Artillery Row

Scum of Britain, unite!

Enterprising politicians can use insults to their own advantage

Name calling in politics. Get it right, and in just a few words you can create a pithy line that permanently defines your opponent. The term “guilty men” to describe those who supported appeasement, for example, was one that haunted Conservative politicians for decades. Get an insult wrong, however, and you can look dangerously out of touch, especially when the insult refers to voters — think of Hillary Clinton’s reference to “deplorables”. 

Whether the Deputy Leader of the Labour Party Angela Rayner’s description of Conservative ministers as “scum” was politically wise is an open question. Rayner certainly received cheers from the audience at the party conference fringe event at which she was speaking. The suggestions that her language reflected her working-class “authenticity” will also no doubt burnish her leadership credentials — especially among Labour’s mainly middle-class activists, given their often-caricatured views about working-class “earthiness”. By contrast, as the polling company YouGov recently reported, 70 per cent of all Britons believe using such words to describe an opponent is “unacceptable”. A number of Conservative outlets have also used Rayner’s remarks as to remind voters about the unseemly Corbynite Left that is still very much present within the Labour Party. Indeed, the entire episode is an excellent reminder of the way in which enterprising politicians can use abuse — whether they are the deliverer or the recipient — to their own advantage. 

The term “vermin” became a literal badge of honor

One of the best ways to do this is through the process of what we might term “rhetorical appropriation”. You take an insult and co-opt it. Arguably, the most effective use of this tactic came because of another Labour firebrand taking a potshot at Conservatives. Back in 1948, Labour Minister of Health, Aneurin Bevan, described the Tory party as being “lower than vermin”. Like Rayner’s, Bevan’s words were aimed more at shaping his image within his own party than communicating with the country. Known for enjoying the hospitality of wealthy Conservative socialites, most famously the newspaper magnate Lord Beaverbrook, Beavan made his “vermin” comment during a speech describing the poor health that he and his friends experienced in his native South Wales. As a result, Bevan claimed, “no amount of cajolery, and no attempts at ethical or social seduction” could eradicate from his heart “the deep burning hatred for the Tory party that inflicted those experiences on me”. While the speech and the furore surrounding it certainly helped secure Bevan’s reputation as a working-class warrior — you can even buy t-shirts with Bevan’s words emblazoned on them — it also induced an equally strong reaction on the Right in the form of the creation of the Vermin Club.

Arising after the newspaper outcry that followed Bevan’s speech, various Vermin Clubs were created spontaneously across the country. As the historian Paul Martin has argued, their members came principally from the politically disengaged middle-class, who, in the context of post-war austerity, felt themselves slighted and put upon by the new Labour government. This class of people were continually asked to make sacrifices for the “common good”, which by 1948 did not appear very common at all. Within weeks these individual vermin groups had come together into a national organization with a system of local “nests” set up around the country. To raise money the group sold various decorative ties, cufflinks and pins bearing images of rats and pondlife: the term “vermin” became a literal badge of honor. With the declared aims of publicising the dangers of socialism and organizing the anti-socialite electorate by the spring of 1949, the group was estimated to have more than 70,000 members growing at over 6,000 a month. 

Though it had hoped to use the money it raised to support the Conservative Party, tax rules meant that it ended up donating the entirety of its coffers to the Imperial Cancer Research Fund (the forerunner of today’s Cancer Research UK). In a taste of anti-socialist politics, the group traded pamphlets declaring that it wished to defeat not only cancer but the “political cancer of socialism”, stating how “one rots the body, the other rots our Nation”.

The Vermin Club’s political purchase came from a sense of class and national betrayal

If anything, the arm’s length relationship with the Conservative Party ended up benefiting both organizations. The Vermin Club found it easier to recruit disaffected Liberals and non-party members into its ranks — one trade union had to tell its own members not to join — while the group’s anti-socialist activities inevitably aided Conservatives the most. Indeed, prominent Labour figures including Herbert Morrison — who as Lord President of the Council under Attlee was responsible for much of the postwar nationalization of industry — blamed Bevan’s speech and the subsequent reaction to it for Labour’s loss at the 1951 General Election. This itself was another example of a politician using political abuse for their own ends: Morrison and Bevan were far from friends. 

Could a similar organization be created today? Might we see Conservative activists selling scum ties and badges, or, more likely, scum lanyards and iPhone cases? Arguably not. The Vermin Club was created in a very different political moment to today’s. More than anything, its political purchase came from a sense of class and national betrayal. This was a time when many middle-class Conservative activists felt that it was they who had sacrificed the most during World War II in the name of national unity. In terms of changes in the distribution of wealth, they were correct. Having helped to win the war through their blood and treasure, by 1948 they were faced with a government that seemed interested only in the needs of its supporters.

Given that today’s Conservative government has been in power for twelve years, has gone out of its way to protect the assets of its most ardent supporters (homeowners and the elderly), and seems uninterested in national unity, the conditions for a repeat of the Vermin Club seem unfavourable. Then again, as party politics comes to revolve increasingly around cultural issues, perhaps appropriating the term “scum” to stand for unashamed pride in one’s country, history and traditions — something Labour activists are uncomfortable with — might make political sense. 

One thing is for certain: the Conservative Party contains plenty of entrepreneurs, both commercial and political, who could help raise a bob or two for cancer research. Scum of Britain, unite!

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