What a shame that Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, a well-educated man who cares about the English language, should have resorted to two clichéd metaphors of division in recent speeches. He, of all people, should know how irritating it is to use ‘a Berlin Wall’ to divide anything other than Berlin between 1961 and 1989. Yet he it was who used it in a speech in February to talk about the separation of private and state schools.
This is especially unfortunate because it is not just thoughtless but wrong, and sells short his own policy. Since he accelerated the previous government’s academies programme, some private schools have applied to become state schools, and others have set up their own academies: partnerships that are at last breaking down the barrier between the two sectors.
It just shows how strong the lure of the cliché can be: it can lead a politician to do himself down. But that is not all.
The same Gove, in another speech the following month, talked about the ‘apartheid’ between academic and vocational education. This is one of the laziest metaphors of all, almost as bad as comparing people with whom one does not agree to fascists or Nazis. Using apartheid to describe the British education system is not quite as foolish as using it to describe contemporary Israel – but only because it is so obviously metaphorical rather than a polemical comparison.
Politicians can be terrible offenders against good English, even when, as in Gove’s case, they start with the best of intentions. One of the first things he did as Education Secretary was to circulate a memo to his civil servants banning jargon such as ‘safeguarding’ and replacing it with ‘child protection’.
Not even the office of the Prime Minister can safeguard against mangling of the language, however.
David Cameron delivered a speech at Davos in January about ‘the opportunities of re-shoring’. Apparently he was referring to bringing back manufacturing and services that had been contracted out abroad to this country. Time to build a Berlin Wall around such horrors to stop them fleeing to the free world.