After four weeks of intense campaigning, the UK general election takes place tomorrow. It seems fitting, then, to take a look at some famous political quotations. I’m delighted to bring you this post by Susan Ratcliffe, Associate Editor of Oxford Quotations Dictionaries. The quotations she has selected come from The Oxford Dictionary of Political Quotations, of which there will be a new edition later this year.
With the long-awaited UK election at last taking place, now is perhaps a good moment to look at some famous (and infamous) words on the subject. The first issue is perhaps just how important voting is. Tom Stoppard’s line: ‘It’s not the voting that’s democracy, it’s the counting’ is well known, but is in fact closely paralled by a remark of Stalin’s in 1923: ‘I consider it completely unimportant who in the party will vote, or how; but what is extraordinarily important is this—who will count the votes, and how’. The importance of counting was recognized long ago: in the early nineteenth century the American politician William Porcher Miles described seeing election banners with the advice: ‘Vote early and vote often’.
Many voters are equally cynical about what is on offer. The American financier Bernard Baruch suggested: ‘Vote for the man who promises least; he’ll be the least disappointing’ while W. C. Fields took a systematic line: ‘Hell, I never vote for anybody. I always vote against’. Ken Livingstone’s view was simple: ‘If voting changed anything, they’d abolish it’.
The candidates themselves are very varied. Winston Churchill described the qualities desirable in a prospective politician many years ago: ‘The ability to foretell what is going to happen tomorrow, next week, next month, and next year. And to have the ability afterwards to explain why it didn’t happen’. David Lloyd George was brutally honest: ‘If you want to succeed in politics, you must keep your conscience well under control’. And more recently Sarah Palin famously described her own qualities: ‘What’s the difference between a hockey mom and a pitbull? Lipstick’.
When the film producer Jack Warner heard that the actor Ronald Reagan was seeking nomination as Governor of California, he reacted unfavourably: ‘No, no. Jimmy Stewart for governor—Reagan for his best friend’. But Reagan went much further than anyone had expected, in the meantime offering this advice to those considering the merits of the various candidates: ‘You can tell a lot about a fellow’s character by his way of eating jellybeans’. A later president, George W. Bush, summed up his opponents in his own unique style: ‘They misunderestimated me’.
Once the campaign is well under way, some things never change. The novelist George Eliot wrote in the nineteenth century: ‘An election is coming. Universal peace is declared, and the foxes have a sincere interest in prolonging the lives of the poultry’. William Whitelaw described a lacklustre Labour campaign of the 1970s: ‘They are going about the country stirring up complacency’, now more commonly quoted as ‘stirring up apathy’. A more heated contest took place in Canada in 2003, where an anonymous press release attacked the Liberal leader in no uncertain terms: ‘Dalton McGuinty: He’s an evil reptilian kitten-eater from another planet’. Rarely do we hear anyone echo Adlai Stevenson in 1952: ‘Better we lose the election than mislead the people’. Sadly, he did lose.
But no matter what the difficulties, most people would agree with Winston Churchill: ‘Democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time’.