LONDON — Britain will hold elections sometime in May, and the political insults are flying.
Tony Blair's Labour Party unveiled a series of planned election posters targeting the Tory leader Michael Howard. One shows Mr. Howard and his shadow-chancellor Oliver Letwin -- both of whom are Jewish -- superimposed on flying pigs, next to the slogan: "The Day Tory Sums Add Up." Another has Mr. Howard with a watch and chain, in a pose similar to Shakespeare's Shylock. The Tories are shocked, charging that Labour's anti-Semitic. Labour admits to one anti- -- as in anti-Tory.
Like the Tories, I am outraged. These posters show what's wrong with British politics. This Punch and Judy-style "your sums don't add up,"
"oh yes they do," "you're anti-Semitic," "oh no I'm not," is fit for the playground, not politics.
If politicians want to insult, and insult well, they need to do so with style. Where are the witty one-liners that once made the British parliament the most exciting and closely followed of debating chambers?
Winston Churchill inspired people with his invective. There was of course the time when Bessie Braddock, an opposition MP, reprimanded him in the corridor: "You, sir, are drunk." Churchill replied: "And you, madam, are ugly. But in the morning I will be sober." Or when Lady Nancy Astor warned Churchill in a debate: "Winston, if you were my husband, I'd poison your coffee." He replied: "If you were my wife, Nancy, I would drink it." One MP demanded of Churchill during a debate: "Must you fall asleep while I'm speaking?" "No," Churchill replied, "it is purely voluntary."
Another great Tory prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli, was also known for his insults. Of Lord John Russell he declared: "If a traveler were informed that such a man was leader of the House of Commons, he may well begin to comprehend how the Egyptians worshipped an insect." And upon receiving a rebuke from the Speaker for one insult, he happily retracted admitting: "Half the cabinet are not asses."
The Tories had no monopoly on great wits. The Liberal's David Lloyd George described the hereditary peers in the House of Lords as: "500 men chosen at random from amongst the unemployed," and said of Lord Derby: "Like a cushion, he always bore the impress of the last man who sat on him." Labour's Denis Healey replied to an attack on his budget proposals by his Conservative opposite number saying that: "Being criticized by him is like being savaged by a dead sheep."
Insults flew both ways, and the masters of the invective were often also on the receiving end. Clement Atlee told Churchill: "I must remind the Right Honorable Gentleman that a monologue is not a decision." John Bright described Disraeli as: "He is a self-made man and he worships his Creator." And Margot Asquith said of Lloyd George: "He could not see a belt without hitting below it." Touché.
These wits kept other MPs on their toes, and journalists and the public interested in political debate. Perhaps the reluctance to insult has much to do with the political correctness in public life -- as we're seeing with the anti-Semitic allegations made by the Tories.
Today Churchill would probably get slapped with a defamation suit rather than a clever retort from a Labour MP. The only real thing wrong with Labour's recent posters were their poor quality. Come on Tony, you can do better.