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Mind your language

Are our feelings towards politics apathy or inertia?

24 August 2019

9:00 AM

24 August 2019

9:00 AM

My husband, with a dependable appetite for chestnuts, says he would be the ideal person to start an Apathy party. There is, it is true, a great lack of appetite for politics at the moment, yet people are annoyed to find they cannot ignore it. It is unwelcome and insistent, like toothache.

References have been made recently to William Whitelaw complaining of Labour under Harold Wilson ‘going round the country stirring up apathy’. A variety of circumstances is given for this remark. Some, including Ian Aitken, Whitelaw’s biographer, writing after his death in 1999, attached it to the election campaign of 1970, which Heath unexpectedly won. The late Frank Johnson, normally a careful journalist, placed this Willie-ism in ‘the 1976 Common Market referendum’. The referendum was in 1975; so perhaps 1976 was a misprint. I accept the version of history given by Alan Watkins in A Short Walk Down Fleet Street, which dates it to the second election of 1974, when he had the task of writing about television coverage of the campaign for the Evening Standard. Watkins prided himself in getting this sort of thing right, in the days before checking them on the internet was possible.

Apathy, I find, is used now by financial journalists for the behaviour of customers of banks, insurance companies or energy suppliers in not bothering to find better arrangements with a rival. I suspect this tendency would in the past have been labelled as inertia.


Apathy, or at least the Greek notion apatheia, used to be a virtue in the teaching of the Stoics, of which my neighbour Dr Peter Jones has a thorough knowledge. They sought to do away with passions such as fear and desire directed to matters outside their control. Medieval Christians, while attributing an absence of suffering to God, had to assert it of Jesus Christ as a man.

A seldom noticed figure, the 1st Baron Guilford, who found himself Keeper of the Great Seal in the awkward days when James II wanted that seal used to make royal prerogative override statute law, was said to want ‘a good general apathy’. His biographer explained this as:

‘1. As to himself, Equanimity.
2. As to all others, Indifference.’

That motto would suit my husband.


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