Nailing his colours to David Miliband’s mast last week in the Labour leadership election, former Home Secretary Alan Johnson said: ‘his greatest talent is the ability to put really complex ideas into very simple language.’
Personally, I don’t know about David Miliband as a leader. He may be very clever but there’s something rather creepy about him and he seemed astoundingly arrogant as a very young Foreign Secretary. But there’s no doubt that putting complex ideas into simple language is one of the great leadership qualities – in politics, business or anywhere else.
There’s an impassioned and hilarious book by Don Watson, an Australian writer and commentator who was, among other things, Prime Minister Paul Keating’s speech writer. Called Death Sentences, it’s subtitled ‘How clichés, weasel words, and management speak are strangling public language’.
Public language that defies understanding, he says, quoting Primo Levi, is ‘an ancient, repressive artifice, known to all churches, the typical vice of our political class, the foundation of all colonial empires.’ Agreed. But that’s the deliberate variety.
My favourite passage in the book concerns another Prime Minister, RJ Hawke, whose accidental approach to language makes him sound like Australia’s answer to John Prescott, or possibly even Donald Rumsfeld.
‘He was one of those politicians,’ Don Watson writes, ‘for whom it sometimes seemed words were less the medium of expression than just so many bloody obstacles placed in the way of people who needed to see what he bloody saw. When speaking off the cuff, he embarked on his sentences like a madman with a club in a dark room: he bumped and crashed around so long, his listeners became less interested in what he was saying than the prospect of his escape…
‘When at last he emerged triumphant into the light, we cheered, not for the gift of enlightenment but as we cheer a man who walks away from an avalanche or mining accident.’
At least he got a cheer. More worrying still are the leaders in business, the public sector, the arts, whose ruminations send you to sleep long before it’s time for applause of any kind. And as you doze off you can’t help wondering if they’re really leading anyone anywhere.