Matthew Parris: 2016 - the year in political scorn

Written by Matthew Parris on 30 November 2016 in Opinion

This year has provided a rich crop of abusive, catty, witty, and downright brutal language - often aimed at Michael Gove or Boris Johnson.

It is the prerogative of each age to consider its own epoch as exceptional: the most critical, the most dangerous, the most important. In grammatical terms this might be known as the ‘present exceptional’. And this year we feel it keenly. “2016 strikes again,” said a voice on my radio – of Fidel Castro’s death.

For many the death of David Bowie from cancer in early January began a darkness that has yet to release its grip. But death is part of life, and expected, even, whisper it, of celebrities. What has really shocked even a hard-to-shock journalist have been the political headstands across the West. Brexit reverses a course that our country has been on for the past forty years.

It still remains to be seen what President Trump will actually do, but in his campaign for the office he won he broke every rule of decency; and the aroma is distinct: more demagogue than democrat. “Lyin’ Hillary,” he mocked. His critics and opponents have not felt inhibited in response. Insult and invective – throughout history a weapon in politics – seem to have risen (or sunk) to new extremes on the other side of the Atlantic. Future ages will judge whether 2016 really did mark a turning point in our history, but we know now that it has provided a rich crop of abusive, catty, witty, and downright brutal language.

On our side, too, of the ocean, we have not held back. British political debate has been ruder this year than most of us can remember – and perhaps since the 1930s. Our European referendum produced unprecedented levels of insult – and its results still do. The anger runs deep. Hence the Scorn. Thank goodness current affairs did not wait for my publisher’s deadline before letting rip.

“How foul this referendum is. The most depressing, divisive, duplicitous political event of my lifetime. May there never be another,” said the writer Robert Harris. He does not understate.

Off the record briefings tend to release politicians to speak more freely than usual, but even so, many of us flinched to read this anonymous remark – from one of David Cameron’s Conservative colleagues: “I don’t want to stab the Prime Minister in the back — I want to stab him in the front so I can see the expression on his face. You’d have to twist the knife, though, because we want it back for Osborne.”



Boris Johnson became a central figure in the campaign. I myself had a bit of a go at him in my Times column, but I was just one of many Scorners focusing on Johnson, and Boris himself was not immune to a good returning blast either.

“If we vote to stay,” said the man who is now our Foreign Secretary, “then I am afraid the whole EU caravan carries blithely on; and when I think of the champagne-guzzling orgy of backslapping in Brussels that would follow a Remain vote on Friday, I want to weep. We must not let it happen.”

“He's the life and soul of the party but he’s not the man you want driving you home at the end of the evening,” said his colleague Amber Rudd. I watched her squirm at a Times fringe at the Tory conference, when the new Home Secretary was asked what she now thought of her cabinet colleague.

Michael Gove’s launch of his leadership campaign, effectively destroying Boris Johnson’s hopes of becoming PM, left colleagues and fellow-citizens agog. The press had a field day. “A tragic conflict of disloyalties,” wrote the Guardian’s Marina Hyde of his about-face. “The most egregious reverse ferret and act of treachery in modern political history,” stormed Boris’s sister, Rachel Johnson.



At the Spectator Parliamentarian of the Year awards only weeks ago, political heavyweights, both those felled and those still standing, didn’t hold back their scorn. “When I give out the awards, there won’t be much time for chit-chat – a bit like when Theresa and I last spoke,” said guest of honour George Osborne, obviously enjoying himself on the podium.

Mrs May appeared to be enjoying herself too . “In his book,” she remarked of David Cameron’s now fallen communications chief, Craig (by then Sir Craig) Oliver, “he said that when he heard the result of the referendum, he walked out of the office and as he walked into Whitehall started retching violently. I have to say that I think we all understand that feeling. Most of us experienced it too when we saw his name on the resignations honours list.

Michael Gove’s ill-starred leadership campaign – and the man himself – got a roasting on Twitter for a surely pretty innocuous tweet: “We need to renegotiate a new relationship with the EU, based on free trade and friendly cooperation.” #Gove2016

“We had one, and you helped destroy it; you are one confused bag of mince” tweeted @Mr_Dave_Haslam, in response.

“You can't REnegotiate something NEW you boil-in-the-bag rent-a-clown,” added @PULPKetchup.

“Then what is the point of leaving, you incompetent ventriloquist-dummy-faced spunktrumpet?” asked @MJ_Boh_.

“That's what we HAD, you reprehensible spam faced tool bag!” fumed @InvaderXan.

“I'm sure they'll love that after all the lovely things your gang said about them you back stabbing cockwomble” roared @Brummiecris.

“Are you F*****G KIDDING ME? We had one of those you haunted pork mannequin” ventured @AlexWattsEsq



Evidently Americans watching us Brits tear chunks out of each other didn’t like the idea they might be second best. If the world thought Brexit was mad, wait till it saw what America had up its sleeve.

It’s fair to say Donald Trump started this. “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best… They are sending people that have lots of problems, and they are bringing those problems to us. They are bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists, and some, I assume, are good people.”

But his antagonists were no less full throated, even if they did use longer words.

“Mr Trump is a misogynist, a racist and a xenophobe. He glories in his own ignorance and inconsistency. Truth is whatever he finds convenient. His policy ideas are ludicrous, where they are not horrifying. Yet his attitudes and ideas are less disturbing than his character: he is a narcissist, bully and spreader of conspiracy theories. It is frightening to consider how such a man would use the powers at the disposal of the president.” – and that’s the normally considered Martin Wolf, of the Financial Times writing. 

“A supremely talented demagogue who created an authoritarian cult with unapologetically neo-fascist rhetoric. […] America has now jumped off a constitutional cliff,’ remarked my friend Andrew Sullivan, bringing a little British understatement to journalism in his adoptive America.

Not to be outdone, David Remnick in the New Yorker weighed in with “The election of Donald Trump to the Presidency is nothing less than a tragedy for the American republic, a tragedy for the Constitution, and a triumph for the forces, at home and abroad, of nativism, authoritarianism, misogyny, and racism. Trump’s shocking victory, his ascension to the Presidency, is a sickening event in the history of the United States and liberal democracy.”

His opponent too inspired rage in her opponents. “Hillary Clinton,” said P T Carlo in The Daily Caller, “was easily the most corrupt, personally repulsive, and genuinely dangerous candidate to win the nomination of a major American Political Party in living memory”. Don’t hold back, PT!

“A congenital liar” remarked the columnist William Safire. Tell us what you really think, William.

But perhaps this elderly lady spoke – from the other side of the grave – with the most dignity for many Americans. Or rather her family did, in the Deaths notice in the Richmond Times-Dispatch ...

“Faced with the prospect of voting for either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, Mary Anne Noland of Richmond chose, instead to pass into the eternal love of God on Sunday, May 15 2016, at the age of 68.”




Matthew Parris’s latest book Scorn: The Wittiest and Wickedest Insults in Human History, is available now, published by Profile Books.



All pictures by Press Association.


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