Over the years, Conservative MP Greg Knight has made a mini-cottage industry out of collections of political insults, wit and invective, of which the new Dishonourable Insults is the fifth.
Spot checking the content of this volume against one of his previous works – Parliamentary Sauce – you find that there is a fair amount of reused content, including whole passages which reappear with varying degrees of editing. Generally the 19th and early 20th century figures have had their range of insults edited down, losing as a result one of my favourite Disraeli insults, directed at a backbench MP: “He is not so much out of his depth as three miles from shore”. Retained however is, “When I want to read a novel I write one” – a quote rivalled for immodestly by Charles De Gaulle’s, “When I want to know what France thinks, I ask myself”.
Some of the older insults have dated rather in meaning and impact, but many are still very usable today, such as Winston Churchill’s exasperation at the BBC’s editorial line on impartiality: “You have no right to be impartial between the fire and the fire brigade”. Churchill’s is one of the much expanded entries, alongside new entries covering people who have come to prominence more recently.
A few quotes are oddly weak, such as Harold Wilson’s tame and uninventive comment on 19th century Prime Minister Lord Aberdeen: “As a leader he was weak and unfit for the premiership”. But there are many other gems, including Wilson’s jibe at Harold Macmillan: “He had an expensive education – Eton and Suez”.
Many quotes are accompanied by quite lengthy narratives putting them in context and explaining their meaning. Oddly these are more common for more recent quotes than those from decades ago, or even further back – for which most readers are less likely to appreciate the context without explanation.
There is a reasonable smattering of international quotes including a lengthy chapter for the USA, although some of the best foreign political insults – such as those from former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating – are missing (sample Keating vintage: “What we have got is a dead carcass, swinging in the breeze, but nobody will cut it down to replace him”).
If you have not previously got any of Greg Knight’s books, then this volume is a decent standalone collection of amusing, useful and clever quotes, albeit one that is hard to use as a reference source given the lack of an index. If you have his previous volumes, this one does not add that much to them except of course for the collector.
The omission of an index aside, it is a nicely produced volume, with a decent spine, good quality of paper and clear, spacious pages.