Anyone who doubts that, at least from the cultural point of view, the Soviet Union won the Cold War in Britain hands down should attend a conference organised for doctors about impending organisational changes in the National Health Service (and organisational changes are always impending in the NHS). There he will be convinced that every doctor will soon have a political commissar working alongside him to remind him of his wider responsibilities to government and party.
Doctors in Britain are now roughly in the position of Tsarist generals, scientists and ‘specialists’ in the first phase of the Russian Revolution: necessary but distrusted, hated and feared, and to be eliminated altogether as soon as possible. The British revolution, however, has been carried out neither by the proletariat nor in the name of the proletariat: it is, rather, the revolution of the ambitious but ungifted, of whom there is a gross oversupply. For everyone is persuaded these days that there is only one thing worth having, and that thing is power.
Last week I attended, for the sheer fun of it, a conference about some forthcoming changes to the NHS. One of the lectures was given by a lady apparatchik from the Department of Health whose grimacing attempts at smiles, and whose bodily writhing as she tortured the English language with neologisms, acronyms and platitudes in the service of evident untruth, made Gordon Brown’s bonhomie seem like a model of spontaneity. She knew what the assembled doctors thought of her, so in a sense she was being brave; at one point in what I suppose I must call her ‘presentation’ there was a single guffaw of contemptuous laughter.
It was an illuminating moment, a flash of lightning in a moonless night-time landscape. For a moment I felt almost sorry for the speaker: you could see the panic on her face, a fear lest 150 doctors turn on her and demand explanations in comprehensible language. Alas, doctors are far too well brought up and chivalrous (or is it pusillanimous?) to humiliate an ambitious dimwit in public; and so the ambitious dimwits live to plot their revenge and increase their power.
Once in the Equatorial Guinean capital of Malabo I spent a very happy afternoon counting the number of aid agencies whose white Land Cruisers passed me in the street (the only vehicles there were). I counted 27 agencies in all, which goes to show that corrupt dictatorships are the boon of aid agencies. And I had a friend who played a game of special cricket in his mind whenever he was in the company of an eminent but notoriously self-obsessed colleague. A run was scored every time the colleague said ‘I’; there was a wicket whenever he uttered a sentence without mentioning himself. Needless to say, no innings was ever completed.
In like fashion, I spent the conference counting the acronyms. Of course, I may have missed a few after lunch, when my stomach was full of soggy quiche and a banana. Here is a list, probably not exhaustive: ria, bia, hei, asw, pq, gscc, imca, mca, dols, pct, la, csip, amhp, nww, cpa, mdt, mha, lpa, sct, emi, echr, epa, sha, ac, rmp, crmo, nr, cto, soad, rc.
The best acronyms, of course, should provide no clue as to their meaning, and yet be bandied about as if the meaning were known to all. Once their meaning is known to all, however, their bureaucratic utility declines: for acronyms are to modern bureaucrats what incantations are to ancient shamans.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated November 15, 2008