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Matthew Parris

A guide to ‘gaffes’, and why, in truth, they are always to be found in the eye of the beholder

Who says it, matters as much as what is said

21 November 2007

12:00 AM

21 November 2007

12:00 AM

Among the silly expressions that may one day be associated with our era — and I hope buried with it — is the little word ‘gaffe’. I ought to know, having been indicted often enough myself for the crime, and having just co-edited and published a whole book, Mission Accomplished, of so-called gaffes committed by politicians and world leaders. Yet the moment you start to examine in a thoughtful way the things we call gaffes, the concept disintegrates into a clutch of very different types of utterances, some of which are wholly commendable.

All that such utterances have in common is that they are regretted. I do not even say ‘regrettable’ because in politics honesty, though often regretted, cannot be regrettable. Too often the word ‘gaffe’ is used as a shallow commentary on what is really a truth that causes embarrassment, or an opinion widely held but suppressed by the timid. Equally often the diagnosis ‘gaffe-prone’ is applied to a public figure who is in trouble for other reasons and already wounded, and whom the hunting dogs of the media are out to nip on any exposed flank they can find.

Take John Major’s overheard reference to some of his Cabinet as ‘bastards’. We already knew he thought that. The bastards already knew he thought it. Many of us considered the expression mild in the circumstances. But so beleaguered was the then prime minister that his best defence — that he was careless whether he was overheard or not — was unavailable. Margaret Thatcher could have said as much and been thought splendidly outspoken: indeed, when her spokesman Bernard Ingham called the late John Biffen ‘semi-detached’ we regarded Biffen, not Thatcher, as damaged by the remark. I’m not sure Tony Blair’s attributed ‘f—ing Welsh’ did him any harm at all among the media pack.

If Mr Blair, after some verbal stumble or inadvertent double entendre, had laughed ‘aren’t I useless?’ in his aw-shucks kind of way, we’d have loved him for it. When poor Sir Menzies Campbell, on stage with Sandi Toksvig, bewailed his uselessness with self-deprecating charm, the phrase found its way into newspaper headlines the next morning without any explanation of the context.

What we decide to call gaffes often tells us less about the alleged offender’s judgment than about the fashionable public attitude towards the individual. A baleful augury for Gordon Brown’s newborn prime-ministership was the way the media treated his response to a demand for action by David Cameron at his first PMQs. Mr Brown replied (with what was supposed to be mild humour) that he’d only been in the job five days. He meant this to be a quip, not a gaffe — like saying ‘the impossible I can do at once; miracles may take a little longer’ — but was at once reported as having struck an ill-judged and flustered note of plaintiveness.


I thought this highly significant. As significant as the sneering reaction to Keith Joseph’s question while visiting a bird sanctuary: ‘But how do the birds know it’s a sanctuary?’ Keith wore his great intelligence lightly; the question was both funny and serious — indeed, I do not know the answer; but the world had decided that Keith was dotty, and the remark was therefore adduced in evidence against his sanity. The same is true of Donald Rumsfeld’s ‘stuff happens’ or his disquisition on the difference between knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns — remarks of some profundity. The media, however, have cast Mr Rumsfeld as an idiot; so anything difficult or brutal in his argument is cackled at as madness.

Mrs Thatcher’s suggestion that there was no such thing as society (even without the context, rarely added, of what she said next) was one of her few really interesting remarks; that the world decided to treat the observation as an appalling example of her bone-headedness tells you only that she was on her way out.

So who you are and how you’re regarded will usually tip the balance between a gaffe and a quip. Reviewing a whole anthology of these remarks, I can offer a few tips for those anxious to avoid being tipped the wrong way.

Don’t be royal. Irony and self-parody are forbidden among members of the royal family, from whom we refuse to hear jokes as jokes. Some of Prince Philip’s so-called gaffes might better have been confined to his immediate and trusted circle: ‘slitty-eyed’ was easily interpreted as abusive though not meant that way, any more than was his remark to a blind woman, ‘Do you know they’re now producing eating-dogs for anorexics?’; but others are surely evidence of his intelligence and independence of spirit. ‘Are you sure you want to go through with this?’ to Jomo Kenyatta on the occasion of Kenya’s independence, now seems rather far-sighted. And did the late Diana, Princess of Wales, giggling gaily to a one-armed man that he must have fun chasing the soap around the bath, deserve to be solemnly condemned as disablist? It was obviously meant merrily.

Do, however, be Michael Winner. A reputation for being utterly careless whom he offends rescues Mr Winner time and again from public obloquy. Almost nobody else in Britain could have got away with suggesting that OBEs are for toilet-cleaners, which wasn’t even true. That one positively enjoys being an enfant terrible is usually proof against the shriekers of ‘gaffe!’, who are made to look woodenly incapable of spotting a joke. Among today’s politicians Boris Johnson has all but acquired such bullet-proofing and knows that the most effective flak-jacket is a jester’s cape. But he knows, too, that this uniform does not sit easily on a candidate for Mayor of London.

It’s been my observation over the last quarter-century of politician-watching, that high and confident intelligence in a man or woman is often accompanied by a curious lack of self-awareness, a carelessness what others think, or a tendency to overestimate the intelligence of one’s audience. Seriously second-rate politicians are typically extremely cautious. They are unafraid to bore, perhaps unconsciously knowing that in tedium lies their most reliable refuge.

John Hutton is secretly not one of these. The Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform was parodying himself last week when, after an after-dinner speech to the Chemical Industries Association in which he had praised the inventor of chemical dyes, he leant across the dinner table and remarked self-teasingly to me that he was nervously proud of the fact that this was the first time he had ever said the word ‘mauve’ in a ministerial speech.

He was wise not to make that joke in his speech. Never laugh at yourself in politics. There is a terrible danger your audience may join you.


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