The evolution of political catchphrases

"Hug a hoodie" — For years Conservative leader David Cameron has struggled to live down the catchphrase. In 2006 he made a speech about crime and young people in “hoodies”. While bad behaviour must be punished, he insisted, we also need to show a lot more love and understanding to those at risk of criminal offending. Before long, Labour MPs and the media had distilled the message down to three short words.

A leader writer at the Telegraph decided that they knew exactly what Cameron meant — and didn’t approve:

The idea that society is to blame for criminal behaviour is passé. It flies in the face of common sense, empirical evidence, Christian doctrine and modern evolutionary biology.

Australian prime minister Malcolm Fraser was also saddled with a catchphrase that his opponents used against him — "life is not meant to be easy". As Tony Stephens writes: "His political opponents seized on the sentence, arguing it revealed the attitude of the privileged and wealthy towards less-fortunate Australians." And unlike Cameron, Fraser did use his catchphrase in a speech.

Other catchphrases have been kinder to those who used them. Like his brothers, Robert Kennedy liked to say : "Some people see things as they are and say why? I dream things that never were and say, why not?" And curiously, Kennedy’s quote has the same source as Fraser’s catchphrase.

One thing all of these catchphrases have in common is that they do not originate with the politicians themselves.

Hug a hoodie

"Hug a hoodie" was imposed on Cameron by the media and his political opponents.

The “Hug a hoodie” speech gives a conservative spin to Tony Blair’s formula: "tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime".

The hoodie has become "a vivid symbol of what has gone wrong with young people in Britain today", said Cameron. While tough sanctions and punishment are important, he said, "The long-term answer to anti-social behaviour is a pro-social society where we really do get to grips with the causes of crime."

According to the Conservative leader, getting to grips with the causes of crime meant showing more love and understanding:

So when you see a child walking down the road, hoodie up, head down, moody, swaggering, dominating the pavement — think what has brought that child to that moment.

If the first thing we have to do is understand what’s gone wrong, the second thing is to realise that putting things right is not just about law enforcement.

It’s about the quality of the work we do with young people.

It’s about relationships.

It’s about trust.

Above all, it’s about emotion and emotional development.

Labour’s Home Office Minister Vernon Coaker thought it all sounded a bit soft . "Cameron’s empty idea seems to be ‘let’s hug a hoodie’, whatever they have done", he said. And the Sun responded by sending reporters into the streets to hug hoodies while photographers snapped their reactions.

Cameron’s speech was written by Danny Kruger. And when Kruger was later punched in the face by "rat-faced boy" in a hooded top, the tabloids were overjoyed. Kruger eventually left his speech writing job to work with Only Connect, the charity he founded with his wife Emma. In a piece for the Spectator he writes:

My main claim to distinction in my old job was drafting the speech in which David said something capable of the construction (though not the words, not the words themselves) that the public should all get out there and hug hoodies.

This speech has gone down in Tory lore as a terrible blunder, but I am still rather proud of it. The nub of it was, that while we should certainly punish people who cross the line into criminality, on this side of the line we need ‘to show a lot more love’.

Kruger’s charity works with prisoners, ex-offenders and young people at risk of crime.

From big ideas to catchy phrases — George Bernard Shaw’s Back to Methuselah

Some people say that Alan Jones came up with the "life is not meant to be easy" quote. According to journalist Chris Masters, Jones said the phrase originated with Rousseau. But as Fraser explained later, it is actually part of a quote from George Bernard Shaw’s Back to Methuselah. Not many people are well read enough to know that, said Fraser.

Back to Methuselah is series of five plays written after the end of the First World War. In the fifth play, a character identified as the He-ancient says:

Life is not meant to be easy, my child; but take courage: it can be delightful.

Back to Methuselah revolves around Shaw’s idiosyncratic theory of "creative evolution". In his plays he imagined a world where human beings were able to live for hundreds of years. According to Shaw, this would give them enough time to figure out how to govern society properly. The first play is set in the Garden of Eden where Adam and Even discover death and the serpent tells Eve how to overcome it.

The Kennedy quote comes from the first play where the Serpent says to Eve:

I tell you I am very subtle. When you and Adam talk, I hear you say ‘Why?’ Always ‘Why?’ You see things; and you say ‘Why?’ But I dream things that never were; and I say ‘Why not?’

It’s always risky to make a point by quoting the villain of Genesis. So in his 1963 speech to the Irish Parliament, John F Kennedy handled the quote gingerly:

George Bernard Shaw, speaking as an Irishman, summed up an approach to life: Other people, he said "see things and . . . say ‘Why?’ . . . But I dream things that never were — and I say: ‘Why not?’"

