The silly season has come a little early this year. By the middle of the week it was well under way. The most pressing question was whether Mr David Cameron had sworn during a live breakfast radio show and, if he had, the further question arose of whether he was fit to shoulder the responsibilities that would shortly be his.
There was another question. Mr Cameron may well have used what the libel lawyers like to call "the words complained of". But did those words amount to swearing at all? That was the question.
In the first half of the 18th century, swearing was a matter of acute political controversy, but this referred to the swearing of oaths, in particular of loyalty to the Hanoverian succession and the Anglican Church. The controversy surfaced in a different form in the debate over the inquiry into the Iraq war. All this is quite different from the accusation made against Mr Cameron. It was of profanity, indecency, using a rude word or words.
Suddenly I began to take an interest. What on earth had Mr Cameron said? I had not heard the original broadcast. The consequent news items confined themselves to generalities. At any rate in the programmes I watched. Clearly, television was suffering from an excess of tact. I had to turn to the next day's papers to discover what Mr Cameron had actually said.
In general, the press operates within a certain hierarchy of frankness and plain speaking. The smaller the circulations, the more prepared is the paper concerned to employ ordinary words. The more popular the product, the more likely is it to use periphrastic phrases such as "a sexual act was performed" or, a favourite of the old News of the World, "intimacy then took place".
To be fair to the papers, it was very clear from all of them that Mr Cameron had used the word "twat" and the phrase "pissed off". This last could not be described as swearing at all. It is more or less the same as "fed up". In the war years, the services' phrase was "browned off". It came from the RAF, where a good deal of 1940s slang originated.
"Twat" was to me innocent of sexual connotation. I am now told, by younger friends, that its meaning has changed. More scholarly commentators than I have quoted usages by the poet Robert Browning and by Germaine Greer, who, as the boxing posters of my youth used to put it, needs no introduction.
I am not sure about Browning, but Dr Greer was referring to female genitalia. And, poor fool as I was, I did not know. I took it to mean the same as someone who was silly, foolish, incompetent, but not malicious or ill-natured. This is roughly the same as "berk".
In this case I did know the derivation. It comes from cockney rhyming slang – from Berkshire Hunt. My late friend Frank Johnson, a fine journalist, who came from Shoreditch, advised me not to use rhyming slang or to use jocular references to it.
I must confess I never felt the slightest temptation to do so. But, "Why not?" I asked out of curiosity. Johnson replied: "Because outsiders who do not come from the East End always get it slightly wrong."
Not long ago I was travelling by taxi in central London. A young man on a bicycle had an altercation with the driver at some traffic lights. "Dickhead," the man on the bike yelled.
There were numerous sets of lights on this route. As both drew to a halt the young man cried again: "Dickhead." In his eyes it was evidently a most insulting word. Fortunately, no violence ensued, but the episode still puzzles me.
The episode involving Mr Cameron was more interesting. Silly though the season may be, he is now taken more seriously as the next prime minister. This has less to do with any newly discovered qualities in him than it has with the virtual certainty that he will be the next occupant of No 10. The result of the Norwich North by-election put an end to what a 19th-century politician once called "fancy franchises".
The statesman in question, John Bright, was referring to various reforms of the electoral system. I am thinking more of a wholesale overturning of the political system. (Which might or might not happen with the electoral reform, too, if Labour by some miracle won the election.) In May, when the papers were reporting daily the various excesses of assorted MPs, there was a feeling abroad that anything could happen.
It would have been perfectly possible, even with a discredited government, for Mr Gordon Brown to pass a measure embodying the alternative vote (the 1,2,3 ... system) before an election in May 2010. Lord Mandelson and Mr Peter Hain were always supporters, while Mr Alan Johnson is, I think, a more recent convert, and others in the Cabinet have attached themselves to the cause.
All Mr Brown is prepared to offer is a commitment in the manifesto to electoral reform in some future parliament. This was what Mr Tony Blair offered in the 1997 manifesto. Roy Jenkins produced an admirable report on voting reform which attracted handsome reviews. But afterwards Mr Blair and his colleagues sat on their hands. It does not the slightest good for Mr Brown to promise a referendum if he is, in any event, going to lose the election.
There is no intrinsic or necessary connection between the row over expenses and the reform of the electoral system. There was the assumption that something – candidates ranged from the electoral system to the abolition of the royal prerogative – had to be done.
There was the additional assumption that both the main parties were equally guilty. The conclusion being drawn was that both parties would be punished with equal severity and that candidates from other, fancy parties or from no parties at all would garner the benefits at the polls.
Thus, various observers of the passing scene predicted that the Liberal Democrats would come second or even win at Norwich North or that the Greens would be second. Nothing of that kind happened. Instead the electors voted Tory.
And yet there is nothing like the enthusiasm for Mr Cameron that Mr Blair generated before 1997. The Conservatives had been in power for 18 years. Labour will have been there for 13, if this Parliament runs its full course. This is a long enough period for the voters to become, as Mr Cameron would put it, thoroughly pissed off.
Mr Blair was, at the time, something new. He was as shiny as a Rolex watch purchased from an itinerant vendor in the harbour of St Tropez – and is about as reliable. Mr Cameron tried to cultivate a similar approach. He too goes in for charm.
But there is a fly-by-night quality in many of the younger Tories, including Mr Cameron and Mr George Osborne. I do not think these qualities are going to lose the Conservatives the election. But some of them still remember how Labour failed to win in 1992.
A few mildly rude words on the radio are not going to spoil Mr Cameron's chances just yet.Reuse content