Monday, January 03, 2005

House Points, 24 December 2004

Here is my most recent column from Liberal Democrat News.

Glorious gaffes

Christmas is a time for returning to favourite books. One of mine is Read My Lips, a collection of politicians’ sayings put together a few years ago by Matthew Parris and Phil Mason.

At its best it captures personalities in a single quotation. So John Major reveals his grasp of geopolitics while paying tribute to the late President Mitterand: “He made a great contribution to public life, especially in France.” And Lady Olga Maitland shows why her Women and Families for Defence was such a success: “Of course we are not patronising women. We are just going to explain to them in words of one syllable what it is all about.”

Not every example is so clear, but you get a hint as to why Sir Ivan Lawrence failed to hold Burton on Trent for the Conservatives in 1997 from this paragraph in his election address: “Sir Ivan has appeared in many famous trials, including the Christine Keeler and Fanny Hill cases. He also acted for the defence of the Kray twins, serial killer Dennis Neilson, the Brighton Babes in the Woods murders and the Brinks Matt gold bullion robbery.”

Some quotations are sad. There is Louis XVI’s assurance that “The French people are incapable of regicide.” And the despairing insight of the Russian anarchist Alexander Shubin: “We must organise now.”

Others are chilling. Nothing conveys Labour’s mind-set better than Hugh Scanlon’s “Liberty is conforming to the majority.” Though we should give an honourable mention to the party’s manifesto for the 1976 Forest of Dean district elections: “Rates: this was once a problem for the rich. Because Socialism has improved our way of life, it is now a problem for everybody.”

How do Liberals come out of Read My Lips? We find David Steel summing up the Alliance years: “The fact that we can be in two places at once is a good advantage.” And a young Charles Kennedy describes his predecessor’s first year as leader: “Paddy Ashdown was dealt a difficult pack of cards – but he kept his eye on the ball all the way through.”

But if any quotation sums up what the Liberal Democrats stand for, it is this one from Ashdown himself. Asked on a radio phone-in which word best sums up his character, he replied: “Er… perhaps ‘decisive’?”

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