Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Language Games

Playing around with semantics has always been a politician's stock in trade, but David Miliband's linguistic somersaults this morning on Radio 4 were among the most credibility-defying since Bill Clinton attempted to redefine the word "is".

Bill Rammell, a foreign office minister, has admitted telling the Libyans that the British government, including Gordon Brown, "did not want" the convicted (though at that stage still appealing) Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset al-Megrahi to die in prison. Technically, if not politically, what the government wanted was of little relevance in any case, since the decision was taken in Scotland by the Scottish justice minister Kenny MacAskill. But, caught between the conflicting attractions of pleasing the Americans and enabling British companies help themselves to some Libyan oil money, they have managed to make themselves look extremely shifty. Part of the explanation has to do with New Labour's spin reflex, in which presentation is all even (or perhaps especially) when they have nothing to present.

Had Miliband denounced the Scottish decision he would have faced accusations of grandstanding and constitutional impropriety - and, worse, would play into the SNP's sense of Scotland as an independent country in waiting, its ministers already exercising the prerogatives of a proper government (when in reality there are quangocrats with more power than Alex Salmond). It would also have looked weak. If the government had been publicly supportive of the decision it would have enraged the Americans - although I can't be alone in suspecting that US outrage is largely for domestic consumption. And it would have underlined its reputation as a government that likes, where possible, to do deals with terrorists. So it has pursued a cynical middle course, of pretending to be above the fray while dropping heavy hints to both the US and the Libyans that it was on their side. Now that the facts have come out, it finds itself in an embarrassing pickle, exposed as both incompetent and dissimulating - a fatal combination.

Hence some nimble footwork was required. What Miliband said this morning, in effect, was that Rammell had indeed spoken for the government when he used the phrase, but that he hadn't meant it. Not really. "We do not want Megrahi to die in prison" actually meant, according to the foreign secretary, "We are not actively seeking his death in prison". "Want", here, is supposed to mean "earnestly desire". The English language is no stranger to ambiguity, but this is ridiculous. If someone says "I don't want X", the natural meaning of the phrase is "I would prefer that X does not happen" or "I want the opposite of X", not merely "I could live with the absence of X".

Would you like an ice-cream?

No thanks. I don't want an ice-cream.

Means, according to Miliband, that I'm not actively seeking an ice-cream, but that if you insist on giving me one I'd be happy to eat it. Or, to take a case rather closer to Miliband's,

I don't want Labour to win the next election

Means that I'd be perfectly happy whatever the result, it's just that I'm not going round knocking on doors wearing a red rosette telling people how Gordon Brown is the best prime minister since Attlee.

Not terribly plausible, is it?

Rammell clearly intended to give his Libyan interlocutors the impression that they would prefer the Megrahi "problem" to be solved before nature intervened, but that for appearances' sake this would be presented as an entirely independent, quasi-judicial decision by the Scots. That is, almost certainly, what the British government thought.

There's another interesting quote today from David Rivkin, late of the US Justice Department: "This is the kind of duplicitous behaviour that most people here do not expect from Britain".

By "do not expect", does he mean to imply, I wonder, that Americans retain a naive, idealistic belief in straight-dealing, cricket-playing, my-word-is-my-bond English gentlemen, from Henry Newbolt by way of Rudyard Kipling? Probably. But those words, too, are studiedly ambiguous. It might just be a headmasterly "This is not the kind of behaviour we expect from boys at this school" - ominous words that in former days would have preceeded a severe caning.