The Top 10: Great political questions

Interrogative sentences that have echoed through the ages

John Rentoul
Friday 17 June 2022 15:40
Comments
<p>Did you threaten to overrule him?</p>

Did you threaten to overrule him?

Thanks to David Mills for the idea for this list. He started off with “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” asked by Ronald Reagan in a US presidential debate in 1980.

1. “What is truth?” Pontius Pilate, cAD30. Thanks to Adrian Hilton and James Mendelsohn.

2. “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” Henry II about Thomas Becket in 1170. Prompted four knights to travel from Normandy to Canterbury, where they killed the archbishop. From Sean Kenny, H Matthews, Tim Carrington and Patrick Taylor.

3. “When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?” John Ball, Peasants’ Revolt, 1381. Nominated by Stillwaiting.

4. “What is to be done?” Lenin, 1902. Nominated by Alasdair McGowan, David Lea Wrath, Exexpat19, Richard Evans, Stephen Clark and Robert Shrimsley, and Bill Tompson and James Blitz, who also nominated, as did David Ronder, Humphry Smith, Daniel Hannan and Simon James, “Who; whom?” (meaning who will destroy whom, capitalists or workers), 1921.

5. “Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?” Joseph Welch in 1954 lashed out at Senator Joseph McCarthy about whether communism had infiltrated the US Army, marking the end of McCarthy’s power during the anti-communist hysteria of the Red Scare. Nominated by Mark Cobley, Matthew Aldridge and Anthony Wells.

6. “Well he would, wouldn’t he?” Mandy Rice-Davies ended the age of deference with her response to Lord Astor’s denial of having an affair or having even met her, in the Profumo trial, 1963. Nominated by George Davidson and Caroline ffiske.

7. “What did the president know and when did he know it?” Senator Howard Baker Jr, ranking minority member of the Senate Watergate Committee, 1973. Baker thought he was protecting Nixon, meaning to exculpate him of prior knowledge of the break-in. Thanks to David Mills, Lawrence Freedman and Allan Holloway.

8. “Who governs Britain?” Ted Heath, 1974. As Alan Watkins said, the British people gave their answer in that election: “Not you, mate.” Thanks to Tony McNulty and William Perrin. Joseph Body also nominated “Are you thinking what we’re thinking?”, the Conservatives’ 2005 election slogan (paired with statements such as “It’s not racist to impose limits on immigration”), to which the voters also gave the Wrong Answer.

9. “Did you threaten to overrule him?” Jeremy Paxman in 1997 asked Michael Howard, home secretary, repeatedly about a meeting with prisons chief Derek Lewis. Nominated by Theo Bertram, Roy Wessex, Kevin Cooke, Harry Wallop, Ariel Kovler and Olly Benson.

10. “A new dawn has broken, has it not?” Tony Blair, 1997. Thanks to John McTernan, Chris Rowland, William French, Damian Counsell, Owen Williams, James Plunkett.

No room, then, for the popular but less consequential “Where’s the beef?” (Walter Mondale to fellow Democrat nominee Gary Hart, 1984, lifted from the Wendy’s TV ad), nominated by Ian Thomas, Rupert Darwall, Mark Burns, Andy Day, Robert Shrimsley, Douglas Millan, Ian Reeve and Tony Yates. Or for “Did you insinuate my wife was a prostitute on the Plymouth Herald comments section?” (tweeted by Jonny Mercer, Conservative MP, in 2018) and nominated by Sam Freedman and Ali Hughes.

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Nominations were also received for the Irish, West Lothian and Schleswig-Holstein questions. Thanks to Wes Sexwater, Niall, Colin Dingwall, Dean Bullen and Stillwaiting. Lord Palmerston was reported to have said that the Schleswig-Holstein question was so complicated only three men in Europe understood it: one was Prince Albert, who was dead; the second was a German professor who became mad; he, Palmerston, was the third and he had forgotten it.

Thanks to Imogen Ablett, who edited this list.

Next week: Hinge moments in history decided by narrow margins; narrower than Ed versus David Miliband (1.4 per cent).

Coming soon: Political excuses, after Neil Parish said: “It was tractors I was looking at.”

Your suggestions please, and ideas for future Top 10s, to me on Twitter, or by email to top10@independent.co.uk

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