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SATURDAY’S CHILD: Parliamentary put-downs

Tony Deyal

SATURDAY’S CHILD: Parliamentary put-downs

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Just over a week ago, the Leader of the Opposition accused the government of Trinidad and Tobago of shutting down or abandoning parliament because it had not met since September 26.  

The problem is that, like many other people, I had not missed it. Had this happened during my childhood and teenage years when The Parliamentary Debate, brought to us by the Government Broadcasting Unit, was the most popular programme on radio, drawing a bigger audience than the soap opera Portia Faces Life, there would have been complaints aplenty, not because of any notion of democracy but because of the lost entertainment value.  

Even with the formidable Dr Eric Williams present, the undoubted star of the show was Lionel Seukeran (“the old Seukie”, as he was affectionately known). His accusation that an opponent was guilty of “tedious repetition and monumental irrelevance” remained a classic until 1987.

This was the year when the party of Dr Williams, the People’s National Movement, lost the election by 33 seats to three and became the Opposition. Patrick Manning, who replaced George Chambers as the political leader of the party, now faced A.N.R. Robinson, the new prime minister. The last truly memorable moment of parliamentary cut and thrust in the parliament was Manning asking whether Robinson thought of himself as God and Robinson replying, “I am not God; I am only God’s messenger.”

I have never been able to summon up much enthusiasm for what passes for debate in the local parliament, mainly because most of the best moments happen in crosstalk and not for the record. While the British parliament continues to maintain the arena-like atmosphere that made it famous for insults hurled on the floor and recorded in Hansard, it is a shadow of itself with its few high points being Cameron calling Millbrand “incompetent” and Millbrand retaliating by referring to Cameron as “desperate”.

This is a far cry from the glory days of Britain’s parliament when, to avoid the un-parliamentary word “lie” or “liar”, Winston Churchill invented the phrase “a terminological inexactitude”.  The recent use of the word “omnishambles” (from the sitcom The Thick Of It) is not even close to Churchill’s comment on General de Gaulle: “He looks like a female llama who has been surprised in the bath.”  Englishman Nigel Farage was considered daring in his attack on the European Council president Herman Van Rompuy. “Who are you? I’d never heard of you, nobody in Europe had ever heard of you,” Farage told the former Belgian prime minister in a European parliament session. “You seem to have a loathing for the very concept of the existence of nation states . . . . Perhaps that’s because you come from Belgium, which is pretty much a non-country.”  

As The Telegraph urged, “Compare the insipidity of Nigel Farage’s language with the silky venom of Benjamin Disraeli, who said of the Earl of Aberdeen that he plagued his colleagues with ‘the crabbed malice of a maundering witch’. Or with the inspired word-painting of Churchill, who called Ramsay MacDonald ‘a boneless wonder’.”

Or even daring to bait the Speaker of the House as MP Paul Boateng did. Boateng was hauled over the coals for using the term “Sweet FA” because it was thought to have nothing to do with British football’s governing body but a way of using the F-word.

It turned out it could have been 19th century naval slang for packed mutton and referred to Fanny Adams, who was murdered in 1867, cut into pieces and thrown into the river at Alton, Hampshire. Boateng must have sniggered all the way out of the hearing.

Even Margaret Thatcher got into the act with some delicious wordplay. Speaking about William “Willy” Whitelaw, she said, “I don’t know what I would do without Whitelaw.” She then added, “Everyone should have a Willy.” She is also remembered for the classic, “I’m back . . . and you knew I was coming. On my way here I passed a cinema with a sign, The Mummy Returns.”

Britain’s Guardian newspaper compared the term “scum-sucking pig” used by Labour MP David Wright with what it called “the great political insults”. Making the list is Benjamin Disraeli’s comment on Robert Peel, who twice served as prime minister, “His smile is like the silver fittings on a coffin.”

There is Churchill’s description of Clement Atlee as, “A sheep in sheep’s clothing.” My favourite, because of its great pun value, is Clement Freud’s reference to Margaret Thatcher as, “Attila the Hen”.

• Tony Deyal was last seen saying that when Seukeran’s grandson, Senator Faris Al-Rawi, was reading from a long scroll to prove he was descended from the Prophet Mohammed, another Senator, Gerald Hadeed, suggested that the back of the scroll said, “Made in China”.