IN ancient Greece a hypocrites was an actor, nothing wrong with that, only doing his job. Then they extended it to mean anyone who played a part a dissembler. In the Greek New Testament it was Christ's word for the Pharisees, and was fully naturalised by the time Tyndale came to turn the Gospels into English. In those days it was nearly always about religion. Today it means anyone on the other side of the House who looks as though they're at some sort of a disadvantage, and is applied with equal zest by all parties. Though it's unparliamentary to call an adversary a hypocrite, to accuse his (or her) party of hypocrisy is now pretty well compulsory.
The word is also much used about unfaithful husbands, and by jilted lovers of their erstwhile partners ("He said he loved me but he didn't, the hypocrite"). Actually this is not so new. Disraeli combined the political and the erotic in a famous debate in 1845 when he savaged Robert Peel, who had changed his mind about the Corn Laws, for having abandoned the protectionists: "They were his first love, and though he may not kneel to them now as in the hour of passion, still they can recall the past ... For me there remains this at least - the opportunity of expressing thus publicly that a Conservative government is an organised hypocrisy."
Great stuff, and not to be scrutinised too closely. Harriet Harman is said (however unfairly) to have sacrificed her party's principles to her personal interests, but Peel's stance was thoroughly principled, and while he did his party no more good than Ms Harman has to hers, there was (so far as I can see) no purely personal advantage in it. Disraeli's speech was already giving hypocrisy a bad name. Since then it's gone so far downhill as to be more or less meaningless.
Nicholas BagnallReuse content