Leading Article: A man who has been called many things

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The Independent Online
POLITICAL insults take on added force when traded across national frontiers. It would matter little if professional domestic insult-mongers such as Lord Healey, Dennis Skinner or Tony Banks were to call John Gummer, the Secretary of State for the Environment, 'the biggest shitbag I have met in my life' (though generally they come up with something a touch more inventive). It is quite another matter when the invective comes from a minister in a friendly government, in this instance Mr Gummer's Norwegian counterpart.

Yesterday the minister concerned, Thorbjoern Berntsen, seemed far from penitent: while conceding that his choice of words (storste drittsekk) at an election rally had not been perfect, he added that the British minister had been impudent, disgusting and arrogant. The Norwegian Prime Minister, Gro Harlem Brundtland, joined the controversy. She supported her minister over the issue that had prompted his outburst: the acidifying of Norway's rain resulting from wind-borne British pollution, but criticised the way he had expressed himself.

Mr Gummer neatly shifted the ground by insisting that the real issue when he had met Mr Berntsen in New York was the Norwegian resumption of whaling, attributing to his Norwegian colleague the defensiveness that he doubtless felt himself over exported British pollutants.

The question here is not so much which is right - both countries are in their different ways violating the environment - but why Mr Gummer tends to attract this kind of invective. The answer must be that the Secretary of State is not just an impassioned pursuer of causes but one who lacks any sense of the ridiculous. An instinct about when to apply the brakes is not part of his mental software.

His reserves of sincerity are bottomless, the strength of his convictions mighty, whether the subject be the protection of whales or of his beloved Church of England from women priests. Add to that considerable cleverness and debating skills, and you have a politician with an exceptional capacity for irritating people.

Few public figures have been more frequently insulted, by colleagues as well as profile writers. When he was the Conservative Party's chairman, its treasurer, Lord McAlpine, threatened to resign over 'this mediocre school swot'. Sir Edward du Cann called him 'an inconsequential little creep who has never grown out of student politics'.

It is easy to see why Mr Berntsen, a trade unionist who started as a shipyard plumber, found him hard to take. None the less, and for all their entertainment value, insults across borders are not to be encouraged: they tend to reinforce negative national stereotypes. Had Mr Gummer been called a sac de merde or a Scheisssack, the reverberations would have been considerably louder.