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“Hard-working families” and why we should be worried by Newspeak

Sometimes it is a disservice to describe George Orwell’s seminal novel Nineteen Eighty-Four as dystopian.

Some of the novel’s best commentary is on spectres that existed in 1940s society, and continue to exist now. First among these is Newspeak, which was really born in Orwell’s polemical exploration of how the English language is subtly used for political ends years before.

This week, three separate encounters reminded me of the relevance of this. There are many more examples, of course.

The first is the more obviously-charged term: “hard-working families”. It’s obvious from Wikipedia that there’s already a high consciousness as to the use of this phrase, but it still gets wheeled out again and again. In an essay for Radio 4’s A Point of View (read the write-up here, and while it’s still on iPlayer, listen here), Cambridge classics professor Mary Beard said:

Our own equivalent of the deserving poor is ‘hard-working families’. Politicians of all parties are forever parroting this pious phrase, on TV or radio. It’s almost as if they’ve simply been told never to say the word ‘families’ without it’s knee-jerk accompanying adjective. Maybe I’m peculiarly counter-suggestable, but whenever I hear them at it, I feel a great well of support for the feckless, and the lazy. Or, for heaven’s sake, for the singletons, who just don’t have families. Are you any less worthy of our political time and care, simply because you haven’t got kids?

Call me a cynic, but I’m inclined to say that Mary is probably “peculiarly counter-suggestable”. Rhetoric is dangerous, and despite however hackneyed a phrase it might be, “hard-working families” is drumming into us time and time again that the particular construction of being able to work hard and fitting the model of the nuclear family makes you somehow better.

Forget the “feckless and the lazy” for a second. What about those who are too ill to work? Or who can’t, or dare I say it don’t want, to have children? You’re on your own, mateys.

Shortly after hearing Mary’s musings, I heard Asda’s latest Christmas ad, and was prompted to tweet:

There’s a serious point here (entirely separate to the serious point about Asda’s gender stereotypes). You expect it to some extent with big business, outrageous as it is, but politics especially can’t be a game of target audiences. The Labour party has a duty to stand up for those people who don’t fit the mould. If the Beatles were commenting on today’s political landscape, they might well ask: “All the lonely people: where do they all belong?”

But it is a more subtle example of political language that is more interesting. Especially if you follow American politics (I do from time to time) you’ll be familiar with political issues being divided into “social” issues and “economic” or “fiscal” issues. I’m hearing it in Britain increasingly too. A British friend of mine now studying for a degree in the US remarked on arrival at Harvard that the most popular phrase on campus (over Caesar salad, no doubt) was: “I’m socially liberal, but fiscally conservative.”

Tom Neumark-Jones, a former Labour councillor now resident in the states, tweeted the other day:

I took him up on the definitions of ‘social’ and ‘economic’ issues because I thought it was relevant to the argument he was making. This is only an impression, but it feels to me like there’s a trend for middle-class politics to be based around these issues defined as ‘social’. As with the students at Harvard, for the chatterati it’s increasingly acceptable to be conservative on issues like tax and poverty (pretty ‘social’, yes?) so long as you’re in favour of equal marriage and gender equality under the law. The left cannot buy into this distinction.

Re-distribution of wealth, our schools, our hospitals – calling them simply ‘economic’ makes it sound like they’re only relevant on Wall Street. Most people probably don’t know what “fiscal” means (I didn’t until a few years ago) – that’s how relevant it sounds! Neumark-Jones pointed out that it could be a disservice in saying equality among sexualities isn’t ‘economic’, but there’s certainly more danger in huge elements of a just society being classified as separate to ‘social’ issue.

The next election could well be won on the basis of who has the better narrative. If Labour does not properly challenge the myth that it spent too much money last time round, perpetuated by the media and the Tories, we will lose. But we can’t forget that there are far more subtle right-wing narratives creeping through, in the very words in which we attempt to construct our alternatives. If we simply argue back that the last Labour government was “fiscally responsible”, we don’t stand much better a chance.


  1. caroline molloy says:

    Excellent piece. On the first point, whether its ‘hard working families’ or ‘the workers united will never be defeated’ this language isn’t fit for purpose. But we hv a fantastic word now that unified us all…

    Here come the plebs…

    Second point is great I’ve never thought of it like that but its so true!

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