WHAT COULD our clean-limbed Opposition leader have been thinking of with his talk at the TUC last week of "the guts, the discipline, the decency and the honesty to tell those people out there like it is"? His message was clear - the voters were to forget the old days and go Forward with Labour - but his way of conveying it had a backward look to it.
Decency was what chiefly distinguished honest Harry Wharton from cads like Bunter in the Greyfriars stories. In real public schools before the Second World War it signified all the best qualities in a chap, and decent was abbreviated, in "jolly d", for use as a general expression of approval. Then it lost some of its glow, meaning "more or less up to standard", as it usually does now for those who want no more than a decent meal followed by a decent night's sleep, which is not much of a rallying cry for a political party.
Go further back and decent means something different again. The Latin decens meant "right and proper", or apt for the occasion, a use you don't often come across now, except in the expression decent burial, or perhaps with reference to dress (so those with no dress at all are indecently exposed). There were always moral undertones to it, because it concerned ritual, custom and correctitude, or what the public schools used to call Good Form and we (or some of us) call Observing Social Norms. But however you use it, something prissy clings to it. Mr Blair told the TUC that "there are still great causes to unite decent people", which seemed slightly dodgy to me. Was this an appeal to bourgeois masses, who are said to care about keeping in with the neighbours and washing their net curtains regularly? Or was there a hint that, unlike some parties, Labour had no truck with sleaze?
Nicholas BagnallReuse content