“Bah,” said Scrooge. “Humbug!”
To what was he referring?
Christmas. His nephew wished him a merry one, and offered a panegyric to the festival as “a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time,” to which Scrooge replied, with evident sarcasm, “You’re quite a powerful speaker, sir. I wonder you don’t go into Parliament.”
And in Parliament, Paula Sherriff on the Opposition Bench and a friend of the late Jo Cox said she was worried about death threats she had received, and accused the Prime Minister of exacerbating an already toxic situation by his use of intemperate language. The Prime Minister replied, “I’ve never heard such humbug in all my life.” This remark has proved controversial, not because “humbug” constitutes unparliamentary language, but because it appears the PM was belittling, specifically, a woman’s fear for her life. Andrew Marr took the PM to task on this on Sunday morning, in Manchester, before the start of the Conservative Party Conference. Well! What a car crash of an interview that was! The PM said that his “humbug” comment was a response to the assertion that his calling Hilary Benn’s Act to make a no-deal Brexit unlawful “The Surrender Act” was inflammatory. Mr Marr and the PM battled this point out rather unproductively for fifteen minutes. Couldn’t a quick referral to Hansard sort his out? I’ll leave it with you.
But what, precisely, is humbug? For a full exploration down this fascinating avenue I commend to you Professor Harry G. Frankfurt’s sublime tract, On Bullshit (Princeton University Press, 2005). (I daresay “bullshit” would have been unparliamentary.)
To say that somebody speaks “humbug” is not the same as to say that somebody is lying. Often, the issue is not so much whether some question of fact is true or false, but whether somebody’s emotional response to reality is sincere. You might say to a political opponent, “I find your remarks deeply offensive.” But you are not really offended at all. You merely perceive a political opportunity to advance your cause. That is humbug.
I don’t know about you, but I am completely scunnered (good Scottish word) with the political interview. Mr Johnson and Mr Marr – I hold them both to account. I can’t understand why so few politicians have cottoned on to the fact that sincerity would be a fantastic vote winner. If I were a spectral eminence grise hanging around the corridors of No. 10 in my jeans and T-shirt, I’d advise the PM to proceed as follows:
“Do you regret the fact that you described your opponent’s viewpoint as ‘humbug’?”
“Yes I do.”
“You got it wrong?”
“Shouldn’t you therefore resign?”
And now there is a chance to expand, and elucidate. The difference between this last question and the ones preceding it, is that while the others are closed questions, seeking a simple answer, this is an open question, allowing you to give a multifaceted, multivariate, and nuanced answer. It seems to me that the trick of the political interview, from the interviewee’s point of view, is to identify closed questions and answer them monosyllabically. If the interviewer is hunting for your scalp, don’t give him, or her, anywhere to go. Just answer in monosyllables, because sooner or later the interviewer will run out of closed questions and be compelled to ask you an open one. Then you have a chance to state your case.
As for the interviewer, we really ought to expect something rather more sophisticated than the “yes you did no I didn’t did didn’t” spat that tends to result from confrontation. If an interviewer has a blatant agenda designed to expose some specific fact, and the interviewee has a blatant agenda to get some other specific fact across, then you are not going to have a meeting of minds. A skilful interviewer will find a way of getting under the interviewee’s skin. If he can’t do it, then the whole shebang is… well, humbug.
But confrontation seems to define our entire public life. With respect to the current impasse in Westminster, one of my neighbours recently suggested to me that it has moved beyond farce to… what? What is beyond farce? I wondered about that.
It is certainly just as well that the Government and Her Majesty’s Opposition are separated by two sword lengths, because things are getting a little heated. There’s a general opinion that people across the board need to tone their language down. Mind you, insult, and intemperate language are hardly new to the Commons. Lloyd George said Churchill would “make a drum out of the skin of his own mother.” Churchill called Ramsay MacDonald “a boneless wonder”, and Attlee “a modest man with much to be modest about”, as well as “a sheep in sheep’s clothing”.
Is Westminster a Whitehall Farce? There are certainly farcical elements. The booming voice of the Attorney General, for example, surely comes straight out of a Gilbert & Sullivan operetta. He reminds me of Pooh Bah in The Mikado. The general hubbub and waving of order papers is surely farcical. When the Speaker calls for order but cannot be heard above the din, something very strange happens to his mode of delivery, as if he were being taken over and possessed by some malevolent demon, speaking in tongues:
ORDURE! Or perhaps: HORS D’OUEVRES!
People are listening in to the Parliament Channel for its entertainment value. Some of “our European partners” are convinced it is a parody. It is certainly a Soap Opera.
The comparison with a Soap is worth exploring. Soaps have changed. Emmerdale and Eastenders, or even Coronation Street, are hardly The Archers and Mrs Dale’s Diary. I only ever catch the last few seconds of Eastenders which usually seems to feature some grotesque event like somebody’s house being blown up, while a vicious man and a spiteful woman spit vitriol at one another: “I’ll dance on your grave!” (Doof doof doof-doof-doof… doh re me fah soh, lah fah…) An everyday story of London’s east end. Brahms and Liszt dahn the Battlecruiser, touched the skin and blister for a Lady Godiva. The trouble is, people actually begin to think this is an accurate depiction of normal quotidian experience, and so it thus becomes. Everybody starts to behave as if they are taking part in a Soap Opera. Manners are deteriorating. Sooner or later, the bad behaviour observed on the telly spills over on to the streets.
Literally. Some people, once they get behind the wheel, turn into monsters. Somebody gets into the wrong lane, and signals a request to move into a line of traffic. But they have made their choice, and no quarter is given. An effort to signal and merge is greeted with a shrill and sustained blare of the horn from some Chelsea Tractor the size of a Sherman tank. Then there are the tail-gaters, and the constituency, the very large constituency, that blatantly ignores the speed limit, and attempts to browbeat those of us trying to adhere to it.
And this is as nothing compared with the language and the threats of the social media trolls.
Courtesy is vanishing. Sometimes when I practise the ritual of courtesy I receive a look of astonishment as if I were an aristocrat from Tsarist St Petersburg prancing a gavotte twixt the Winter Palace and the Hermitage. A gentleman of the old style. How quaint.
What lies beyond farce?
Doof doof doof-doof-doof… doh re me fah soh, lah fah…