Has Shami Chakrabarti actually read George Orwell?

Posted on January 29, 2013

“In our time it is broadly true that political writing is bad writing”, wrote George Orwell in his famous 1946 essay ‘Politics and the English Language‘.

Imagine his disappointment at learning that this statement still holds true 67 years later. He would have been frustrated to find that one of the worst examples of bad political writing was an article in praise of his own essay on the subject.

The offending piece appeared in the Guardian last Thursday, written by Shami Chakrabarti. It was so bad, that it leads me to suspect that she hasn’t actually read ‘Politics and the English Language’ – or that she hasn’t read it all the way through.

Had she done so, at the end of the essay she would have found Orwell’s six rules for writing good English:

(i) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

(ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do.

(iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

(iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.

(v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

(vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

They are an excellent guide, to which I try to stick – though not always successfully, as I’m sure at least one reader will point out in the comments.

Shami, however, utterly disregards them in her Guardian article. Let’s run through them one by one:

(i) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

“While [Orwell] illustrated this powerful theory with examples of ugly, unclear and ultimately misleading prose, today the Orwell prize, established in his name, positively celebrates work that speaks truth to power and shines a light on the darkest distortions of fact and argument.”

Oh dear. “Speaks truth to power” is perhaps the most tired phrase still loping around Westminster, like a much-hunted fox that refuses to die. As for “shines a light on the darkest [insert negative concept]“, to describe that as something we are “used to seeing in print” would be the understatement of the year. To combine the two in a sentence which claims the Orwell prize as the heir to his principles is embarrassing.

Nor are those the only breaches of Orwell’s first rule. Others include “spins in his grave”, “as old as the hills” and even an apparently straight-faced deployment of “Orwellian”, only two paragraphs after she described is as an “over-used adjective”.

(ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do.

I am going to give you one quote: “securocrats”. The verbal equivalent of swallowing a Full English Breakfast made out of Lego.

(iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

“positively celebrates”

Can you celebrate something negatively?

“creeping cancer”

A breach of rule (i), compounded by the author’s inexplicable decision to make cancer more creepy.

(iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.

Hooray, a rule which survives unscathed!

(v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

“Is that proportionate justification for building legal and physical architecture requiring cameras and microphones in every living room and bedroom in the land – just in case?”

That sentence would work as well – or even better – without the words “building legal and physical architecture”. After all, what is “legal architecture” other than “laws”, and what is “physical architecture” other than “architecture”?

“Is that proportionate justification for requiring cameras and microphones in every living room and bedroom in the land – just in case?” is still far from the world’s prettiest sentence, but it’s more accessible and direct than the jargon-bloated original.

(vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Whether the article would descend into barbarism without the quotes I’ve selected is for others to judge.

What is certain is that the man the article praises would have been infuriated by the English used to compose it. If Shami intended to write a tribute to him, shouldn’t she have read his work and understood what he believed in?