Tony Blair and the language of politics

Norman Fairclough
20 December 2006

Changes in political strategies and ideologies, political leadership and ways of governing all have a substantial language dimension. Struggles over language are a part of normal politics whose importance has been increased by such factors as the mediatisation of politics. So the "New Labour" project can be fruitfully analysed from a language perspective, and since it has been pre-eminently Blair's project, such analysis bears upon his impact and legacy.

We can distinguish three main aspects of language as a facet of politics:

  • the discourses which distinguish parties, positions and strategies
  • the genres associated with forms of governing (including "media spin" and "partnership")
  • the styles of political leaders.

Blair has had an impact on each, but given limits of space I discuss only the first.

Norman Fairclough is emeritus professor in the department of linguistics and English language, Lancaster University. Among his books are New Labour, New Language? (Routledge, 2000) and Language and Globalization (Routledge, 2006)

Blair contributed more than any other New Labour politician to the elaboration of the political discourse of the "third way", which is represented as transcending the divide between "the intrusive hand of state intervention" and "the destructive excesses of the market". This discourse hybridises elements of the discourses of the Thatcherite new right and the social-democratic left.

A pervasive meaning is "not only but also" ("enterprise yet also fairness", "rights and responsibilities", "tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime"), simultaneously drawing attention to assumed incompatibilities and denying them. Although the term "third way" has largely been dropped, Blair has carried this discourse from domestic into international politics in elaborating a new "doctrine of international community" and legitimising preventive warfare and the "war on terror" - especially in hybridising moral discourse and the discourse of national self-interest. "Values and interests merge", as Blair declared in his seminal Chicago speech on 22 April 1999 (in the middle of the Kosovo war).

The discourse is unquestionably an important element of the politics, but their precise relationship is not always clear. Discourse can misrepresent as well as represent realities, it can weave visions and imaginaries which can (with consent and feasibility) be implemented to change realities and in some cases improve human well-being, but it can also rhetorically obfuscate realities, and construe them ideologically to serve unjust power relations.

Also in openDemocracy on the British prime minister's legacy:

Roger Scruton, "Tony Blair's legacy"
(18 December 2006)

In light of the evidence of increasing inequalities domestically and internationally, has the pursuit of "fairness" been given similar weight to the interests of "enterprise" in practice, or just in rhetoric? After the chaos and suffering in Iraq and the middle east, how much credence can be given to claims that military interventions had substantive moral and humanitarian motivations? Has Blair's moral case for intervention not contributed ideologically to United States strategy for global hegemony?

Blair's impact on national and international political discourse has rightly attracted considerable criticism. Perhaps however we should be more cautious about the legacy, and avoid oversimplifying complex dialectical relations between language and other moments of the social process. Under pressure from critics, Blair has often appropriated their language to formulate visions many would concur with (eg "Without justice, the values I describe can be portrayed as 'western values'; globalisation becomes a battering-ram for western commerce and culture", January 2003).

His immediate motivation for doing so might well be to win the argument, but once such discourse is given public legitimacy its potential for contributing to real change - subject to other conditions - is enhanced. The legacy of some of Blair's political vision might prove to be more progressive than might currently be expected, given the shabby accommodations he has led us into.

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