Humpty - master of spin

Dictionary of British Politics. First edition
December 2, 2005

There are plenty of dictionaries of politics, Bill Jones says in his introduction, but few that focus on British politics. This book seeks to fill the vacuum. Its principal criteria are to cover the most memorable political events since 1945 and describe key political institutions and offices. The last part is a biographical section featuring figures who have had a formative influence on British politics since 1945; intriguingly, they include Samuel Pepys.

What is the measure of a good dictionary? Dictionaries should describe and elucidate what words mean and not seek to pass judgment on the ideas conveyed by the terms. Jones's book safely passes muster. It is comprehensive, objective, clear and accurate. Of course, any dictionary entails selection. This means some omissions, and one I was pleased to detect was "old Labour". It is a phrase favoured by new Labour politicians, lazy political journalists and many academics, but because the term has no empirical referent it does not merit an entry.

Political dictionaries make an important contribution to clarifying British politics. New Labour has been adroit in recognising the significance of words. Formulated soundbites ("bogus asylum-seekers", "trade union barons") are tools for those who command the means of mass communication to shape opinion and define terms of political debate. We have entered (we are told) the world of "professionalised communication", a species of political language devised and exploited by public relations consultants and spin doctors. Although its usage is more sophisticated than when George Orwell offered the definition, there remains more than a grain of truth in his observation that political language is "designed to make lies sound truthful... and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind".

In those few areas where I feel qualified to offer an informed judgment, I found the entries accurate and fair minded. Inevitably one has the odd reservation. Under the entry on "modernisation", Jones says that constitutional changes (notably devolution and reform of the House of Lords) were part of the Blairite "modernisation agenda". In fact, they were part of a legacy bequeathed by John Smith and might have been dumped if this had been politically feasible. But this is a quibble.

Political language is ultimately about power, so let us leave the last word to Lewis Carroll: "'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less.' 'The question is,' said Alice, 'whether you CAN make words mean so many different things.' 'The question is,' said Humpty Dumpty, 'which is to be master - that's all.'" Jones realises that the language of the masters need to be demystified. Students of politics, politicians, journalists and the public will be (or should be) indebted to him.

Eric Shaw is senior lecturer in politics, Stirling University.

Dictionary of British Politics. First edition

Author - Bill Jones
Publisher - Manchester University Press
Pages - 401
Price - £65.00 and £9.99
ISBN - 0 7190 4957 1 and 4958 X

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