Page last updated at 15:51 GMT, Thursday, 9 July 2009 16:51 UK

MPs told to mind their language

By Sean Curran
Parliamentary Correspondent, BBC News

John Prescott
John Prescott's speeches were stirring if not always gramatically correct

Could the expenses scandal turn out to be good news for the English language?

Bear with me for a minute and I'll try to explain.

A group of MPs has been having a bit of end-of-term fun by talking about the sort of language used by politicians and civil servants.

To help their plain English party go with a swing they invited along some star witnesses: Matthew Parris from The Times, The Guardian's political sketch-writer Simon Hoggart and Professor David Crystal, a linguistics expert from Bangor University.

Everyone agreed that a lot of political speeches are gobbledygook, full of words and phrases like "stakeholder", "multi-agency", "level playing field", "outsourcing" and "blue-sky thinking".

I could go on but that's part of the problem. Politicians do go on and on and on, inventing more and more gibberish.

A Conservative MP, Charles Walker, admitted that he couldn't recite word for word a speech by Winston Churchill or Barack Obama but people remembered their oratory.

It was full of passion and could "move a room".

Mr Walker thought that sometimes how you said something was more important than what you said.

And he gave John Prescott's speeches to the Labour conference as an example.

The former deputy Labour leader might have mangled his words but everybody knew what he was getting at.

The committee members and the witnesses struggled to come up with the name of a star speechmaker from within the ranks of Gordon Brown's government.

Management jargon

Treasury Minister Liam Byrne was mentioned again and again. But not in a good way.

Everybody agreed his speeches were full of jargon and baffling phrases.

One Labour MP, Kelvin Hopkins, confessed that he had not understood an "apparently very important political speech" by Mr Byrne. And he was worried that the minister had not understood it either.

Cabinet minister Liam Byrne
One of Liam Byrne's speeches was described as incomprehensible

David Crystal pointed out that politicians could not be accused of lying if nobody understood what they had said.

He tried to defend the baffling Mr Byrne although he admitted he had not understood the minister's speech either.

He suggested Liam Byrne was probably very embarrassed by that example and added: "If someone spoke like that all the time I don't think he'd be in the job for very much longer".

The cynical MPs snorted in derision at such naivety.

Before he became an MP Mr Byrne worked as a management consultant. And this is what brings us back to the expenses scandal.

Honestly. Stick with it. We are almost there.

The chairman of the committee, Labour MP Tony Wright, explained that one of the perks of being an MP was being able to travel first class on the train back to your constituency.

That meant politicians were able to listen into the conversations of their fellow passengers, many of whom were management consultants.

Expenses scandal

Over the years MPs had started to borrow some of the phrases they had overheard. Dr Wright did not think first class travel would survive the expenses row.

And that is why the scandal might be good for the English language.

Matthew Parris
Like politics management consultancy is a profession trying to invent reasons for itself
Matthew Parris

The Hollywood screenwriter William Goldman once said of the movie business, "nobody knows anything". But he could have been talking about politics.

The former MP turned journalist, Matthew Parris, told the committee that politicians were particularly vulnerable "to not really knowing very much about anything" but wanting to sound more knowledgeable than they really were.

He thought that was why they latched on to the jargon used by management consultants because, "like politics management consultancy is a profession trying to invent reasons for itself".

Tony Blair and New Labour are often blamed for introducing management jargon into politics.

But Simon Hoggart said they had just made a bad situation worse, giving an example from the Thatcher years.

The phrase "care in the community" was made up of "two wonderfully warm words", he said.

"We're all in favour of care, we're all in favour of community".

But although this sounded wonderful, "in fact, as we know, it means poor, mad women exposing themselves in Victoria Gardens".

He feared politicians thought they were on their way to solving a problem once they had invented a snappy phrase.

Mockery and ridicule

The MPs listened respectfully. As well they might. Simon Hoggart wields real power.

He reminded the committee that often his sketch was the only piece of Parliamentary reporting published in The Guardian.

Like a small boy poking a tiger with a stick, a brave Labour member, Gordon Prentice, took issue with Mr Hoggart.

"People like you", he told the journalist, "who are paid to interpret what we're saying don't often do a very good job".

Simon Hoggart soon put him right.

"I'm not paid to interpret what you're saying. I'm paid to take the piss," he told the MPs.

And what about a solution?

The best the journalists could come up with was constant mockery and ridicule of politicians who abuse the English language.

Not quite what the MPs expected from their meaningful interaction with members of the stakeholder community.

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