Come in Spinner: Is there anything original in politics?

Politicians are often better remembered for the anecdotes about them or their nicknames than they are by their policy achievements.

Yes it seems that many of the anecdotes are just recycled versions of stories about other pollies from other generations rather than authentic memories – as illustrated by the recent discussion on Crikey about who actually made the comment about the opposition being in front of you and the enemy behind.

For instance, Ferdinand Mount’s memoir Cold Cream (Bloomsbury 2008) puts the Abbott Mad Monk nickname in some context. Mount worked as head of Margaret Thatcher’s Policy Unit, edited the Times Literary Supplement, and has written a number of books – fiction and non-fiction. Cold Cream is intensely interesting, in places as vicious as White’s Flaws in the Glass and tells you as much about culture in the UK in the second half of the 20th century as it does about politics.

Now the Mad Monk concept probably stems from genuinely mad monks in long gone times although it arrested public attention in English-speaking countries with the 18th century Gothic novel genre, particularly Lewis’ 1796 work The Monk. In Russia the Mad Monk was, of course, Rasputin.

But in the UK the Mad Monk nickname seems to have been first bestowed on Sir Keith Joseph by Chris Patten, then director of the Conservative Research Department. Joseph (an unlikely monk being Jewish) was probably the intellectual progenitor of Thatcherism and when appointed Minister gave his public servants reading lists of books which would introduce them to his philosophic and intellectual approach to issues. Love or hate Joseph you have to admire the fact that he had a reading list to distribute. In Australian politics Barry Jones would be a rare similar example. Bob Carr could probably provide a substantial reading list but it might be skewed more to one field (the US Civil War) than any Jones’ list would.

Patten was, of course, trying to capture the difference between the Thatcherites and the ‘wets’, but when Abbott got the same nickname it was probably more to do with the religious background and the fact that many people thought he was mad in a non-clinical sense.

As far as the Crikey correspondence about who made the comment about enemies and opposition I think I have heard it ascribed to a variety of people from Yes Minister’s Jim Hacker to Fred Daly. Presumably the writer Antony Jay got it from someone in British politics and we now have our local Fred Daly version.

Similarly many of the Menzies witticisms came originally from Churchill with the anecdote about the piece of repartee – “if you were my husband I would give you poison. Madam, if you were my wife I would take it” – having been told about both Churchill and Menzies. There is good evidence that Churchill did say it in a specific context but the Menzies version may be apocryphal. Equally many of Churchill’s witticisms and some of his repartee were first mouthed by F.E.Smith one of Churchill’s circle. F.E.Smith, having the misfortune to die first, gets little of the credit although he was apparently first responsible for the comment that Winston spent the best years of his life rehearsing his impromptu remarks.

Today, in an era of gotcha journalism and Google, recycling anecdotes is harder mainly because people are quick to condemn politicians for plagiarism although whether retelling old jokes and anecdotes is the same as plagiarising a thesis is a moot point. Equally politicians can be easily seduced into believing that they were part of something they weren’t – witness Ronald Reagan’s conviction that he filmed at Buchenwald and any number of Reagan anecdotes which were just plain wrong and misleading. Of course, thinking you were at some historic event happens in many fields – the final day attendance at the 1960-61 tied Brisbane Australia-West Indies Test was actually quite small but for many years after it seemed everyone in Brisbane claimed to have been there.

The 2010 tied Parliament post-election events are unlikely to resonate as long and as memorably as the tied Test, but perhaps in 50 years Julia Gillard’s misogyny speech will be recalled by those who weren’t there just as the tied Test does. Whether it does or not we can be sure that by then there will be anecdotes which will demonstrate conclusively that the politicians of today were witty and incisive giants compared to the political hacks of 2062.