It is that quality of the Irish — that remarkable combination of hope, confidence and imagination — that is needed more than ever today. The problems of the world cannot possibly be solved by skeptics or cynics, whose horizons are limited by the obvious realities. We need men who can dream of things that never were, and ask why not.

With use the quote grew tougher and more elegant. In 1968 John F Kennedy’s brother Bobby said:

George Bernard Shaw once wrote, "Some people see things as they are and say why? I dream things that never were and say, why not?"

The quote became a favourite of Bobby’s. And in a tribute after his death later in 1968, his young brother Edward (Ted) said:

As he said many times, in many parts of this nation, to those he touched and who sought to touch him:

"Some men see things as they are and say why.
I dream things that never were and say why not."

The reference to both Shaw and the Serpent had gone, and for many Americans the quote had become Bobby Kennedy’s forever.

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[…] a comment » A great catch at Club Troppo: who knew that Bobby Kennedy was actually quoting Satan, or at least the serpent in the Garden of […]

Honour Leigh
Honour Leigh
14 years ago

“The problems of the world cannot possibly be solved by skeptics or cynics, whose horizons are limited by the obvious realities. We need men who can dream of things that never were, and ask why not.”
Men who can dream? What is your dream Don? Masculine faculties are generally limited to rational horizons.”The problems of the world” are caused by rational thinking. Rationalists don’t see things as they are, but as they appear to be. There is a qualitative difference that eludes the quantitative mind’s comprehension. We need the feminine faculties of imagination and vision to dream of things as they truly ARE; to see through the apparent to the dynamic causal reality behind effects, to see the spatial relationships that constitute the interconnectedness of the multi-dimensional biodiverse reality of the living planet. Man’s dream is a nightmare.

Paul Frijters
Paul Frijters
14 years ago

Hi Don,

great read. Is this an ongoing topic of interest?

Nicholas Gruen
14 years ago

Hi Don,

Are there any resources you’d recommend on the web for 1 – I often want to look up the origins of sayings. I just love knowing this and mulling it over.

I was going to do a rather half baked post on 3, but haven’t managed to yet. Managed a tweet but. “Contrast conservatism in UK after over a decade of labour with conservatism here after a decade of Howard.”

What do you think of JFK’s speeches. I’m an admirer of great speeches and he’s the only person famed for what people think was great oratory who leaves me totally unmoved. He seems too focused on being clever, has lots of snappy paradoxes or perhaps there’s a more precise term for it. “Let us not negotiate from fear, but let us never fear to negotiate”. I’m sorry but I think that’s contrived and silly.

And yet so many of his famous lines conform to that formula – including ‘ask not what your country can do for you . . . (yawn) but what you can do for your country’.

Still the punters seem to have liked it in the fullness of time.

Nicholas Gruen
14 years ago

Pity. I was hoping you’d point me to an online resource. Couldn’t be too hard for Wikimedia to throw something up could it?

14 years ago

Did you know that Harold Macmillan had a speechwriter called Christ? Although “winds of change” and “you never had it so good” were nicked from Stanley Baldwin and George Meany respectively.

Also Supermac was the first major pollie to use a teleprompter. And the first UK PM to hire an advertising agency for election campaigns- following Ike who was the first POTUS to do so.

In fact my father, a solid Labour voter and Soho boho gun copywriter/creative director for Coleman Prentice Varley, found himself to his disgust asked to work on the Tory Party account in the late 50s. He refused but only after first wangling a meeting with Supermac who he said was a lovely old duffer, very funny but rather shy. In retrospect, he said the other thing about that meeting that struck him was being able to stroll up to the door of No. 10, tell the lone copper out front they had a meeting and being shown right in.

For my money, one of the great speeches which spawned a legendary catch phrase, in this case “the military industrial complex”, was Ralph Williams and Malcolm Moos’ farewell speech for Ike. Aside from that line, it’s also a bloody good speech anyway, both technically and in content. Interestingly, in earlier drafts the speech actually referred to the “military-industrial-congressional complex”.

Anyway Don, I’m very interested too in political rhetoric, along with the history of political advertising, for reasons that are more than personal. If you wanna swap notes, Nick has my real email address.

And speaking of political advertising and David Cameron, here’s an object lesson in how not to design a party political poster.

Start here.

You gotta admit that concept and design is just asking for it.

And wait, there’s more.

14 years ago

Um, forgot to mention that one of the big problems with the original Cameron poster aside from the over the top photoshopping is that it breaks a cardinal rule of political rhetoric and advertising in general which is never to beg the question.

Bill smith
13 years ago

one of the great speeches which spawned a legendary catch phrase, in this case “the military industrial complex”, was Ralph Williams and Malcolm Moos’ farewell speech for Ike. Aside from that line, it’s also a bloody good speech anyway, both technically and in content.