A Short History of Swivel-Eyed Loons

So today a handful of newspapers quoted a senior Conservative Party politician as saying:

“It’s fine. There’s really no problem. The MPs just have to do it because the associations tell them to, and the associations are all mad, swivel-eyed loons.”

How did the word “swivel-eyed” enter the British political lexicon, and when did we first get “swivel-eyed loons”? Here’s a preliminary report, armed with access to the Lexis database, and the help of some friends on the Twitter with very good memories.

As long ago as 1983, Michael Meacher was described in the unlamented Punch as a “swivel-eyed Leftie lunatic”, so the term has been in circulation for a while. In 1987, Seamus Milne, writing in tehgraun, wrote that it was common to portray Robespierre as “the swivel-eyed high priest of political violence”. And in 1991, in a couple of columns, Simon Hoggart used the term, on one occasion to pick out politicians who had a “swivel-eyed belief in privatisation”.

And it’s in the early 1990s that the word more or less attaches itself to a certain kind of Tory politician. In fact, we can be more specific: John Redwood is clearly the key figure here. When he was first appointed to the Cabinet in the May 1993 reshuffle, an unnamed and disgruntled Tory politician said, “we want fewer swivel-eyed ideologues not more” (interestingly, one of the stories in the press reporting this view carried Ruth Kelly’s by-line). And the term, having attached itself to Redwood, from there migrates to his key political allies–such as Tony Marlow and, especially, Teresa Gorman. Tim Collins–a hero of the Stoa in years gone by–described the Tories who backed Redwood’s campaign for the Party leadership in 1995, for example, as the “swivel-eyed barmy army, from ward eight at Broadmoor”.

So: “swivel-eyed” was most commonly used in this period to pick out the kind of Conservative politician who ceaselessly plotted to undermine the leadership and, in David Cameron’s later words, was forever “banging on about Europe”. (As Hegel presumably remarks somewhere, all great Tory crises appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as farce, the second as farce.)

So much for “swivel-eyed”. Where, specifically, do “swivel-eyed loons” come from?

The answer seems to be that Euan Ferguson first used the phrase in the national press, in his Observer column of 2 March 1997, specifically to describe Tim Montgomerie’s mob. Back in those days, long before ConservativeHome, Montgomerie ran something called the Conservative Christian Fellowship, about whom Ferguson was quite sceptical–the column was published under the headline, “The Lord deliver us from the loony right”. Various right-wing Christians were quoted in the course of the article, which ended like this:

It would be ludicrous to suggest the CCF could make much of a difference. But is it so wrong to imagine it having an effect in a marginal seat between votes for a genuine candidate and votes for, well, let’s say, just for the sake of argument, a swivel-eyed loon who glories in pious deceit, or a holier-than-thou moral crusader who still backs policies expressly designed to widen inequality, encourage intolerance and promote greed?

And to take us briskly up to the present, the last thing we need to remember is the Anthony Wells-inspired Google-bomb (remember Google-bombing?) that ensured that, around the end of 2004, anyone who entered the phrase “swivel-eyed loons” was immediately directed to the UKIP home page. (This was mentioned at the time on the Virtual Stoa here.)

But that is all history. The rest, as we might say, is politics.

[Thanks to Anthony Wells and Matthew Turner for assistance with this post.]

UPDATE: Jamie K: “I’d say it’s more ‘the first time as farce, the second time as panto’.”

14 thoughts on “A Short History of Swivel-Eyed Loons”

  1. Here’s Peter Kellner, in the Evening Standard, 6 October 1999:

    *** In his search for a theme that will win over doubting voters, William Hague has alighted on “the common sense revolution”. Presumably his unstated subtext is: “My party is no longer dominated by swivel-eyed lunatics.” ***

    (I still have my Common Sense Revolution pledge-card somewhere.)

  2. Peter Oborne, Sunday Express, 8 April 2001:

    *** He [= Blair] and his spin-doctors have been very clever at creating a widespread impression that the Tory party is a collection of swivel-eyed lunatics, driven by a pathological hatred of the Continent. But anyone who examines for more than a few seconds the Blairite proposition that the Tories are extreme swiftly discovers that there is no truth in it at all. ***

  3. Was there nothing about Tony Benn from the early Eighties? I’d swear I remember the term from back then and it being specifically applied to him.

  4. Let’s have a look. The American Spectator in 1993 has “Tony Benn (republican, leveler, formerly Lord Stansgate) gave a swivel-eyed speech.” But the database I have here isn’t good for stuff that old, so you might be right. That would link up to the Michael Meacher quote that Matt Turner dug out, in the post: just as swivel-eyed in the 1990s was transferred from Redwood to, e.g., Gorman, it makes perfect sense that an epithet for Benn got carried over to Meacher.

  5. Tony Benn’s ‘Spitting Image’ puppet was given eyes that swivelled independently of each other, which I always assumed was a reference to this epithet.

  6. I remember reading that Spitting image made sure that Tony Benn’s puppet would not have eyes in fixed positions so they would roll around at random. Benn’s prominent eyes were often seen as one of the reasons he was such a compelling speaker in the 1980s, although that probably didn’t look as good on TV interviews.

    Meacher was in 1983 an up and coming Bennite (and almost as posh), although he would later moderate considerably.

  7. First use I find is in Rudyard Kipling, ‘Captain Courageous’ (1898).

    Old seadogs meet:

    ” He jammed one end of the board into two nicks in the bulwarks, kicked out the leg, and ducked just in time to avoid a swinging blow from the man-o’-war’s man.

    “An’ they did that on the ‘ Ohio,’ too, Danny. See?” said Tom Platt, laughing.

    “Guess they was swivel-eyed, then, fer it didn’t git home, and I know who’ll find his boots on the main-truck ef he don’t leave us alone. Haul ahead! I’m busy, can’t ye see?” ”

    Here swivel-eyed seems to mean lacking hand-eye coordination.

  8. David Hare’s 1993 play ‘The Absence of War’ features the term “swivel-eyed lunatic” applied to the character Oliver Dix, political adviser to the Leader of the Labour Party.

  9. Charles Dickens, ‘Our Mutual Friend (1864-5), Book II, Chapter XII, 3d paragraph (description of Pleasant Riderhood): “Similarly, she found herself possessed of what is colloquially termed a ‘swivel eye’ …”

    1. Pretty sure in the Growing Pains of Adrian Mole there was a letter quoted in which Tony Benn was described as a swivel eyed loon. I’ve not got a copy to check but I seem to remember it was around the split in Labour membership with some moving to join the SDP.

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