Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Judging Books By The Opposites Of Their Covers

It occurs to me that it is a little odd for a blog that is theoretically obsessed with semantics in modern politics to have failed to review the department changes that ushered in the nouveau regime. So here goes…

Looking at the changes as a whole, two trends are worthy of note, the first of which is the continued rise of the extended department name. In the early days we might have felt that the emergence of DEFRA and DETR were just local issues (specifically the historic inheritance of MAFF and the ongoing battle between the size of John Prescott’s belly and his ego) but now they are everywhere; indeed, with these changes, only Health, Transport, Justice and Defence have one word titles (and that represents an increase over recent years!)

Sir Humphrey teaches us that you should always get through the difficult issues in the title, and with the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform there is certainly an element of that. The inclusion of regulatory reform is a particular masterstroke as it can be spun in two, almost mutually exclusive ways, namely “reform to make regulation better” and “reform to make regulation smaller”.

More importantly, Deeber* is an immensely symbolic name shift through the choice of words; after all, it was pretty strange having a department with responsibility for Industry in a country that didn’t have any anymore…

Still, at least Deeber has the words in some form of logical order based on relative important. The Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills has the buzzword bit right up front, which rather begs the question of why that should be so. I suspect the logic goes something like this; we want an FE/HE department that has a strong business focus, but if we put “universities” first nobody will be interested in the rest of the name and if we put it last people will ask why, so whack “innovation” in there, let that get the message to the people we care about and no-one needs to ask questions about our relative priorities.

The trouble with all that is that I wouldn’t be averse to the idea of FE and HE policy being more focused on our economic needs if I felt the present government had a hope in hell of delivering such a thing. Instead we have unyielding adherence to the 50% HE entry target on the basis that it appeals to old Labour social mobility types and new Labour pseudo-socialist pseudo-intellectuals despite mounting evidence that it is actually damaging the earnings potential of many of those graduates and leaving us with a rapidly worsening skills gap.

Even so, Dius’ moniker is at least only inaccurate. The Department for Children, Schools and Families could be regarded as downright offensive; I may not be a family man yet myself, but Jed Bartlet would find that name immensely patronising and I have a policy of not disagreeing with him when he’s right. Then again, it could have been worse; someone might have decided to reinforce the starkly moralising tone of it all by putting Ruth Kelly in charge of it…

But I mentioned two trends to start us off, and two there indeed are. The smallest changes often have the biggest semantic effect and so it is here. To the untrained eye, replacing “of” with “for” in department names may not seem significant, but consider it in terms of the original example. The Department of Transport is actively involved in transporting things, it has trains and trucks and roads and rails; the Department for Transport thinks transport is a good idea and that somebody should look into increasing the amount of it that goes on.

That interpretation may not be a mortal lock, but it’s at times like this that I’m reminded of those wise words of Catbert; “Asok needs experience. But what he doesn’t realise is that cynicism is almost exactly the same as experience.”

* It occurs to me that the simplest way to put a stop to this nominative aggrandisation would be to treat all the names as acronyms to be pronounced as written, hence;

  • Business, Enterprise And Regulatory Reform - Deeber
  • Communities And Local Government – Ducklug
  • Culture, Media And Sport – Duckmuss
  • Children, Schools And Familes – Ducksuff
  • Innovation, Universities And Schools – Dius

Then again, maybe I’m just too fond of the idea of Jon Snow using the phrase, “…and here in the studio we have the Secretary of State for Ducklug, Ruth Kelly…”


Jock Coats said...

Thinking about state acronyms, when they first proposed, when fees came in, a regulator of access to higher education (what became ), I idly pondered whether we might end up with something such as "OffARSE" (Office for Fair Access Regulator and Student Experience, or something)!

Auberius said...

I'm just waiting for the day the old joke becomes true and we get an Office of Regulator Regulation (OffOff)

Jock Coats said...

Or perhaps even, if it's not too sexist (!), The Office for Transportation Infrastructure Tendering and Supply.


(I can't readily think of one for "OffTrolley"!)