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’.”

Tim Collins Watch

As some readers will have spotted already, Stoa-favourite Tim Collins x-MP has recently failed to be adopted as the prospective parliamentary candidate for Gillingham and Rainham.

Indeed, it was a selection exercise of keen interest to this blog, as Stoa pantomime-villain Liz Truss failed to be selected from the shortlist, too.

But instead they plumped for some turncoat called Rehman Chishti.

Tim Collins Speaks!

It’s been a frustrating year for Tim Collins Watching over here at the Virtual Stoa. He’s kept a very low profile since the voters of the South Lakes area decided that they’d rather not be represented by him in Parliament, thank you very much, and I’ve basically had no idea what, if anything, he’s been doing with himself since then.

Now there’s a chap called Tim Montgomerie, who thinks more highly of Iain Duncan Smith than most people do, and who runs the Conservative Home blog. He’s been performing a service to the nation by publishing the names of people on Mr Cameron’s A-List of priority Tory candidates for parliament, names that, apparently, Tory Central Office would prefer be kept secret.

There was general rejoicing, obviously at the inclusion of Tim Collins on the A-List (an A-List without TC x-MP CBE would naturally discredit itself). But even more excitingly, he’s also posted a long, long comment the same page, explaining why he thinks he lost: tactical voting, “big money”, postal voting anomalies and statistical fluke. And let’s hope this is just the start of his career of blog-commenting.

UPDATE [6.40pm]: On reflection, I think the title of this post should have been, Tim Collins: I Blame Quakers.


We don’t hear much about Tim Collins CBE x-MP in the media much these days, which is a shame as I’d be curious to find out how he’s adjusting to Life After Parliament. But there are still occasional references to be found to his brief, shining political career, this one in today’s Independent on Sunday (boo, boo, you’re supposed to pay for it) making a claim I hadn’t heard before. Here’s Alan Watkins, who makes the familiar point associating sex scandals with Tories and Liberals and money scandals with Labour politicians, and who then goes on:

In the 1990s, true, there was a shift in the terms of trade. The Tories started to go in for both. It was not wholly of John Major’s making. I heard his Back to Basics speech at the party conference and read it several times afterwards. It did not contain a single reference to sexual intercourse, whether expressly or by implication. It was all about reading, writing and arithmetic.The sex bit was inserted by Mr Tim Collins, then the prime minister’s spin merchant, who was asked by journalists whether the speech meant that Mr Major expected the highest personal standards from his ministers. Mr Collins replied that that was indeed what it meant. The trouble started from there.

If that’s true, then Tories must think TC, etc, has a lot to answer for, and the rest of us must thank him for services to the gaiety of the nation.

Sealions in the News

Over here, with a very fine photograph.

UPDATE [11.30pm]: This is almost too exciting: from the Daily Pilot:

NEWPORT BEACH — The harbor commission voted Wednesday to suspend the mooring permit for a barge used to raise white sea bass in Newport Harbor.During the same meeting, the board voted to move forward with new rules designed to discourage sea lions from living in the harbor. The commission considered ordinances that would make it illegal to feed wild animals, such as sea lions and to discard items, especially fish remains, into the harbor.

Harbor resources supervisor Chris Miller said the commission favored additional provisions to the rules pertaining to fishing vessels. Harbor commissioners Tim Collins, Seymour Beek and Ralph Rodheim are set to meet next week to fine tune the ordinances before they are considered by the City Council…

I was wondering whether he’d get a proper job.


From the North-West Evening Mail:

The Party in Westmorland and Lonsdale is embarking on the task of choosing a prospective parliamentary candidate in a bid to win back the marginal seat at the next opportunity.They believe former MP Tim Collins will not put himself forward to stand again in the seat which covers most of the South Lakeland area…

My goodness.

So Farewell Then, Richard Whiteley

I’m expecting quite a bit of extra traffic over the next few days, for the odd reason that the Virtual Stoa is third on a google search for “Richard Whiteley” + “obituary”.

People who follow this link won’t find an obituary of Richard Whiteley, however, though they will find details of Tim Collins ex-MP CBE’s “Countdown”-themed reception at the House of Commons last year, which may bring them some consolation in this dark hour.

Kicking A Man When He’s Down

From yesterday’s Independent:

The Tories need to understand the appeal of Jamie Oliver if they are reconnect with voters, Andrew Lansley, a contender for the Conservative leadership, said.Mr Lansley, who is challenging Kenneth Clarke to become the champion of the centre-left in the struggle to stop David Davis, said the Tories were out of touch with ordinary voters and seen as too extreme.

In a sideswipe at his former shadow cabinet colleague, Tim Collins, who held the education portfolio, Mr Lansley said: “When Jamie Oliver captured exactly what millions of parents felt about school food, did they hear us respond?

“Where, in our 10 words, was the recognition that family is the backbone of a strong society?”

What’s all this about “our ten words”? Is this a new BBC policy acknowledging the irrelevance of the Conservative Party which means that Tories only get ten words in which to say what they think, to avoid wasting the time of the rest of us? (How many words do the Lib Dems get?)Given that “the family is the backbone of a strong society” is nine words, to Tories might want to turn their attention now to thinking about how they choose that all-important tenth word, which might be the one to make all the difference.

Slightly less frivolously, I think Lansley’s missing the point here. He thinks that if Tories say bland twaddle like “the family is the backbone of a strong society” again and again and again, and jump on populist bandwagons like the Jamie Oliver School Dinners bandwagon, then the Great British Public will pay attention and Vote Conservative.

I think that’s nonsense.

The reason it was useful for certain Labour front-benchers to say “Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime” obsessively in the mid-1990s was that the Party was trying to challenge a public perception of it as being (rightly or wrongly) soft on crime, and obsessive repetition works pretty well in that particular context. But I don’t think there’s any evidence that people aren’t voting Conservative because they think that the Tories don’t think that the F is the B of an S S (though it would be funny if there were).

And if Shadow Ministers keep saying dull things like “the F is the B of an S S”, the media will tend to ignore them and go back to talking to Jamie Oliver, who created the story in the first place, and who will be much more interesting to talk to.

It’s a striking feature of contemporary politics that the Government generally only gets into difficulties when other people not the Tories cause trouble for them, whether Lord Butler, Jamie Oliver or, most recently, the Parliamentary Ombudsman, and the Tories rarely make any real contribution to accentuating the Government’s difficulties on these occasions.

The exception, I suppose, is David Davis’s removal of Beverley Hughes, through cunning parliamentary manoeuvrings rather than through soundbite politics — and such is the desperate condition of the Tory Party these days that bagging the relatively trivial scalp of a junior minister might be one of the things that propels him to the Party leadership, where, I think we can safely say, he will become the fourth Tory leader in a row not to make it through the door of No. 10.

(Why am I thinking about Andrew Lansley and David Davis? I must have better things to do with my time. Yes: I do. Good.)


I wasn’t really paying attention over the last few days, but here’s a piece from Saturday’s Guardian by historian Tristram Hunt which appears to be mostly about TC CBE ex-MP. It contains some criticism of the great man’s opinions, though, so do give it a wide berth if you’re one of his more sensitive admirers.

(Jamie has more.)