It took long enough but finally, after 200 years, the last drop of wit and intelligence was squeezed from political debate this week. From John Wilkes' 'That will depend, my Lord, on whether I embrace your principles or your mistress' (in response to the Earl of Sandwich's assertion, 'egad sir, I do not know whether you will die on the gallows or of the pox') to John Prescott referring to George Bush as 'crap'.
Most of the defenders of Prescott's honour fend off criticism of him by saying that it is motivated by snobbery towards his working class roots. Which is high contempt for the working classes, most of who work far harder than the Deputy Prime Minister (the Cabinet Office has refused to say what he's been up to since losing his department in May, leading to suspicions that he's been up to bugger all) and are much more capable of stringing a sentence together than he is (the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister had the balls this week to criticise two reports it had commissioned for the 'poor quality in terms of... the style in which they are written').
What these champions are trying to deflect is the fact that people can't stand Prescott not because he's from Up North and a former ship's steward, but because he's incompetent, all too ready to wallow in the trappings of power, possesses an infuriating inverted snobbery that revels in his own stupidity in a 'Ee, ahm right daft, me' kind of way, and can't keep his hands to himself when there's a halfway conscious woman in the room.
The only reason Prescott deserves contempt for being working class is in the respect that he performed a minor miracle of rising from humble origins, through the ranks of the Labour movement, to become one of the most powerful men in the country only to exercise that power by merely being a willing accomplice in implementing Thatcherite policies under a red wrapper. It's the 'Look, we can't be neo-Thatcherite authoritarian war-mongers, we've got Honest John in the Cabinet' gambit. It has to be said that the ongoing struggle with the English language is the least of Prescott's crimes, but still.
Prescott wasn't the only one guilty of draining political discourse of the last of its vitality this week. And the others don't have the same excuses as Prescott. Eton- and Oxford- educated David Cameron popped up, putting his name to the Tories' new 'Built to Last' mini-manifesto, a publication with all the power to inspire (or offend) of 'The Very Hungry Caterpillar' (they both take about the same time to read as well). It's written in language trying so hard to avoid upsetting die-hard old-school Tories it ends up saying almost nothing. (This is actually the second draft of the document after grass roots activists complained about the first one back in February. One of the revisions was to remove any references to Conservatism being 'compassionate' because nobody in their right minds wants to be accused of that, do they?)
It's something of a cliché these days to say that you couldn't get a Pakistani terrorist suspect's testicles between Labour and the Tories, the parties being so close together on every issue. Even so, you could rebrand 'Built to Last' in Labour livery and nobody would blink. It's written in the same aspirational language as those '150 reasons why I want to be a...' that motivational psychologists get their clients to write. Were it a business plan to try and winkle a loan out of a bank, Cameron would be on the receiving end of tight-lipped smiles and barely-suppressed giggles. He should try it on 'Dragon's Den': 'Now then, chaps, I've got this wizard idea to help everybody "find true and lasting happiness".' 'What's your plan?' 'Er, well, you invest in me first and I'll try and come up with something.'
In keeping with the spirit of the political age, the emphasis of the manifesto is on change. Change, change, change. 'A new direction and new answers', 'a responsibility revolution', and 'an opportunity society' are just some of the breathlessly meaningless adventures we can look forward to should Cameron ever make it to Number 10. Can't we have a bit of 'steady as she goes' for a bit? You know, a bit of a breather... This comes in a week in which The Independent announced that New Labour has created a new crime for every day it's spent in office (3,023). After that, we're knackered at the mere thought of a Cameron administration.
About the only thing to leap from the manifesto (or at least, the only thing we can remember after having read the thing twice) is the aspiration to have a 'huge increase in the level of drug rehabilitation for young people, operated through... the private sector'. A laudable aim, considering the current policy seems to be to lock addicts up and let them get on with it. The involvement of the private sector seems an odd proposal, however. A private company whose profits are derived from rehabilitating drug addicts is surely working towards putting itself out of business.
Obviously the supply of addicts, like that of drugs, isn't going to dry up any time soon but the concept of a company being paid to eradicate the resource it depends on for its survival makes the head hurt. If only Einstein were still alive, maybe he could come up with an iconic formula for it. There might be a few philanthropic business people out there able to do it while maintaining their legal duty to maximise profits for their shareholders, but they tend not to get government contracts. 'There's no sentiment in business' is a cliché that should be augmented with 'or government'.
And speaking of (more) clichés, sidelined by John Reid's coup d'etat and obviously desperate to been seen doing something, *anything*, John Prescott, showing the level of self-awareness we've come to expect from him, described Cameron's mini-manifesto as 'another triumph of style over substance'. He's clearly forgetting that the phrase 'style over substance' is one that is used whenever Tony Blair opens his mouth and which stubbornly refuses to take on the status of 'overused' despite being in general circulation since New Labour was born over ten years ago.
George Orwell's essay, 'Politics and the English Language', meditates on the language used by politicians, exposing it as lifeless, clichéd and euphemistic ('such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.' Collateral damage, anyone? Humanitarian intervention?). It takes just a little longer to read than Cameron's slim volume but is infinitely more nourishing. Like a Sunday roast with all the trimmings next to a Pot Noodle. It's as close to a pocket bullshit detector as you're ever likely to find and gives an empowerment not found in manifestos and speeches.
In the conclusion, Orwell says: 'One need not swallow suchabsurdities as this, but one ought to recognise that the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language.' The essay was written in 1946 but could have been written next week. Now's *that's* what we call built to last.