’ behalf.

Critics saw this as creeping privatisation but Clarke claimed that his reforms prevented Margaret Thatcher from abandoning the NHS. Nevertheless, he brought in many people from the business world and the giant accountancy firms. My boss was the redoubtable Sheila Masters (now Baroness Noakes), a foul-mouthed gorgon imported from Peat-Marwick. Trade journal Accountancy Age described her as “the country’s most high profile accountant”. I had a report published by HM Stationery Office which showed that the reforms seemed to require an army of accountants and managers to implement them. Doctors and nurses felt that money that should be going towards patient care was being wasted on management.

Old Structures, New Labour Words

The Labour victory encouraged hope that the internal market would be abandoned. However, the key element, the purchaser/provider split – was retained, but, typical of New Labour, words were spun: purchasing became commissioning; contracts became service agreements. GP Fundholders became Primary Care Trusts. Hospital Trusts were allowed to continue.


The public and NHS staff had high expectations that things would improve quickly. When that did not happen there was anger and despair. Blair’s first Health Secretary was Frank Dobson (his successors were Alan Milburn, John Reid, Patricia Hewitt and Alan Johnson). Dobson was allowed to stay in such a high profile job, for which he was poorly qualified, as a sop to old Labour. In those early days, the spin meisters were careful to avoid words like “competition” and “choice”. which might alienate any socialists still lurking in the party, preferring to stick with the vague concept of “modernisation”.

Dobson was eventually forced to become Labour’s candidate for Mayor of London and was replaced at Health by Alan Milburn, an old Trot who became converted to the market in health and today makes a good living from private health care. Initially, Milburn called for extra money to resolve the NHS crisis, but rejected using the private sector. “That”, Milburn declared, “would be a Trojan horse for privatisation.” Later, he resurrected competition and advocated reintroducing the Tories’ internal market. Blair did not understand Milburn’s reorganisation.


The government persisted with PFI (Private Finance Initiative) as a method of financing building in the NHS and other public services despite repeated demonstrations of its costliness and other disadvantages.


Civil servants did not dare mention their foreboding. Milburn’s successor Patricia Hewitt knew that Blair “did not do detail”, but she was unprepared for quite how patchy his knowledge was.


Nigel Crisp was appointed as Chief Executive of the NHS and Permanent Secretary at the Department of Health on 1 November 2000. He was the only person so far to combine these posts. Blair was described as “muddleheaded” –  he could not describe a coherent and complete model of what he wanted to achieve. So he could not explicitly tell Nigel Crisp what to do.


Expensive Poor Outcomes

By 2005, the NHS was costing £43 billion a year more than in 1997. The country’s health had improved but, in terms of the number of doctors, the use of technical equipment, the number of patients being treated and the cure rates for cancer and heart disease, Britain still ranked near the bottom of the international league tables. Compared to other European countries, Britain’s premature death rates were higher and clinical outcomes worse. The government was embarrassed when Robert Winston, IVF pioneer, medical doctor, scientist, television presenter, said: “We gave categorical promises that we would abolish the internal market. We have not done that. Our reorganisation of the health service was . . . very bad. We have made medical care deeply unsatisfactory for a lot of people.” Funding, he said, was “not as good as Poland’s”. Note that he said “we”. Winston was a staunch believer in New Labour, a Labour peer and the chair of the Lords’ select committee on science and technology. His This Is Your Life on TV had featured a guest of honour appearance by Tony Blair. At the 2006 BMA conference, not only the nurses but also the doctors damned Labour for causing “a real and imminent danger to the NHS”.


Hyperactive Lack of Substance

The incoming government had made a pledge to stick with Conservative spending plans and not raise income tax levels. Even when large amounts of money were promised, Chancellor Gordon Brown refused to release them because of his feud with Blair. There is no space here to go into the detail of the new government’s twists and turns and changes of mind about what to do about the NHS. There was a plethora of new initiatives, the government appearing hyperactive, unable to allow one new scheme to settle down and produce some results before introducing a new one.


The triumph of style over substance, lack of concentration, poor management of human resources and avoidance of confrontation is common to Blair’s approach to all the major issues that he had intended to tackle. The war between Blair and Brown cast a gloomy cloud over the entire Blair premiership. More on that next week.

Dawn and Disillusion: the Bathetic Blair and Brown Era

Weasel Words and Cryptolectic Crap

This article appeared in Lakbima News on Sunday February 26 2012


The subject of my lecture today, ladies and gentlemen, is a four-letter word beginning with ‘c’ and ending in ‘nt’. One school of thought holds that ‘CANT’ comes from the Gaelic cainnt, which derived amongst groups of travelling people in Scotland and Ireland. We are talking here about the people whom the Irish are now forbidden by Political Correctness to call tinkers.

The most widely known form is “the Cant’, known to its native speakers in Ireland as Gammon and to linguists as Shelta.

In linguistics, cryptolect, the technical term for cant, is the argot or jargon of a group, often implying its use to exclude or mislead outsiders. Dr Johnson defined cant in his dictionary as “a corrupt dialogue used by beggars and vagabonds”, “a particular form of speaking peculiar to some certain class or body of men”, “a whining pretension to goodness, in formal and affected terms” -‘barbarous jargon”.

Today’s dictionaries define CANT thus:

(verb) To talk in an affectedly solemn or hypocritical way

(Noun) The vocabulary and language peculiar to a particular group or sect.

Chambers Dictionary, in its modern definition, comes close to Johnson’s scorn: “to speak in a whining wheedling manner; to use language whose meaning has evaporated from continued repetition; to use the specialised vocabulary or jargon of thieves, politicians, lawyers, etc.”

