Comment: Can Orwell explain Asbos?

The decision to rename Asbos 'criminal behaviour orders' would have driven Orwell hopping mad.

By Ian Dunt

Words are a fickle mistress. Even for those of us who deal in them, they betray you when you least expect it. Clever people use language to misdirect and deceive, to confound and blur. The man who is most commonly associated with these tricks is, of course, George Orwell.

His name has been raised recently in relation to two government pronouncements - control orders and anti-social behaviour orders (Asbos). According to today's new Home Office initiative, Asbos are turning into 'criminal behaviour orders'. Control orders were renamed 'terrorism prevention and investigation measures', or T-Pims, and their curfew requirement translated into the rather wonderful 'overnight residency requirements'.


The changes were immediately pounced on as a sign of the government's Orwellian use of language, but that's not strictly accurate. Orwellian language would have hidden the content of the proposal, not expressed it. An Orwellian name would have branded the curfew an 'evening freedom order', using double-think to make you believe that security is liberty.

Changing the name to 'overnight residency requirement' does not actually conceal anything. It is actually very accurate, although you'll notice the government acted decisively in removing the word curfew, with its authoritarian Mubarak-style connotations.

The complaints of civil liberties advocates remain for both cases. Under control orders, the controlee remains unaware of the charges against him and has his or her freedom is severely restricted without there having been a trial. Under Asbos, rumour and hearsay evidence are incorporated into the British legal system.

But an Orwellian analysis would offer a very different assessment of these two name changes.

The control orders move was a result of prolonged negotiation between two parties with genuinely different positions on civil liberties. Control orders are a good test case for civil liberties, because they affect a very small pool of suspects who are considered hugely dangerous. This is not equivalent to the misuse of Ripa surveillance laws by local councils or police harassment of innocent photographers which affect much larger groups of people and were enthusiastically opposed by the Conservatives.

In the end, Theresa May's long battle with Nick Clegg produced a compromise. It was a genuine compromise, whatever you might have thought of it. Greater flexibility was offered to the controlee over the curfew, a "reasonable test of evidential belief" replaced the existing "test of reasonable suspicion", controlees would no longer be forcibly relocated and the use of mobile phones and the internet were allowed, subject to giving the authorities passwords.

No-one liked it of course. That's one of the common responses to compromises. But this was something approaching a middle ground between the Lib Dem's civil liberties concerns and the Tories' national security focus. Critics said it played politics with national security. In fact, it involved politics in a national security debate, which was no bad thing.

The new 'criminal behaviour orders' are a different beast entirely. The differences are minimal to non-existent. Some punishments will be toughened up. There will be a 'community trigger' to force a police investigation in the case of five complaints and the tools to tackle anti-social behaviour will be streamlined. But the changes are so insignificant they do not require a name-change. The new designation is an entirely superficial move, a branding exercise from the opposition leader who went on holiday with huskies, not the prime minister who bravely removed the caveats from the Bloody Sunday report.

The phrase anti-social behaviour is being actively discouraged now. The official reason is to discourage police from treating anti-social behaviour as something meant for town halls. It's going the way of the 'war on terror'. But the real problem was one of connotations. The phrase is associated with failure, with continued disturbance.

And that's where Orwell's general critique of language can serve us well. "The great enemy of clear language is insincerity," he wrote in 1946, in 'Politics and the English Language'. "When there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns, as it were, instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms like a cuttlefish squirting out ink."

You already know this to be true. The management speak which sits on this country like some horrible, endless semantic nightmare is specifically designed to escape scrutiny. It has swallowed the corporate world and now - much more dangerously - it is taking over the political world. Employees use it with their managers to hide the fact they don't know what they're doing. Consultants use it to hide the fact that their entire industry is a shame joke. And now politicians use it to avoid offending any part of the electorate and to escape the kinds of details which might later actually allow us to hold them up to scrutiny.

As Orwell said: "Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants are driven out into the countryside, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification."

Orwell would have been indifferent to the 'overnight residency requirement', even though it's funnier. The name change is accurate, even if it's only being used to remove the connotations of 'curfew'. More importantly though, it reflects a genuine change in the substance of the policy. He would have been scathing about the 'criminal behaviour order', which has been used to mask a continuation of policy along the same lines of what came before.

The tag of 'Orwellian' is used in an increasingly lazy manner, denoting anything vaguely authoritarian or euphemistic. That's a uniquely ironic turn of events, because it serves to make the designation weaker and more forgettable. Orwell's study of how language is used to lie and confuse, to make us weak and obedient, is a far more radical prospect, and one that is therefore avoided at all costs by the political and media class.

In politics, Orwell is your friend. He makes clear what others conceal. Don't be lazy with him. Stay in touch.

The views expressed in politics.co.uk's Speakers' Corner section are those of the writer and do not reflect the opinions of the website or its owners.

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