Finding the sweetest way to be insulting to someone is one of the few consolations left to us

All things considered, calling someone a "swivel-eyed loon" isn't so bad


Why all this mollycoddling of swivel-eyed loons? I take the point that Mr Cameron can’t be seen to endorse such a view of those who toil in sleepy villages and hamlets to keep the country sleepily Conservative, and might prefer his senior colleagues to speak more respectfully of them, at least in the hearing of the wazzcock rubbernecks of the press. Discretion, lads. But I don’t doubt that in the carpeted hush of home, enjoying conversation with his Eton chums – Eton is not, by the by, a term of disparagement in this column, though we were not fortunate enough to go there ourselves – he will from time to time invoke the swivel-eyed loony wing of the party he must sometimes wonder why he bothers to attempt to lead. That swivel-eyed will be among the least offensive descriptions to be banded about over brandy – particularly when discussion turns riotously to the Social Democrats – I also have not the slightest doubt.

Of the consolations that remain to modern man – pressed on all sides by pressures to conform to unreasonable standards of behaviour and speech – finding the most idiomatic way of being insulting to somebody, in private, is very nearly the sweetest and the last. Hence our enjoyment of that hurricane of vitriolic invective that is The Thick of It. Since this is a pleasure we all indulge at some time or another – when I recall what I said about lecturers when I was a student, and what I said about students when I was a lecturer, I could weep with the longing to be rude again – we should not censure it in others. Even a senior Conservative deserves a break.

And swivel-eyed loons isn’t lacking in invention as abuse goes, is it? Take a look at what passes for killing comment on the internet, you st***d f****** c***, take a look at what might very well follow this column, you st****d f****** Z****t c***, and you will have a good case for thinking that swivel-eyed loons is not only witty and well reasoned, but affectionate.

But there is still more to be said in its defence. Reader, it’s accurate.

I have some very good friends beavering away in the Shires on behalf of conservatism, little C and big. Meet them in the ordinary way of civil social intercourse and there is nothing remotely swivel-eyed or loony about them. They look you straight in the face. They are not devious or Machiavellian. And they are eminently sane. But this is because they are not in every waking minute of their lives unpaid party activists. Once in politicking mode, they become unrecognisable from themselves. They lose their sense of the ridiculous. They make poor judgements, read character as though they’d never met a good man or a shyster, and embrace policies which, when they are not medieval, are Byzantine.

There is a reason for this, over and above the obvious fact of politics making chumps of everybody. Down there, gnawing at the frost-bitten roots of influence, they meet only their own kind. They belong to associations and clubs where conversation is monotonous and identical opinions are exchanged. Their labours often go unnoticed and unthanked – being called a swivel-eyed loon is hardly what you could call thanks. Add to their bitter consciousness of ingratitude the usual ill effects of rural life (I don’t say all Conservatives live in the country, but if it’s not Manchester it’s country to me) – by which I mean what Coleridge called “a contracting and hardening of the mind by want of stimulants”, as a consequence of which men become “selfish, sensual, gross and hard-hearted” – and a disinclination for all policies but loony ones is bound to follow. Take it as a rule of thumb: the further party workers are from power, the more extreme their thoughts.

That this rule of thumb applies to workers at the other political extreme goes without saying. I have played table tennis for a Conservative Club in Cornwall and taught at a Labour-minded, union-conscious polytechnic in the Midlands, and I can attest to the contracting of minds, including my own, at both. If anything, the Conservative Club was more liberal in that the only ideology pursued bore on how to get the fruit machine to disgorge its jackpot.

There are obvious resemblances, anyway, between the way the worker bees of the Labour Party turned at last on Tony Blair, and the way the swivel-eyed are threatening to turn on David Cameron. In both cases, a sophisticated leader – these things are relative – is subjected to the suspicions of the pack for the very reason that he is open to a wider variety of views than they are. Cameron can no more do without the support of the party faithful than Blair could, but we should be wary of chivvying him into line. If there really are to be no more such excursions into unexceptionable good sense and fairness as the gay marriage Bill, it’s the mob – albeit in green wellies – that will have won.

Stuff the party faithful, I say, regardless of the party they’re faithful to. It demeans a human being to be faithful to a party, and it’s rarely ever more than fidelity to a worn-out idea anyway. Whatever you think of party leaders, at least they subject themselves to the buffetings of controversy. But we go on being soft on the industriously out of touch, as we go on being soft on the electorally illiterate. “How dare you insult people exercising their right to vote!” the cry went up when another foolhardy Tory recently called Ukip a party of “clowns”. As though there’s something sacrosanct about misjudgement so long as it takes place under the umbrella of democracy.

We lack a Coriolanus. “You common cry of fruitcakes!” Oh, to hear a leader address his party, or indeed the nation, in those terms. He’d have my vote anyway.

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