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Gaitskell’s baths and Cameron’s jumpers

Thursday, 14 November, 2013

Brrrrr! There’s a nip in the air. Back in mid-October, the UK Energy Secretary Ed Davey said that he wears jumpers at home to keep his heating bills down. The next morning, Prime Minister Cameron’s spokesman was asked whether people should “wrap up warm” and wear jumpers. He said: “That’s not a question that I have asked him. Clearly, he is not going to prescribe necessarily the actions individuals should take about that but if people are giving that advice, that is something that people may wish to consider.” The Daily Mirror duly (mis)informed its readers: “David Cameron left sweating as voters hit out at ‘put a jumper on’ energy advice“. The insinuation being that the Prime Minister was a cold-hearted toff. But the dirty nature of what passes for British politics (and the reporting of such politics) is not exactly new as this diary entry by Hugh Gaitskell shows.

14 November 1947: “How easy it is to say the wrong thing! How easy it is not to recognise one has said the wrong thing!

About three weeks ago I made a speech at a municipal election meeting in Hastings, I was very tired when I got there but it was a good meeting. I tried to keep my speech fairly above party despite the coming election and inevitably referred to fuel economy in the course of it [he was Minister of Fuel and Power]. Then I let fall two fatal sentences:

‘It means getting up and going to bed in cold bedrooms. It may mean fewer baths. Personally, I have never had a great many baths myself and I can assure those who are in the habit of having a great many baths that it does not make a great deal of difference to their health if they have fewer. And as far as appearance — most of that is underneath and nobody sees it.’

warm jumper Of course the first sentence was said in a joking manner and the second was a pure joke, and the audience laughed and took it as such. It is the kind of thing I have said again and again at open air meetings to liven things up. After the meeting one of the local people who was driving me round referred to this, and said he would not be surprised if it was in the headlines the next day. Though he, himself, thought it a joke and took it as such. The press did pick it out though not very flamboyantly. However on Tuesday it so happened that Churchill was making his big speech against the Government and he made great play of these remarks of mine. I was not present at the time but everybody tells me that he was extremely funny at my expense. Since then I have become associated in the public mind with dirt, never having a bath, etc. I am told that at the [Royal] Command Performance no less than three jokes were made about this by music hall comedians, though they all seem to have been in quite a friendly manner.

First of all, I did not worry at all. It seemed inconceivable to me that anybody could believe that it was anything but a joke. However, I now consider I really made a mistake.”

Hugh Gaitskell (1906 — 1963)

Talking of baths and jokes, here’s one: What happened to the leopard who took a bath three times a day? After a week he was spotless!


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