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  • THE HUMOUR AND FLAIR OF POLITICAL PUT-DOWNS

    Posted On March 13, 2022

    By Karan Thapar

    With politics in the ascendant, both at home and abroad, I’ve spent the week reading a delightful anthology of political put-downs written by my friend and former colleague, Matthew Parris. It’s called ‘Scorn: The Wittiest and Wickedest Insults in Human History’. The chapter on British politics could teach our Members of Parliament how to deflate their opponents with flair and humour but without giving offence.

     

    Benjamin Disraeli, as Leader of the Opposition, knew how to discredit Prime Minister William Gladstone with just a single sentence. Savour this collection: ‘He has not a single redeeming defect’; ‘He’s honest in the most odious sense of the word’; ‘He made his conscience not his guide but his accomplice’. Do you think I should gift Rahul Gandhi a copy of this book?

     

    However, it wasn’t just words that Disraeli played with so effectively. Asked to distinguish between a misfortune and a calamity, this is what he said: ‘If Gladstone fell into the Thames, that would be a misfortune, and if anybody pulled him out that, I suppose, would be a calamity’.

     

    However, every school boy’s favourite must be this deliciously loquacious but bloviated description of Gladstone: ‘A sophistical rhetorician, inebriated with the exuberance of his own verbosity, and gifted with an egotistical imagination that can at all times command an interminable and inconsistent series of arguments, malign an opponent and glorify himself.’ I’d like to see Shashi Tharoor better that!

     

    Unfortunately, for poor Mr. Gladstone, Queen Victoria and his own wife seemed to have learnt the art of the verbal punch. ‘Mr. Gladstone speaks to me as if I were a public meeting’, said the former. ‘If you weren’t such a great man, you’d be a terrible bore’, claimed his wife.

     

    A second master of the put-down was Winston Churchill. Of one of his predecessors, Stanley Baldwin, he said: ‘He occasionally stumbled over the truth, but hastily picked himself up and hurried on as if nothing had happened.’ He called his Deputy Prime Minister and later successor, Clement Attlee, ‘A sheep in sheep’s clothing’. Indeed, it’s even apocryphally claimed he once said: ‘An empty taxi arrived at 10 Downing Street, and when the door was opened Attlee got out’.

     

    If like me you have a taste for scatological humour then this will make you chortle. When interrupted on the toilet in his wartime bunker and told the Lord Privy Seal wished to see him, Churchill shouted across the shut door: “Tell the Lord Privy Seal I am sealed to my privy and can only deal with one shit at a time.’

     

    Matthew’s book proves the art of the put-down remains fresh and vibrant in British politics. Edward Heath was once described by Harold Wilson as ‘A shiver looking for a spine to run up’. Of Neil Kinnock John Major famously said: ‘Neil Kinnock’s speeches go on for so long because he has nothing to say, so he has no way of knowing when he’s finished saying it’. More recently Tony Blair told William Hague: ‘My advice is quit while you’re behind’. A few years later David Cameron said to him: ‘You were the future once’.

     

    Some of the best exchanges were between Margaret Thatcher and her Ministers. Of them she proclaimed: ‘I don’t mind how much my Ministers talk as long as they do what I say’. Norman St. John-Stevas responded with style. He called her ‘The Immaculate Misconception’. On another occasion he said: ‘The trouble is that when she speaks without thinking she says what she thinks.’ Clement Freud, a Liberal MP, needed just three words: ‘Attila the Hen’. Could something similar work in India?

     

    Do you think the opposition might borrow from Vince Cable who said of Gordon Brown: “The House has noticed the Prime Minister’s remarkable transformation in the past few weeks from Stalin to Mr. Bean.’?

     

    Finally, a bit of advice from David Cameron that applies to all our politicians: ‘The trouble with Twitter is that too many tweets might make a twat’.


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