It was the United States that institutionalised political bad-mouthing and gave it the high-falutin label 'negative campaigning'. But American invective is not what it was when Harry Truman remarked of Richard Nixon's first attempt on the presidency: 'You don't set a fox to watch the chickens just because he has had a lot of experience in the hen house.' There has been a similar decline in this country, which is why Denis Healey's not particularly inspired crack - that being attacked by Geoffrey Howe was like being savaged by a dead sheep - has been deemed witty. In contrast, Churchill's crisp comment that Attlee was 'a sheep in wolf's clothing' is worth savouring, as is his remark that the Labour Prime Minister was 'a modest little man - with much to be modest about'.
The difference between powerful, carefully targeted political invective and ill-judged insults can be illustrated by quotations from Aneurin Bevan. He once said in the House of Commons that 'there is no reason to attack the monkey (Selwyn Lloyd) when the organ- grinder (Harold Macmillan) is present'. This was effective because he had caught the relationship between the two men. But when Bevan said that supporters of the Conservative Party were 'lower than vermin', he was flailing about wildly and unfairly.
The late-19th century marked the high-water mark of elegant political abuse. It often depended on the intimate knowledge a select group had of each other. Gladstone had clashed with the Conservative leader, Lord Salisbury, over the years. He had occasion to criticise the Tory Prime Minister for referring insultingly to the first Asian MP, Dadabhai Naoroji, as 'a black man'. Gladstone commented that he knew the man well, adding: 'I know Lord Salisbury by sight and I am bound to say that, of the two, Lord Salisbury is the blacker.'
Today, the New Brutalism reigns and its finest exemplar, Dennis Skinner, lounges contemptuously on the Labour benches. At best, he can be devastatingly effective in penetrating the armour-plating of the privileged and the arrogant. For example, that overweight, self-indulgent and financially greedy former Chancellor of the Exchequer, Reginald Maudling, was working himself up into a lather of synthetic indignation over the idleness of the British car worker. Said worker apparently took four days - or some such figure - twice as long as his German counterpart, to produce a single vehicle. Mr Skinner could stand it no longer. 'How long would it take you, fats?' he demanded. The House exploded.
There is in politics a place for well-aimed vulgar abuse, as well as for the polished sophistication of yesteryear. But not, one hopes, for snivelling hypocrisy.Reuse content