Wednesday, 23 April 2008

Now that's an insult! Top 10 political put-downs


Now that's an insult! Top 10 political put-downs

Robert Mugabe describes Gordon Brown as a tiny dot, but he could have chosen something a bit more hurtful - from some of the greatest put-down artists in history

As political insults go, "Gordon Brown is a little tiny dot on this world" was not, frankly, all that imaginative. Already in his short reign, Gordon has faced worse. It lacked the surgical disdain of Vince Cable's "Stalin to Mr Bean", and it wasn't nearly as clever as William Hague's rolling riff about Tony Blair arriving in Downing Street as President of Europe ("... the gritted teeth and bitten nails: the Prime Minister emerges from his door with a smile of intolerable anguish..."). And yet, Robert Mugabe seems pretty pleased with it.
He made the quip on a Monday, and by Friday he was delivering a speech in front of a poster which bore it as a slogan. It could be that political insults have little pedigree in African politics. Perhaps the stakes are too high.
Here in Britain, we have a long and proud history of our elected leaders being perfectly and studiously rude to each other. And yet, I wonder if we are past our best. In the House of Commons these days, wit seems to involve Nicholas Soames still roaring "Mine is a gin and tonic, Giovanni!" at John Prescott (because, oh my sides, he used to be a ship steward) or Dennis Skinner shrieking non- sequiturs about drugs at David Cameron.
Every Wednesday PMQs may contain a couple of lines that make you chuckle, but how many of them do you remember a week later? Ann Treneman, the Times parliamentary sketchwriter, points out that Cameron himself is pretty good at the sneering put-down ("He was the future once", "an analogue prime minister in a digital age"). True enough, but in the great history of British rudeness, these are all pretty blah.
The golden age was probably the Victorian era, when, as any casual student of history will tell you, William Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli faced each other across the dispatch box for about 100 years. The former was perhaps not unlike a weirder Gordon Brown ("Mr Gladstone addresses me as though I were a public meeting," said Queen Victoria herself) and the latter used to dance rings around him. "He has not a single redeeming defect," said Disraeli, of his rival. And, better still, when asked to distinguish between a misfortune and a calamity: "If Gladstone fell into the Thames, that would be a misfortune. If anybody pulled him out, that, I suppose, would be a calamity." History does not record many of Gladstone's ripostes, probably because they were rubbish. As I said, not unlike Gordon Brown.
Then we come to Winston Churchill, who seems to have spent every spare waking moment being rude to somebody. ("Winston," said the Conservative statesman F.E. Smith, "had devoted the best years of his life to preparing his impromptu speeches".) Clement Attlee, the man who interrupted his reign as Prime Minister, probably got it worse than most. "A sheep in sheep's clothing," Churchill said of him. And also, "A modest man with much to be modest about."
Not that the great man was fussy. He'd be rude to pretty much anyone. "There but for the grace of God goes God," was his memorable verdict on Sir Stafford Cripps, but his best ever may have been when an aide knocked on his toilet door and told him that the Lord Privy Seal wanted to see him. "Tell the Lord Privy Seal I am sealed in my privy, and can only deal with one shit at a time," said Churchill. He'd probably been waiting to trot that one out for years.
The political insult was also in fine fettle during the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s, probably because everybody hated each other so much. Interestingly, this wasn't always inter-party - there was a lot of what you might call "blue on blue". Take Alan Clark's beautifully brutal verdict on Douglas Hurd, that he "might as well have a corncob up his arse". Or Sir Edward Heath, on being asked why Mrs Thatcher (as she was) so disliked him: a shrug, and then: "I am not a doctor". Or even Jonathan Aitken on Thatcher's ignorance of the Middle East: "She probably thinks Sinai is the plural of sinus".
A whole book, in fact, could probably be based on the rude things people have been moved to say about Baroness Thatcher. "When she speaks without thinking," mused Lord St John of Fawsley, "she says what she thinks." Sir Clement Freud dubbed her "Attila the Hen". Denis Healey called her "Pétain in petticoats" and "La Pasionaria of middle-class privilege".
Healey (now a peer) had a flair for this sort of thing. Few could forget his verdict that being criticised by Geoffrey Howe was "like being savaged by a dead sheep". Howe's retort came years later, when Healey congratulated him on being made Foreign Secretary. Howe told the Commons that this was "like being nuzzled by an old ram". Not nearly so rude, but probably not meant to be.
Lofty disdain, sadly, does appear to be a thing of the past. When Tony Blair left office, Ben Macintyre noted in these pages that "in ten years Tony Blair has not delivered a single one-line public insult worth remembering".
In other countries, too, the bag is mixed. Silvio Berlusconi's own insults tend to be a bit clunky and Fayedesque, but he certainly manages to bring out the best in others. "The Prime Minister clings to data the way a drunkard clings to lampposts," Romano Prodi has said of him, "not for illumination but to keep him standing up." Not bad, but a rarity.
In America, also, one also senses that the best has passed. "An empty suit that goes to funerals and plays golf," was how Ross Perot described Dan Quayle, but that was a while ago.
An honourable mention should also go to Gore Vidal for, among other things, describing Ronald Reagan as "a triumph of the embalmer's art" (before he died). But recently? When Hillary Clinton started pretending to like guns, Barak Obama sneered that she was "talking like she's Annie Oakley". That's about as good as it gets.
In the age of soundbites and speechwriters, how can this be? Has the hate gone? Have focus groups decreed that put-downs are abrasive and elitist, and do not play well? Or are they all, bluntly, just a little bit too dim? For tips, today's politicians are advised to get hold of the marvellous Scorn with Extra Bile (Penguin) by our own Matthew Parris. And, thereafter, to try harder.
Top 10 politicial put-downs
The insulted
"Mr Gladstone addresses me as though I were a public meeting" Queen Victoria on William Gladstone
"Winston had devoted the best years of his life to preparing his impromptu speeches" F. E. Smith on Winston Churchill.
"A sheep in sheep's clothing" Winston Churchill on Clement Attlee.
"There but for the grace of God goes God" Winston Churchill on Sir Stafford Cripps.
"The Prime Minister clings to data the way a drunkard clings to lampposts" Romano Prodi on Silvio Berlusconi.
The insulters
"He has not a single redeeming defect" Benjamin Disraeli on William Gladstone.
"He might as well have a corncob up his arse" Alan Clark on Douglas Hurd.
"She probably thinks Sinai is the plural of sinus" Jonathan Aitken on Margaret Thatcher.
"It's like being savaged by a dead sheep" Denis Healey on being attacked by Geoffrey Howe.
"When she speaks without thinking, she says what she thinks" Lord St John of Fawsley on Margaret Thatcher.

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