Getting to the root of political suicide, figuratively speaking

When discussing his decision to vote against the government’s proposed higher education bill on the 4th of March, Clive Palmer made a rather alarming remark, suggesting that Prime Minister Tony Abbott “commit suicide” over the issue. Pressed to clarify, Mr Palmer continued, “it’s suicide, political suicide, to go against the will of what’s good for the Australian people.” By afternoon, he had tweeted an apology, saying he had “inadvertently used the term suicide” when he really “meant political suicide”. That is to say, he intended to use the term in a figurative rather than a literal sense.

Palmer’s remarks were clearly inappropriate and insensitive. For a start, they reaffirm the stigma attached to mental illness, and trivialise what is a serious problem for many individuals and families across the country. And whatever we might think about Tony Abbott and his macho bravado, we should acknowledge that the comments were potentially hurtful at a personal level. It was also, in short, just plain rude.

But Palmer’s subsequent clarification – that he “meant political suicide” – also underestimates the potential impact of this well-worn metaphor, and how easily the figurative can slip into the literal and into reality.

The phrase “political suicide” first emerged in Britain in the mid-eighteenth century, and was used amongst other things to describe seemingly self-destructive policy at national level (such as Britain’s hard-line stance against the American colonies that spiralled into war). But, more commonly, it was used to describe political manoeuvres that would likely to lead the end of a statesman’s career, and as a barb against political opponents to suggest they remove their impeding presence from the democratic process for the good of the country.

And we can see these senses in Palmer’s remarks, which first suggest that the Prime Minister concede on the issue of higher education reform, and that to persist with such reforms against the will of the nation would be politically self-destructive. In brief, he was saying, that – at least on this issue – the Prime Minister should get out of the way for the nation’s sake.

But in some cases, as criticism became more sinister and vitriolic, the figurative was not always easily separable from the literal, as “political suicide” became an easy way to express a half-wish that any offending politician might do himself in once winter came in November.

Take, for example, one of the most famous political suicides in British history – that of Lord Castlereagh (1769-1822). Castlereagh, by reports, was a marvellous diplomat, but never a popular figure with the masses. He was hated in his native Ireland for his role in suppressing the Irish Rebellion of 1798, and   reviled in England for his clampdown on radical elements, which escalated into the Peterloo Massacre at Manchester in 1819. Byron subsequently depicted him as a cold-blooded miscreant in Don Juan (1819), and Percy Bysshe Shelley cast him as smooth-looking murderer in his Masque of Anarchy (written in response to Peterloo in 1819). Castlereagh also survived a riot outside his home and an assassination attempt for his part in trying to bar King George IV’s estranged and adulterous wife, Caroline, from taking the throne in 1820.

Many of his political opponents begged for Castlereagh’s “political suicide”. Satirical cartoonist George Cruikshank even added a visual element to the phrase when he depicted Castlereagh dolefully contemplating the noose, and again shortly after, hung up with two political allies, former Prime Minister Viscount Sidmouth (1757-1844) and future Prime Minister George Canning (1770-1827).

A depiction of Castlereagh prior to his death, from “The Political Queen That Jack Loves” (1820), illustrated by George Cruikshank. © Trustees of the British Museum.
A depiction of Castlereagh prior to his death, from “The Political Queen That Jack Loves” (1820), illustrated by George Cruikshank. © Trustees of the British Museum.

Opponents wished to remove him from the political sphere in one way or another. So he duly obliged—he took his own life in 1822, much to the surprise of his parliamentary allies and opponents.

And so did many British politicians during the latter half of the eighteenth and the early part of the nineteenth centuries, in part to abide by classical codes of honour to do what’s best for the state, but also driven in part by the pressures associated with public criticism calling for their political death, even if it was couched in metaphorical terms.

The lesson? Even though the Prime Minister appears on our TV every day, and we hear his voice most other days on the radio, we, nor Clive Palmer, are privy to his mindset when hidden away from his political adversaries and critics.

We, therefore, always need to be mindful of the potential personal and social impact of discussing suicide, even if only figuratively speaking.

If you have been affected by the issues discussed in this article, help or support in Australia is available by contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or www.lifeline.org.au, or by calling the Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467.

Dr Eric Parisot is a Lecturer in English at Flinders University and an Associate Investigator with the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions (Europe 1100-1800). He is currently researching representations of suicide in British eighteenth century and Romantic culture

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