Vir Sanghvi, my editor in the glory, glory days of Sunday, has written a piece in the newspaper he now edits on humour in Indian politics, where he refers to my talent to “amuse and abuse”. He says that in any other country this would be regarded as a considerable political asset, but in our humourless nation it is probably this more than anything else which accounts for my failure to climb very far up the political ladder.
I am not so sure. One sees that Atal Bihari Vajpayee has become prime minister for no discernible reason other than his ability to be very funny and very witty indeed on the floor of the House. But he is funny in Hindi. I suspect it is because my English is not well understood that what an Englishman might find humorous, most Indians find only insulting. Indeed, at a recent international think-tank meeting, one of Britain’s leading contemporary philosophers, having heard me take the micky out of a couple of British stuffed shirts, asked me how my irony went down in the Indian Parliament. I laughed off the question then but have now sent him a copy of Vir’s article.
But since we in India seem to think of the House of Commons as a pretty strait-laced kind of place, I thought I would share with readers a sampling of the thrust and parry of British politics purloined from a compendium I picked up when I was last in London called Right Honourable Insults — choice epithets flung around Westminster, put together by a British MP, Greg Knight. A Labour MP on the British PM, Sir Anthony Eden, who took Britain into the disaster of the invasion of Suez: “He’s like an over-ripe banana: yellow outside and squishy inside”.
It was President François Mitterand of France who said of Margaret Thatcher, “She has the mouth of Marilyn Monroe and the eyes of Caligula.” Which is, perhaps, what provoked her into snarling that she had “given him a piece of her mind”, to which Labour’s Dennis Healy retorted, “This is not a gift I would receive with alacrity”. Not even her elevation to the peerage dampened Maggie’s acid tongue. Of her successor at one remove, Tony Blair, she said, “Faced with a fight he is weak. He ought to be known as Hands-Up Blair.” To which Labour’s Tony Banks retorted: “She is a half-mad old hag, about as environment-friendly as bubonic plague. She is far more influenced by the example of Attila the Hun than by St Francis of Assisi.”
Blair’s predecessor as leader of the Labour party, Neil Kinnock, had a delightfully mean tongue himself. Of two Tory ministers, Norman Fowler, who was stick-like thin, and Nigel Lawson, who was obscenely fat, Kinnock said, “Fowler looks as if he is suffering from a famine and Lawson looks as though he caused it.” And of Kinnock, the Tory minister, Michael Howard, said, “As for his principles, he never sets out without a complete set of spares.” Michael Heseltine, deputy leader of the Tory party, went a step further, describing Kinnock on TV as “The self-appointed King of the Gutter.”
Meanwhile, John Prescott, the deputy leader of the other side, had this to say of the Tory policy on privatization (which, without change, would apply to Shourie-style disinvestment): “It is to do with kick-backs, greed and sleaze.” When Labour won, it was the turn of the British Tory leader, William Hague, to comment on Blair’s rich businessmen chums (like Lakshmi Mittal and the Hindujas): “They are feather-bedding, pocket-lining, money-grabbing cronies.” Which is perhaps why Tony Banks of Labour said of the Tories electing the baby-faced 30-something Hague as Major’s successor, “And now they’ve elected a foetus as party leader. I bet there’s a lot of Tory MPs who wished they hadn’t voted against abortion.”
John Major, Thatcher’s successor as PM, was a bit of a wet. The Labour shadow foreign secretary, Gerald Kaufmann, said of him, “The thing about Mrs Thatcher was there was a character to assassinate. The problem with Mr Major is you look and look — and where is it'” But Major himself was not behindhand in saying of the smug Tony Blair, “The louder he talks of his honour, the faster we count the spoons. He is sanctimonious and cloaks himself in righteousness.” William Hague pitched in, “The British Labour party is an organization where your best friend will plunge a knife in your back and then call the police to tell them that you are carrying a concealed weapon.”
Why, within the Labour Party itself, left-wingers disillusioned with New Labour have long been calling Tony Blair, “Phoney Blur”, while a Tory whip paid Blair this compliment: “Tony’s a real politician. He can say absolutely nothing — and mean it!” The compiler of the compendium made this contribution to Blair lore: “He’s so vain he’d take his own hand in marriage.”
When you get below the very top, and on to the back-benches, political insult in Britain gets more basic. One back-bencher, disappointed at not being made a whip, wondered aloud who might have blackballed him. He was told, “Well, I can’t actually say how many blackballed you — but have you ever seen a sheep shit'”
The Liberals are known in Britain as the ones who are always standing up for milk-of-human-kindness causes like gay rights. This led one of Westminster’s best known quipsters, David Lightbrown, to remark: “Why, you ask, are all the windows sealed at Liberal headquarters' To keep the fairies from flying out.”
Getting even more basic, David Davis, chairman of the House of Commons public accounts committee, the most powerful committee of the parliament, said of a colleague he particularly despised: “He’s about as much use as the Pope’s testicles.” And a lady whip, Bridget Prentice, told a recalcitrant back-bencher who was thinking of voting against his party line: “If I thought you had goolies, I’d crush them.”
Kenneth Clarke, the Tory Chancellor of the Exchequer, commenting on his Labour successor’s budget proposals, drew inspiration from the very bosomy actress, Dolly Parton, to say, “He has based his politics on the Dolly Parton School of Economics — an unbelievable figure, blown out of all proportion, and with no visible means of support.” The insult to answer that insult was given by the Labour MP, Tony Banks: “When Conservatives describe weapons of death and destruction, they become positively orgasmic. Looking at them, those are probably the only orgasms they are likely to have.” His description of a Tory Foreign Office minister as “Yankee lickspittle” (an excellent description of a foreign minister nearer home I could name!) was, however, expunged by the speaker.
My favourite is a Tory back-bencher on the Tory minister of health, the good lady Edwina Currie, who annoyed a lot of her colleagues: “At Christmas, I’d like to hang her and then kiss the mistletoe.” Or do I prefer Tim Wood who served three terms before being beaten at the elections by the four-times married Ms Barbara Follet: “She has been more successful in politics than in love. It has taken her only three attempts to reach the House of Commons.” Alas, if only I’d been elected to the Mother of all parliaments than to the Lok Sabha, I could perhaps have told the guys in the press gallery what the Tory whip, David Lightbrown, told a provincial journalist who had criticized him, “Listen, sonny, one of my ancestors helped kill King Edward the Second by ramming a red-hot poker up his arse. If you don’t watch out, the process will be repeated.”