Harry Kroto

October 10, 2003

Plain English was a bigcasualty of the Kelly affair. The secret service and Blair's advisers need to be taught a lesson

I seem to remember that when I was a kid the primary aim of English lessons in school was to write something called "Plain English". I think this meant that you wrote simply and exactly what you meant so there was no room for confusion over what you were trying to say.

Now we discover that our secret service writes in "over-egged" English and I admit that I must have missed the over-egging lessons. In fact, I cannot understand what it means, but then I never read cookery books - or should that be cooked books? I do know terms such as "egging on" and "egghead", but without the Hutton inquiry I should have been at a loss to get an idea what "over-egging" meant - and I am still not entirely sure if I have grasped it. It would seem to be an appropriate term to describe a chicken overacting by squawking at the strain of laying; or maybe lying? I could also imagine it as a term used to describe scrambled eggs spilling over the edge of the toast.

Maybe this would explain why that squiggly gold stuff on the brim of a general's peaked cap is called scrambled eggs as a sign that they had been directing a war on the basis of over-egged arguments. Perhaps in the future there will be five-egg generals instead of five-star ones.

There has been periodic moaning and groaning about the sorry state of our kids' ability to write in English, but nothing prepared me for recent revelations that uncovered the abysmal ability of our senior government advisers in MI6 to write plain and simple English. However, let's face it, this is the real lesson to be learnt from the Hutton inquiry. Surely it was imperative that the MI6 report should have been written so that there could have been absolutely no doubt in anyone's mind about its conclusions on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction capability.

Equally, there can be no doubt in anyone's mind that almost any kid could have written a more accurate analysis of the true evidence than that written by MI6. We appear to have gone to war because no one wanted to call a spade a spade. I understand that the MI6 writers sweated blood night after night to come up with a satisfactory form of words. What was the problem? Surely even kids who had just graduated from reading Enid Blyton could have written: "There is no evidence that Iraq has any weapons of mass destruction" - there I wrote it, and it took me all of ten seconds.

MI6 appears to have been badgered by No 10's courtiers into coming up with a phraseology that was as near to what No 10 wanted to hear as possible, but sufficiently vague that MI6 could feel comfortable. The result was that MI6 appeared to feel that the report accurately reflected its conclusions, even though it really had no evidence of anything and No 10 was able to conclude that there was enough evidence for action.

It is disturbing that the difference between "enough evidence" and "no evidence" lies somewhere within the noise level of the language that MI6 and No 10 use to communicate with one another. Where does this language come from? Is there some secret MI6/No 10 phrasebook, a sort of spin doctor's Roget's Thesaurus , a dossier of distortion especially doctored for use in communication with No 10?

This reminds me of one of my favourite Monty Python sketches. It is the one in which John Cleese, on using his Hungarian-English phrasebook in a tobacconist's shop, is arrested for asking to have his nipples scratched when he thought he was asking for a box of matches.

Presumably what must have happened is that a British agent used the same phrasebook to interrogate some poor Iraqi. Maybe in the phrasebook the words for a pair of atomic bombs was replaced by the Arabic words for a brace of pheasant eggs and the word for years was mistaken for the word for minutes. The result was that Tony Blair and George W. Bush sent in the cavalry together with a bunch of cruise missiles.

Maybe MI6 report writers should go back to school or at the very least be made to write "there is no evidence that Iraq has any weapons of mass destruction" 100 times. Perhaps the Hutton inquiry will reveal the real difference between old Labour, whose philosophy could best be summed up by that old slogan "Go to work on an egg", and new Labour, whose priorities (after Afghanistan, Bosnia, Sierra Leone and Iraq) might be better encapsulated by the phrase "Go to war on an egg".

Harry Kroto is professor of chemistry at Sussex University and chairman of the Vega Science Trust. He won the 1996 Nobel prize for chemistry.

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