John McDonnell is right – politicians should speak their minds

Guy Birchall

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Topics Free Speech

John McDonnell surprised many people at the weekend when he refused to apologise on ITV’s Peston on Sunday for referring to former Tory minister Esther McVey as a ‘stain on humanity’.

To the evident shock of fellow guests McVey and Labour MP Tristram Hunt, the shadow chancellor stood by the comments he made in 2014 in a debate about welfare cuts. ‘Sometimes it is better to be honest with people about how you feel’, he said. ‘At times, in parliament in particular, it means using strong language that reflects your honest views.’

As is so often the case when you stand up for free speech, you find yourself forced to defend someone who you deplore. My political opinions couldn’t be further from those of McDonnell or any of his colleagues in the now-pointless Labour Party. However, I’m glad he refused to apologise and that he stood up for his right to speak his mind. Anyway, I wouldn’t have believed him if he had said sorry.

A well-crafted political insult is a wonderful thing. McDonnell is right about using strong language when you’re angry – that is what strong language is for. Withering put-downs and cutting remarks are part of Britain’s political history.

Tory PM Benjamin Disraeli is a fine example. When sparring with his nemesis William Gladstone, he said, ‘If Gladstone fell into the Thames, that would be a misfortune, and if anybody pulled him out that, I suppose, would be a calamity’. Labour chancellor Denis Healey once said going up against Sir Geoffrey Howe at the dispatch box was like ‘being savaged by a dead sheep’. Proof that the Labour Party once boasted some MPs of wit.

But no one compares to Winston Churchill. When admonished by a female MP for being drunk (as he invariably was), Churchill famously replied: ‘My dear, you are ugly, but tomorrow I shall be sober, and you will still be ugly.’ His quick tongue puts today’s crop of anodyne, offence-seeking politicians to shame.

Public life shouldn’t be sanitised. From John McDonnell to Donald Trump, all politicians should be free to think what they like and say what they think.

Guy Birchall is a writer based in London.

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Topics Free Speech

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