Politics: a story of mugwumps and buffoons

Nasty names: Insults leveled at Jeremy Corbyn, Tony Blair, Margaret Thatcher and Donald Trump.

Yesterday Boris Johnson dubbed a rival a “mutton-headed old mugwump”. Donald Trump has issued at least 329 insults since launching his presidential campaign. Time to stop the name-calling?

On June 8th, the British public will choose their next prime minister. And in a column in The Sun yesterday, foreign secretary Boris Johnson warned the electorate not to feel sorry for the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, just because he is “a mutton-headed old mugwump.”

The creative insult was soon trending on Twitter — with many wondering what exactly a “mugwump” is.

Johnson — who later apologised to “mugwumps everywhere” — said that it was a reference to Roald Dahl’s The Complete Adventures of Charlie and Mr Willy Wonka. And according to the Merriam Webster dictionary, “mugwump” refers to someone “who is independent (as in politics) or who remains undecided or neutral”.

Johnson is famous for his colourful language — and his latest comment fits into a long history of witty political insults.

The master of these was the ancient Roman politician Cicero, who once told someone: “No one thinks you’re worth his attention, his time, a vote, a place in society, or even the light of day.”

Several hundred years later, Martin Luther called King Henry VIII “a pig, an ass, a dung hill, the spawn of an adder, a basilisk, a lying buffoon dressed in a king’s robes”.

America’s founding fathers were not above rhetorical mud slinging either. John Adams called Alexander Hamilton “a bastard brat of a Scotch pedler”; Thomas Jefferson, meanwhile, said John Adams was a “blind, bald, crippled toothless man… with neither the force and fitness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman”.

Winston Churchill was particularly adept at insulting his fellow politicians. He called Ramsay MacDonald “a sheep in sheep’s clothing”, and once quipped: “An empty cab pulled up to Downing Street. Clement Attlee got out.”

The tradition continues in the 21st century. George Bush was said to have been “born with a silver foot in his mouth”. Nick Clegg was called “a lapdog who’s been skinned and turned into a shield”. And since beginning his election campaign in 2015, President Trump has insulted 329 people, places and things on Twitter — including dozens of his political opponents.

Insult to injury

How childish. Johnson’s insult reduces politics to “the sort of look-at-me name-calling that you would expect in an Eton playground,” said Labour MP John Healey yesterday. In these serious times, politicians should be debating each other’s ideas, not hurling personal abuse at each other.

Don’t be so stuffy, respond others. Creative insults are part of the rich tapestry of democratic debate. There is a kind of Shakespearean pleasure in reading a perfectly crafted put-down. Corbyn might endear himself more to voters if he came up with some memorable jibes of his own.

You Decide

  1. Would you ever call someone a “mugwump”?
  2. Do personal insults add anything to democratic debates?


  1. Come up with your own creative insult for Boris Johnson (without using any swear words or lewd references). Share them with the class and vote for the best.
  2. Using the quotes in this article and under Become An Expert, write a short guide to crafting the perfect political insult.

Some People Say...

“If they attack one personally, it means they have not a single political argument left.”

Margaret Thatcher

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Boris Johnson is well-known for insulting politicians. He was the one who called Nick Clegg a lapdog in 2014 and Tony Blair, then prime minister, a “greased piglet” (referenced in this article’s image).
What do we not know?
Whether these outbursts have helped or hindered his political reputation.
What do people believe?
Johnson rose to fame in British politics largely due to his colourful language. But there were rumours this week that he would be sidelined in the election campaign, as the prime minister, Theresa May, wants to avoid any gaffes. Some think that yesterday’s column was an attempt to dispel these rumours by making a splash in the media. He certainly achieved this. However, many of the tweets about #mugwump criticised him for personally attacking Corbyn.

Word Watch

In the book, Wonka calls Mrs Bucket “my dear old muddleheaded mugwump”.
The Roman politician and lawyer lived between 106 BC and 43 BC. He lived through Caesar’s rule, and was an excellent orator. His collected writings — including his speeches to the Senate — have had an enormous influence on Latin.
Martin Luther
The founder of Protestantism helped to spark the Reformation in the 16th century by breaking away from the Catholic Church. Henry VIII wrote a staunch defence of Catholicism in his youth, which provoked Luther’s insult. Henry later changed his mind and made Protestantism England’s state religion.
Founding fathers
The philosophers and politicians who helped to found the United States during and after the War of Independence in the late 18th century. Although they agreed on independence, they often clashed on other political issues.
Winston Churchill
The two men he insulted were both former Labour prime ministers in Britain.
According to The New York Times, which curated these insults between June 2015 and March 2017. Read them under Become An Expert.

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.