Winston ChurchillThere’s nothing quite like a good put-down. For a polemicist the put-down is a vital tool of the trade, and can win hearts and minds just as well as a good argument: putting both together can amount to a powerful tool of persuasion. Some might regard put-downs as nothing other than a bit of funny or offensive ad hominen, attacking a person rather than an argument. However, when used after an argument is defeated the put-down becomes a rather marvellous debating strategy.

The Times newspaper carried a great feature today on the art of political put-downs, and I thought it was a good topic for today

One wonderful put-down I read comes from 50 odd years ago when Bessie Braddock, a rather fat politician, attacked Winston Churchill: “Mr Churchill, this is a disgrace. You are drunk.” To which Churchill wonderfully replied: “And you, madam, are ugly. As for my condition, it will pass by the morning. You, however, will still be ugly.”

The great thing about this put-down is not just that it is funny and rude, but is quick-witted and timed perfectly. This sort of put-down wouldn’t work if Churchill had given the reply 15 minutes later: only an immediate reply would have had the impact. Churchill’s put-downs are legendary and some suspect his retorts were not impromptu at all, but carefully thought out beforehand and loaded into his cavernous brain to wait for the right moment when they could jump out and smack someone right in the face. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s the skill in making them sound ad-lib that helps give them power.

Another wonderful put-down came from Benjamin Disraeli about his arch-rival William Gladstone in bygone years. When asked to distinguish between a misfortune and a calamity he replied: “If Gladstone fell into the Thames, that would be a misfortune. If anybody pulled him out, that, I suppose, would be a calamity.” Ouch. A put-down doesn’t need to be given to the person you’re, umm, “putting down,” and can actually have more effect as a result, as it comes with an air of “you’re not even worth talking to directly.” After all, there’s little worse than being present in a room hearing other people talk about you as if you aren’t there.

A few others from Churchill are worth mentioning:

Describing Clement Attlee, who interrupted his reign as Prime Minister, as “A sheep in sheep’s clothing,” and “A modest man with much to be modest about. But, my favourite Churchill putdown of all time is his response to an aide who knocked on his toilet door and told him that the Lord Privy Seal wanted to see him: “Tell the Lord Privy Seal I am sealed in my privy, and can only deal with one shit at a time.”

Wonderful, I must remember that one, “Stephen you’re dad’s on the phone.” “Yeah, well tell him to ring back later, I’m on the toilet and can only deal with one shit at a time.” Fantastic.

Of course, with a put-down you can attack someone for being ugly, horrible, fat, or whatever; but my favourite put-down, and the one you will see most often in my own articles is a put-down aimed at someone’s intelligence. Jonathan Aitken once attacked Margaret Thatcher’s lack of knowledge about the Middle East with this witty offering: “She probably thinks Sinai is the plural of sinus”.

The Times noted that most of the best put-downs are in the past and modern day politicians and commentators are bit tame by comparison, which might well be true and another bad consequence of a growing politically correct culture. It’s a pity. I love put-downs, and one of the reasons why I like to write articles directly in reply to someone is because it gives me a great opportunity to use one, or a few.

I think my favourite political putdown comes from Australian MP Fred Daly who, in the Aussie parliament, once said “half the honourable gentlemen on the other side of the house are halfwits.” When he was told to retract his statement he did so: “I retract, half the honourable gentlemen on the other side of the house AREN’T halfwits.”

I thought I’d end by throwing this open to our readers: any good put-downs, political or general?