MPs exchanging insults with amusing name-callings have become almost a regular feature in the National Assembly. Ever since the concept of democracy (demokratia) was developed in ancient Greece in 507 BC trading insults in parliaments between opposing factions have been in existence, sometimes ending up on a very sad note. As this vicious exchange in 1909 in the Australian parliament when a stream of “hateful words” flaring up between the prime minister, Alfred Deakin and the Labour MP, Billy Hughes caused tension to escalate to such an uncontrollable point in the House that the Speaker, Sir Frederick Holder, already afflicted by a failing health, sank on the floor and died hours later. However, there is nothing wrong in insulting parliamentarian colleagues if it is done with elegance and style and coated with wits. But this approach requires from MPs a display of intellectual prowess, witticism, sharp imagination and the ability to make up clever one-liners. These traits seem to be acutely absent in today’s National Assembly.
While name-callings and crude attacks don’t find their way to the Hansard, parliamentary put-downs used with ingenuity of language stick. This is how great politicians in England made use of put-downs to insult or belittle their opponents when attacked. There are several instances of put-downs that in one way or the other embarrassed political opponents and have become famous. Here are some:
In England in the 1760s, Lord Sandwich announced in Parliament that the troublesome radical politician and journalist, John Wilkes, who militated for liberty and freedom, would “die on the gallows or of the pox”. Wilkes gave a reply in a line that was to become a classic: “That must depend on whether I first embrace your Lordship’s principles or your mistress”.
Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881), a Conservative and William Gladstone (1809-1898), a Liberal, and both were to become prime ministers were staunch opponents and would not let go an opportunity to lambast one another. Once Disraeli was asked to differentiate between a misfortune and a calamity. Having Gladstone on the radar, he replied, “if Gladstone fell into the Thames, it would be misfortune. If anybody pulled him out, that would be a calamity”.
Winston Churchill, Britain’s wartime hero and prime minister and a man of high intellectual calibre had his own style of retorts to opponents’ attacks. His almost one thousand put-downs collected in the book Wit and Wisdom of Churchill are world famous. This retort explains the wit deployed by Churchill in putting an MP, Bessie Braddock in her place. Sometime in 1946, Braddock, attacked him saying, “Winston, you are drunk and what’s more, you are disgustingly drunk…”
Churchill shot back saying: “Bessie, my dear, you are ugly and what’s more, you are disgustingly ugly. But tomorrow, I shall be sober and you, will still be disgustingly ugly”.
Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement (1937-1940) towards Hitler’s Germany was opposed by Churchill. Likening him to a “crocodile leader”, Churchill said “an appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile, hoping it will eat him last”. Indeed, despite a peace treaty signed with Hitler, Chamberlain was forced to declare war against Germany in 1939 when Hitler threatened overrunning Europe.
One of the best verbal assaults made by Churchill was when a young and inexperienced Labour MP during the time Churchill was prime minister in the 1940s called him “a dog” and then “a swine”. Churchill remained cool. The young MP having realised he committed a breach of etiquette went to Churchill’s house the next day to apologise. Churchill was sitting on his toilet when his valet informed him that the MP wanted to speak to him. Churchill shouted back, “Tell him, I can only deal with one shit at a time”.
British prime minister Ramsay MacDonald (1929 – 1935) was making his farewell speech to parliament. He was moved to tears. It was then that James Maxton, a firebrand of the Scottish Labour party, who used to heckle MacDonald all the time pounced on the occasion bawling at the sobbing prime minister, “sit down man, you are a bloody tragedy” while Churchill who was critical of MacDonald’s lack of gusto said he was a “boneless wonder”.
Even in India recently, the Lok Sabha had been regaled by several quality repartees. According to the Indian Express of 1 August 2017, data collected for a period of one year to 1 April 2017, revealed that 106 poems and 26 Urdu couplets from famous Indian writers were recited by Indian MPs, including prime minister Narendra Modi who often cited passages from Hindu Scriptures, to back up their arguments.
But Narendra Modi also used his imagination to trigger attacks laced with a dose of humour. For example, as reported by the Times of India on 9 February 2017, he took a dig at Manmohan Singh, his predecessor. That Singh talked very little or not at all was done purposely to avoid taint of scams and getting embroiled in controversies. Modi said, “We should learn from Mr Singh. During his tenure, there was not a single stain on him. He has the art of bathing with a raincoat on”.
The Mauritian repertoire has so far, no famous put-downs or wits that can become memorable. The very best our MPs can do is to pull out such name-callings as ‘Pinokio, moustas rekin, zwiser, chor, boufon, gopia which are like water off a duck’s back. One-word portrait summoned to make an MP a laughing stock recently “To latet kouma dir biskwi Marie” is almost close to the Shakespeare’s insulting line in ‘As You Like It’ – “Your brain is as dry as the remainder biscuit after voyage”. Since there is mention of Shakespeare, he wrote a variety of insulting lines for his characters to speak up, like this one, for example, taken from ‘Troilus and Cressida’: “Thou hast no more brain than I have in mine elbows”.