Our noble heritage of "Nonsense!"

Observations on heckling

Walter Wolfgang, an elderly heckler, is thrown out of the Labour conference in Brighton. At the same time, George Bush's America is celebrating two others - the misanthropic puppets Statler and Waldorf grace one of a series of US postage stamps honouring Jim Henson, the man who created the Muppets. It is too much to hope that Wolfgang will be appearing on a stamp, but we may at least applaud him for reminding us of heckling's part in our politics.

New Labour is often accused both of neglecting the party's history and of trying to bury it. In fact, in seeking to create the television image of a united party at conference time, the Blairite modernisers had in mind a recent history: that of the often vicious, divided conferences of the 1970s and early 1980s.

Brighton 2005 was nothing like Olympia 1934, when the brutal beating of hecklers by Oswald Mosley's Blackshirts shocked observers and destroyed Mosley's pretensions to respectability. Even so, the sight on our television screens of Wolfgang being manhandled instantly revived criticism of new Labour's authoritarian management style. A rather older history reminds us that politicians were once skilled in how to handle heckling.

The term itself has its origins in the textile trade, and referred to the combing out of flax. It is said to have acquired today's connotations in 19th-century Dundee, where workers were read to from newspapers while they operated their machines; some of them would shout out humorous or derogatory interjections.

The practice, of course, is older than the word, and it was in the lively debates surrounding the Reform Bill 1832 that politicians learned the skill of handling hecklers. In the years that followed, such speakers as Wilkes, Disraeli, Lloyd George, Churchill and Bevan thrived on the theatricality of live meetings, feeding off voices in the crowd in a way that seems beyond most of today's autocue-bound politicos.

As more than one commentator has noted, in his heyday in the 1960s Labour's Harold Wilson was a master of the art. "Rubbish!" a protester called out at one meeting. "I'll come to your special interest in a minute, sir," Wilson purred, to general delight. In another crowd, a supporter of racist white Rhodesia taunted Wilson over his support for "savages". Wilson spat back: "We don't talk to savages - we just let them come to our meetings."

Even so, the Labour leader could occasionally come a cropper. Once, speaking on Labour's defence policies, he referred grandly to the Royal Navy. "And why do I say this?" he asked rhetorically. "Because you're in Chatham," a wag in the dockyard constituency audience riposted. I bet he wasn't thrown out.

Greg Neale is founding editor of BBC History Magazine, and resident historian for BBC Television's Newsnight

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