Friday, November 24, 1995


WHY are you telling me this? What do you want me to do about it? Are you voting "yes" or "no"? Will you be staying long? What do you want from me? They may seem like many different questions, but they all emerge from the same shadowy corner. Somebody wants to know: "What is your agenda?"

For a time, an agenda was something fairly straightforward. It had its roots in the Latin agere, "to do", the gerundive of which, agendum, was a thing to be done, an item of business. The singular has since been ditched, squashed lifeless in a manoeuvre that gives the first hint of an inching towards the contemporary clan destine sense of the word.

In one little side step, the word moved from talking about the thing to talking about the list on which things might appear. From here it is only a quick hop to the point when the word has become a sort of substitute for the lexically flighty word "ideology". This latter word clearly had too much Marxist savour by the time "hidden agenda" began to turn up in the discourses of management.

The concept of a "hidden agenda appears in management speak by the mid 1970s when it suggested a set of sub merged motivations nestling behind the official list of business at a meeting. This term had itself been adapted from curriculum" an educationalists way of describing the surreptitious imparting to children of a set of values.

A 1989 a US company, Springboard Software, released an interactive geopolitical simulation" i.e. a computer game, called Hidden Agenda, in which amusement was derived from running a digital Central American republic. By the time Ken Loach made Hidden Agenda, his 1990 attempt to see who was playing a similar game in Northern Ireland, the phrase had become a journalistic cliche. The first part of the phrase is no longer spoken, since hidden agenda" is now a tautology.

You must, therefore, distrust anybody who says "My agenda is... The contemporary sense of agenda denies the possibility that you will ever be explicit about what you want. Your agenda is the other part of your psychic iceberg, always there, always below the surface. It is that bit of your being you hold most dear, that little corner you will reveal not to lovers, nor constituents, nor parishioners. Which is why agenda has come to occupy a certain position of almost religious importance, your agenda, after all, fills the vacant space left behind when you lost your soul.


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