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Book Review

New Labour, New Language” by Norman Fairclough. (2000, Routledge, London. ISBN: 0-415-21827). This review was written by Dr. Trevor James.

First of all, this is a book about politics, rather than language, and it is a book with a very specific political agenda: an attack on the policies of ‘New Labour’. The reader is quickly disabused of any illusion s/he may have that Fairclough uses linguistics as a tool to interrogate discourse practices in the introduction, where Fairclough states: “This book seeks to illuminate New Labour politics and government through a focus on language …The crucial starting point for the politics of New Labour is acceptance of the new international economic liberalism and [it is] my view that it is profoundly dangerous for my fellow human beings for this new form of capitalism to develop unchecked” (p.15). This is basically a polemical tract, in which a linguist uses the tools of his trade, in this case ‘critical discourse analysis’, to pursue overtly political objectives. The aim is not to explore the discourse of New Labour, but to reveal its duplicities – Fairclough has decided that New Labour has betrayed its Marxist/Socialist roots and has set out to expose its ‘fall from grace’.

The book has three main sections: an examination of the political discourse of New Labour as represented in its ‘Third Way’ ideology, followed by a look at the ‘style’ of Tony Blair, and at the language of government. The first section is by far the most interesting part of the book and his analysis of the representation of multinationals and the use of nominalisation in New Labour texts is very revealing: “One effect of nominalisation is that that ‘change’ and ‘us’ are constructed as two separate entities that are external to each other, one of which can affect the other. ‘Change’ (including the new global economy) is something that comes to ‘us’ from the outside, of which ‘we’ are not a part” (p.27). This is where Fairclough is at his best and his analysis of the effects of lists in a text is exceptionally good: “Formulations of the Third Way are made up of lists of assumed irreconcilables reconciled…the lists give the sense that quite different pairings of ‘themes’ are equivalent..[and] have the effect of obscuring important differences”.(p.45). Unfortunately, this perception does not extend itself to an analysis of Tony Blair’s style in section two “What sort of ‘normal’ person does Blair come across as? Not only relatively young, but youthful… the impression is of irrepressible youthful vitality and enthusiasm…Blair comes across as a relaxed, firmly anchored and well-adjusted personality” (p.99). And we are expected to accept this impressionistic portrait as seen through the eyes of an admittedly unreconstructed old-time Marxist as being a valid representation – the transformation of Fairclough into Everyman is difficult to swallow. The final section of the book focuses on one main text, a speech Blair gave in Chicago in 1999 on the eve of the NATO 50th anniversary meeting, during the middle of the bombing campaign in the Yugoslav Republic. He brings together in this analysis much of what he has mentioned before, but in an international context in which the gap between rhetoric and reality becomes more visible: “ Yet a close look at the series of the verbs which take ‘values’ as their object itself suggests we should be suspicious about the optimistic rhetoric of the Third Way. Whereas ‘defending’ values may seem a fine and moral thing to do, ‘spreading’ values smacks of the nineteenth century empires achieving economic and political control in the name of bringing enlightenment” (p.153-4) And here we have the point of the book: that an awareness of the gap between rhetoric and reality, as revealed through critical discourse analysis, can provide a basis for political contestation. The problem is, of course, that it doesn’t. It breeds, rather, a political apathy borne out of contempt for political hypocrisy.

One interesting feature of the book is Fairclough’s response to criticisms of critical discourse analyses in his previous books, in that the texts he chooses are very selective and questionably representative. His response takes two forms: first he emphasises the number of sources he uses, and second, he refers to a corpus he has collected from these sources referring to ‘key words’. He makes use of a total of forty-nine sources taken from New Labour writings. However, when you look at the number of texts actually analysed it comes to less than half that number, and nearly all of them are short extracts – used more to illustrate a political point rather than as a basis for analysis. He uses discourse to exemplify what he sees as political misdirection, not as a basis for an analysis of the discourse of New Labour. In his second response to the criticism of selectivity, he presents a corpus of key words he has collected from New Labour documents.. There are six ‘key words’: ‘New’, ‘Business’, ‘Rights’, ‘Values’, ‘Exclude’ and ‘Work’, and summaries of these key words are inserted into the text at various points. The analysis of the corpus goes little beyond word-counts and phrasal associations e.g. “’Opportunities for work’ occurs once, and ‘looking for’ or ‘finding’ work a total of 3 times.” (p.60) But Fairclough still feels justified in drawing dubious conclusions from such fragile data: “the focus in New Labour is getting people off welfare and into work” (p.60). One is forced to ask what criteria Fairclough uses to select the above words as ‘key’ – none is forthcoming in the text – rather than words such as ‘partnership’, ‘reform’ or ‘consultation’, and one answer must be that these ‘key words’ best support his political agenda.

But in spite of all this - his political bias, the selected texts, the preference for exemplification over analysis – Fairclough’s approach does represent a viable (although not necessarily a valid) alternative to the arid and somewhat sterile approach to discourse analysis proposed by linguists such as Halliday. When he uses his discourse tools to their best effect, as in sections in the first part of the book, his revelations are exciting and engaging; it is only later that you feel the nagging ‘but’. At least Fairclough’s work has fire in its belly – you may disagree with what he says, you may feel like shouting at the pages, but at least he is always worth reading. And that more than anything makes this a book to recommend.


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