Monday, January 9

From Squiffy to the Muddle-headed Mugwump: A Great British Tradition

While my best wishes go out to Charles Kennedy, the now-former leader of Britain's Liberal Democratic party, his resignation is somewhat redeemed by being the occasion for this delightful article in the Times on the role of alcohol in British politics.

I knew, of course, about Pitt and Churchill's bibulous ways, and I recall Alan Clarke's anecdote from his unsurpassed political diaries (by the way, "wine-tasting" sounds more formal than the reality--it was two friends opening some bottles; either way, if you are going to pickle yourself before heading to the House, you can't do much better than the '61 Palmer*), but the remarkable George Brown story at the end was new to me.

Some teasers from the article:

Booze runs through the very veins of British politics. No democracy has been, over the years, so consistently pickled: William Pitt the Younger marinated himself daily with three bottles of port; Winston Churchill slurped through the war on a tidal wave of champagne and brandy.

. . .

MPs drink far less than they used to, but still a great deal more than the rest of the country. The reasons are partly practical, and partly psychological. There are 17 places to buy alcohol in the Palace of Westminster, which is immune from legal restrictions on closing times.

. . .

. . . it is technically impossible to be drunk in the Chamber. No matter how sloshed a Member may be, for another member to point this out is taboo. The cry of “not sober” was banned in 1945.

. . .

New Labour has brought a strange whiff of Puritanism from the likes of Alastair Campbell (teetotal), Peter Mandelson (who is known to sip hot water at dinner parties) and Tony Blair (just a cup of tea, thanks awfully).

No surprise there about New Labour, but hot water? There may be some nasty drunks out there, but they can't be any more obnoxious, vicious, or offensive than Campbell or Mandy.

Whatever one thinks of Kennedy and his duplicitous, everything-to-all-voters party, he seems a decent, interesting soul. This amusing and prescient ("We live in an age of easy, gifted telegenic politicians who never put a foot wrong or slur their words on Newsnight, and it is therefore magnificent that the Liberal Democrats continue to have a leader with a Churchillian ability to slot it away.") piece by Tory MP Boris Johnson is a fair and warm-hearted celebration of the muddle-headed mugwump. (By the way, can you imagine any American or Canadian politician penning such a hilarious and literate criticism of an opponent?)

* There can't be many things more frustrating than being born one generation too late to enjoy great wine at a decent price. Parker's review from 1992 mentions that his '61 Palmer is courtesy of a friend who picked it up at under $10 a case. It now runs about $1800 a bottle.