The Grumpy Politicians
Sunday 8th May 2005.
ONE of the most heartening results of the general election has been a sharp increase in grumpiness factor. Since the days of Edward Heath - without much doubt the grumpiest prime minister of the 20th century - grumpiness as a quality has been in sharp decline, with even genuinely grumpy politicians such as Jim Callaghan and John Major choosing to conceal their true natures behind a façade of affable geniality. Now with the impending arrival of Gordon Brown at Number Ten, we stand poised for a great grumpy revival.
TONY Blair managed to hide most of his grumpy nature, leaving the work to others such as Alastair Campbell, in a variation on the old ‘sunny cop, grumpy cop’ routine. John Prescott has long flown the flag for the grumpies - though to be fair, there is a difference between real grumbling grumpiness and the kind of temper that led our deputy prime minister to hit a voter in 2001, and to rail furiously against anyone who fails to show him the required respect.
But Gordon Brown, who could be prime minister in anything between a few days and four years, is grumpiness personified. Look at the way his fingers jam into his jaw whenever Tony Blair is speaking. Regard the scowl with which he imparts even good news, and the cross bark he reserves for anyone who disagrees with him. The man is a fine grumpy role model, and the fact that in real life he can be amiable and humorous makes his achievement as a grump all the more admirable.
Churchill of course was famously grumpy, though this tended to be exacerbated by drink and depression - the ‘Black Dog’ which hounded him all his life. But it was incompetence and failure that angered Churchill most, whereas your true grumpster can be as enraged by the trivial as he is by what’s important. Any fool can be angry if their teenage son wrecks their car - it takes a real grump to be just as infuriated by a wine stain on the sofa.
John Major could be seriously grumpy, as he was when someone made even a trivial error, before thrashing his face into a public appearance of goodwill and composure. James Callaghan might have had the nickname ‘Sunny Jim’, but it wouldn’t be recognised by anyone who knew him at close quarters. His famous remark, when he returned from Guadeloupe to the Winter of Discontent in 1979 - ‘I don’t think other people in the world would share the view that there is mounting chaos,’ summarised by the Sun as ‘Crisis? What crisis?’ - was a supremely grumpy response to a perfectly fair question.
But the top grump in British politics was and is Ted Heath. There was, his friends and colleagues say, a good Ted and a bad Ted. Good Ted was friendly and outgoing. Bad Ted was a thunderous grump. I once congratulated him on an excellent speech, delivered without notes. ‘I expect you’ll find something unpleasant to say about it,’ he replied sourly. The then treasury minister, John Nott, needed to give him important news and asked for a meeting. ‘If you want to resign, put it in writing,’ Heath said before stomping off. (Nott himself was no slouch as a GOM. He stormed out of a TV interview when Robin Day called him a ‘here today, gone tomorrow politician,’ the grumpy effect being enhanced by the fact that he had failed to take his microphone and its wiring off his suit.)
But the best news of all is that the favourite to become the new Tory leader is David Davis, quite the grumpiest of all the contenders. In fact there are signs that he may be too grumpy, and to have offended too many people he needs to vote for him.
We can live in hope. My favourite grumpy Davis moment came a year or so ago when I met Stanley Johnson, father of Boris, at a reception. He told me he had been a member of the European parliament and would like to return. Did I know how he should set about getting a seat?
I told him that he was in luck. The then chairman of the Conservative Party, David Davis, was present and I would introduce him. Stanley asked the chairman what he should do.
This conversation ensued:
DD: you could start by writing to me at Central Office, provided you don’t mind getting my pro forma letter in reply.
SJ: Ah, what does that say?
DD: It says ‘no’.
15th April 2005
Ken LIvingstone...a model to us all
British people have always apologised too much. Some will apologise to you
if you step on their toe, as if it was their fault for putting a foot in
your way. But recently the demented craze for public remorse has gone
entirely over the top. One of the most ridiculous sights of recent months
was Boris Johnson trailing round Liverpool, allowing himself to be insulted
by self-righteous Scousers because an article in his magazine had implied
that the city might not be perfect in every respect. Some of the people who
assailed him were incredibly rude. I wonder how many will make the trip
down to Islington in order to apologise to Boris.
Before this ludicrous event, Tony Blair had followed the example of Bill
Clinton, who apologised for slavery, by apologising for the Irish potato
famine. And what do those historical events have in common? This: neither
Clinton nor Blair were there. They had nothing to do with it. They weren’t
even born. They were spotless. Blameless. You might as well ask me to
apologise for the Amritsar massacre, or the Crusades, or the explosion of
Krakatoa. An apology for something you didn’t do is a meaningless apology.
It isn’t worth having. It’s as valueless as a contract written on rice
paper. And because it is entirely meaningless it is actually worth even
less than nothing. It is a political gesture, the manipulation of grief,
sorrow or resentment to achieve a political result. When she recently
visited Germany this year, the Queen was asked to apologise for the fire
bombing of Dresden. Thank heavens she did no such thing. It has nothing to
do with her. We don’t expect an apology from Chancellor Schroder for World
War II and the death camps. He was one year old when the war ended. When
people apologise for something they haven’t done, then you know you’re
Take Northern Ireland, where they have a taste for apologies greater than
their taste for stout. Tony Blair this year apologised to the family of the
Guildford seven, wrongly convicted of a pub bombing. It clearly pleased the
relatives. But it wasn’t because the prime minister had sat down in a
darkened study and decided that he sensed in himself a profound regret and
a desire to abnegate himself and his government and the British legal
system. He thought it would pay dividends later, maybe when he tries to
start up the lame old peace process there. The Savile Inquiry into Bloody
Sunday (that has cost £200 million and counting) is an expensive form of
pre-apology. The government hopes that Savile will say that it was all the
Brits’ fault so that we can all apologise for something else we of us who
weren’t there didn’t actually do. (I am waiting for the IRA’s apology for
Bloody Friday, in which 9 entirely innocent people died. Perhaps they will
after the result of their inquiry. If there is one.)
Demanding apologies has become a form of thought control. It implies that
there are some things so wrong and so wicked that you can’t even say them.
Let’s stop it, and save our apologies for when we drive our car into
someone’s garden wall or upset hot tea over a colleague. At least that’s
our fault and at least our regrets mean something.
There is a discussion topic about this article in the Grumpier Old Men forum. click here
A short biography of Simon Hoggart can be found here