Notice how thieves, politicians and lawyers are lumped together. Today we can also include multinational corporations, advertising agencies, bankers and NGOs among those who develop and utilise arcane verbiage to fool the rest of us.

I have to confess that I was once guilty of producing cryptolectic crap by the yard myself and found it quite easy, way back in the early 1990s (“back in the day” as current cant would have it) when I worked as a “management consultant” in the National Health Service. Those were the days when Kenneth Clarke (who later became a cigarette salesman and is currently UK Minister of Justice) was introducing NHS “reforms”. An awful lot of cant was disgorged to try to hide the fact that the “hidden agenda” was to privatize the NHS under the guise of making it more “businesslike”. The reports I wrote, which,( in order to please our “team leader” who was obsessed with cant phrases like “leading-edge initiatives”) were full to the brim with meaningless phrases and were published by Her Majesty’s Stationery Office. If anyone comes across one of my reports, please do me a favour and burn it!

In those days, it was called “management speak”. It got worse under the Blair administration and continues to thrive today. Orwell spotted cant long ago and commented: “As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems to be 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 hen-house”.

What is sinister about this is not that it is simply a matter of inability to write clearly, or a foolish desire to impress by following a fashion. There is a deliberate aim to obfuscate, to exert power by using an esoteric mode of discourse that the unchosen ones cannot hope to understand. This is bad for democracy. Opacity, false complexity and meaninglessness serve a purpose.

Cardinal Newman acknowledged the danger of precision: “Mistiness is the mother of safety. Your safe man in the Church of England is he who steers his course between the Scylla of ‘Aye’ and the Charybdis of ‘No’ along the channel of ‘No meaning’.”

A cliché is a phrase that has become worn out and emptied of meaning by over-frequent and careless use. Many clichés probably started life as folk-wisdom. They can, on occasion, be useful common currency. They communicate simple ideas economically and are often a means of conveying general sociability. A cliché is an analogy characterised by its overuse.

Brian O’Nolan’s day job was working for the Irish government as a senior civil servant. In his free time he was a morose drunk who wrote very funny books under the pseudonym Flann O’Brien. He also wrote a column for the Irish times under the name, Myles na gCopaleen. One of his themes in the column was war on stale language. Here is an excerpt: “The Myles na gCopaleen Catechism of Cliché. A unique compendium of all that is nauseating in contemporary writing. Compiled without regard to expense or the feelings of the public. A harrowing survey of sub-literature and all that is pseudo, mal-dicted and calloused in the underworld of print.”

Linguistic barbarity

In the world of management-corporate-NGO-speak, perpetrators of linguistic barbarity often seem proud of their utterances as if they have newly-minted the cliché themselves and are presenting it to a grateful world for the first time. How often have you heard people referring, without a hint of shame, to ”a level playing field”. That seems to be a reference to team sports like football. There have been football clubs who did not have a level pitch – I think Yeovil Town was one of them. When my team, Gloucester City, played away at Yeovil, any disadvantage that Gloucester suffered was not because of the fact that they had to play uphill. At half-time the sides swap ends, so for 50% of the game Yeovil would have to play uphill.

I have had the dubious honour of editing papers for an NGO. This meant being exposed to the horrors of academic jargon as well as NGO miasma. An example of a newly-constructed metaphor follows. It cannot be criticized for staleness. However, it is not a helpful image: “The first view often permits the ‘ideological pole’ of the continuum to speak too loud whereas the second view typically bends too much towards the ‘material pole’.” Are they speaking Polish?

Here’s a good one I saw recently: “A holistic strategy for community-driven development.” What has that got to do with the price of fish? Not as drastic as a holistic, cradle-to- grave approach.

We all like to at least appear to be against sin. Who could complain about the noble aim of “enhancing development practitioners’ facilitation skills for the capacity-building of gender-disadvantaged women”? Go for it!

NGOs are very fond of the word “sustainable”. The late Alexander Cockburn noticed this in a signing statement made by President Obama: “Over the last several years, my Administration has developed an effective, sustainable framework for the detention, interrogation and trial of suspected terrorists…” Sustainable torture?

I have read that in a spirit of “participation”, NGO victims in Sierra Leone now have words like “empowerment”, “capacity-building” and “stakeholder” “governance”, “civil society, “facilitators’ and “disadvantaged” tripping off their tongues. These people have clearly undergone a “paradigm shift”. A blogger recently commented that these people “view the aid industry as a profit-making machine, … one needs to know  the language to be able to understand when opportunities arise and how to benefit.”

Rebecca Leaman writes: “The buzzwords of business-speak have evolved, in part, as a shorthand way of letting us refer to complex ideas with just a few words. Every sector and every interest group has its own special vocabulary and the non-profit sector is no different. Given that it’s the very nature of human languages to evolve over time… it is what it is. Where’s the point in fighting that losing battle, when we could be using jargon to our advantage instead?”

NGO-speak is a common language only in that it reinforces a sense of community between NGO workers, to the exclusion of the rest of humanity. Irish president Michael D Higgins, addressing the “voluntary sector” said he has searched for the word “citizen”, in their communications but instead encountered references to “service users” and “clients” and “client bases”… This sets off a certain alert in my own mind. Is the language doing the same damage in all of the sectors, and is it not one of the functions of critical thinking to find an appropriate language to deal with the purposes which one is pursuing? Higgins said there should be a “language of citizenship” rather than one of bureaucracy . “That in turn is based on a philosophical assumption about the worth of the person you are dealing with.”Higgins is a poet. Remember that Shelley claimed that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world”.

A business training website says this: “Jargon can be a powerful tool for creating images in the minds of your associates or customers. Get to know some jargon terms and learn to use them properly, in the right context and at the right time in the conversation or presentation.”

That’s how they manipulate us and mess with our minds.

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