George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” remains a lighthouse, the beam sweeping past the scene for a moment of blinding illumination before passing on to darkness.  Though Orwell enjoined us against cliché, Hamlet’s “More honoured in the breach than the observance” applies: Everybody lauds Orwell, but few appear to have read him.  And of those few, fewer still are practicing politicians.  Political discourse today is a threnody for Orwellism.

“The whole tendency of modern prose is away from concreteness,” said Orwell.  That is the commanding feature of today’s political discourse.  The latest version of the vice is the indeterminacy principle: Matters are not defined, but are gestured at, on the grounds that they are something else.  The in- or un-formation is everywhere today, especially in England.

Consider the following commonly used words.  Unhelpful poses the obvious question: What exactly would be “helpful”?  Inappropriate is a prissy, skirt-raising shunning of some harmless action or word.  So is disproportionate.  The writer marks out some austere contour of the proportionate, while withholding its actual dimensions.  Critics of Britain’s Kids Company are “irresponsible,” while the minister responsible is “disingenuous” (a nice fork, that, since he can hardly defend himself as “ingenuous”).  As Steven Pinkus said, “Every negation requires mental homework.”  Sir John Major has stigmatized UKIP as “entirely un-British,” a high line to take of a party whose electoral performance in 2014 and 2015 suggests that it is supported by 13-15 percent of the British people.  And there is the universal unacceptable.  Of Vladimir Putin’s operations in Ukraine, David Cameron said that they were “unacceptable,” adding helpfully “in the twenty-first century.”  This is on the same level as schoolchildren gaining marks for alliteration, having noticed that certain words begin with the same letter.  A day or so before the Berlin Wall fell, the TV cameras captured a resonant moment that I remember, when an East German apparatchik confronted a mob baying for unheard-of democratic rights.  His face darkening, the apparatchik clenched his fist and roared back, “Das ist unacceptabel,” with a heavy emphasis on the fourth syllable.  And I thought, “If you have to use that word, you’re lost.”  Orwell largely succeeded in getting rid of the not un- formation, but un- was beyond his powers.

Rowan Williams did, however, invent a new use for un-.  After a clumsy linguistic usage, he accused himself of unclarity (a word that has yet to make it into a dictionary).  A lesser man than the former archbishop of Canterbury would have said “lack of clarity,” or even “obscurity.”  But unclarity levitated the usage to a higher level of meaning, where even Orwellians stood back, overawed.

Then take Orwell’s fourth prescription, “Never use the passive where you can use the active.”  This is no longer a simple matter, of avoiding “Something must be done.”  Something is indeed done.  By whom?  The active voice has been largely deactivated, by the coming of the anonymous bureaucratic process.  Who was responsible for war, for immense policies, for signing off dud contracts that cost the state billions?  We shall never know.  Anonymity is the friend of the collective and the bureaucracy.  The passive voice hides behind the active, and is perfectly camouflaged.

Consider two sentences.  First: “The Government has forecast that 13,000 East European immigrants will arrive here following the accession treaty.”  Second: “13,000 immigrants have been forecast by the Government to arrive here.”

Distinguish between these statements, giving reasons for your answer.  The passive voice merges with the active—no names, no pack drill.

Every time Orwell contests a contemporary usage, he loses.  Lately, Michael Fallon, who is no novice, used the word swamped to describe the feelings of those dwelling in towns threatened by immigration.  Now, swamped is a good old Germanic word, as concretely literal as the origins of Germany herself.  And it had been used in that context by David Blunkett and Margaret Thatcher.  No matter: Fallon was howled down and, on the following day, was forced to recant.  It was made clear that if he had said “under excessive pressure,” he’d have been all right.  “The flattening of language,” as Adam Nicolson said, “is the flattening of meaning.”

But David Cameron pushed out the frontier of metaphor, with “swarms” of migrants coming to Europe.  He was at once assailed by the United Nations, on the grounds that he was “de-humanizing” migrants by comparing them to insects.  Swarm can of course describe a large number of people “moving about in a cluster or irregular body” (Concise Oxford Dictionary).  If, however, the insects are honeybees, then the archbishop of Canterbury—not the present one, but the one in Henry V—thought well of them:

Creatures that, by a rule of Nature, Teach

the act of order to a peopled kingdom,

They have a king, and officers of sorts . . .

True, our present-day migrants can hardly teach the act of order to the peopled E.U.  It is not their style.  Anyway, the Prime Minister did not resile from his position on “swarm.”  And days later, Philip Hammond came up with “marauding” to describe migrants.  “Shameful!” erupted the sensitive left.  But maraud, says Chambers, “is to wander in search of plunder,” which is not a wholly unreasonable verb to describe those “desperate” people who, while perfectly safe in France, want simply to enter England, that undiscovered country “from whose bourn no traveller is returned.”

Are we, just conceivably, seeing the beginning of the fightback in which we cease to be cowed by the ululations of the left?  One longs for the Maginot defensiveness of our leaders to give way to the tanks of metaphor, as they break through into the rolling countryside beyond.  A current instance is telling.  A few months ago Nigel Farage, in a speech to the European Parliament, spoke of migration into the E.U. harbouring a “fifth column.”  At once there were cries of outrage at this emotive, provocative language.  Then came the massacre in Paris.  Farage repeated the term, this time without challenge.  And then came substantial support from the distinguished historian Niall Ferguson.  In the Sunday Times (November 22, 2015) he wrote a powerful article, in which he thrice named the term, beginning with a “fifth column of Islamic extremists within nearly all western societies of young Muslims.”  Ferguson crossed a line there and has not retreated.  Indeed, he could not.  Fifth column insists that the language of public discourse must be forced to accept the reality of events.  I would liken the term to anagnorisis, which in Greek drama means “recognition,” the shock of understanding that Oedipus has killed his father and married his mother.  Everyone in the audience knows this, but the pillar of state is the last to accept the truth.  Camus’s image—it is the close of L’Etranger—tells us the same truth: It is the dark wind from the horizon of the future, blowing toward us.