The UK Civil Service

Facts, Analysis and Comment.

Mandarin Lesson 10: A Masterclass by Lord Butler


Lord Butler, former Head of the Civil Service, was asked to report, in 2004, on the role of the intelligence services in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. As might have been expected, Lord Butler's report offered a now all-too-rare glimpse of the former cabinet secretary's favourite language - traditional Mandarin.

The key to appreciating traditional Mandarin is understanding the often complex sentence structure. This allows exponents to leave readers with a clear sense of what is being said even though a literal analysis of the text would allow the author to deny ever having suggested such a thing.

A favoured technique is to place at the beginning of a sentence an avowed denial of everything that follows. A classic example of this comes in paragraph 597 with Lord Butler's observations on the way John Scarlett, chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee and next MI6 chief, strayed too far into political waters.

In the original Mandarin this paragraph notes: "Without any implied criticism of the present or past chairmen ... we see a strong case for the post of chairman being held by someone with experience of dealing with ministers in a very senior role and who is demonstrably beyond influence and thus probably in his last post." Translated into modern English this might read: "The chairman of the JIC was clearly too junior, too inexperienced in the ways of ministers and too eager to toady to his political masters to secure his next job."

The report is similarly peppered with a number of other fine examples of the ancient dialect.

"While not arguing for a particular approach to the language of Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) assessments . . . we recommend the intelligence community review their conventions again to see if there would be advantage in refreshing them." Translation: "Only a moron would use language like that. The existing rules need to be overhauled."

"We do not suggest that there is - or should be - an ideal or unchangeable system of collective government, still less that procedures are in aggregate less effective now than in earlier times. However, we are concerned that the informality and circumscribed character of the government procedures . . . reduces the scope for informed collective political judgment." Translation: "The changes to the style of government instituted by Tony Blair helped cause this cock-up. Things were much better in my day."

"It may be worth considering the appointment of a distinguished scientist to undertake a part-time role as adviser to the cabinet office." Translation: "For God's sake, let's get someone who knows what he's talking about."

"The JIC, with commendable motives, took responsibility for the dossier." Translation "In trying to help, the JIC really screwed up."

"Our review has shown the vital importance of effective scrutiny and validation of intelligence sources . . . We urge the chief of SIS to ensure that this task is properly resourced and organised to achieve that result." Translation: "It would be nice if MI6 took on a few people who know what they are doing."

But it is when Lord Butler raises the prospect of Mr Scarlett's being forced out of his new job - while making clear that he is calling for no such thing - that one sees the true subtleties of the dialect in the hands of a master. "We realise that our conclusions may provoke calls for Mr Scarlett to withdraw from his appointment as the next chief of SIS. We greatly hope he will not do so." Translation: "There is more than enough in this report to prompt calls for his resignation but don't try pinning it on me. And besides, as a former head of the civil service, I'm reluctant to draw too direct a link between error and accountability."

The above lesson first appeared in the Financial Times. Its author was Robert Shrimsley.