Snap election? Put a stopper in all the ‘bottling’ (with update 22:00 6 Oct)

The politicians and political commentators have a funny-peculiar way of adopting their own patois to describe current events.  Thus none of them seems able to describe a decision by the prime minister not to call a general election this year other than as "bottling it", an expression surely unknown to ordinary people outside Westminster.  We're familiar with the idea of a person having "plenty of bottle", which I take to mean something like chutzpah, boldness, readiness to take risks:  but this latest cliché seems to mean the opposite, namely playing the coward.  The OED online recognises the phrase "to bottle out" as meaning "to lose one's nerve; to back out of an action at the last minute, ‘chicken out’. slang", with a few examples dating back to 1979, almost all from journalism, but in recent days the required inclusion of the 'out' with 'bottle' seems to have got mislaid.

The main objection to the phrase in its current context, though, apart from its having already become a lazy, worn-out cliché, is that it's the opposite of the reality:  not to call an election now will require courage, not cowardice, as well as being pretty clearly the right thing to do (or not to do).

Update, 22:00 6 Oct 07:  So Mr Broon has plucked up considerable courage and decided not to have an election this year, after all:

Gordon Brown rules out snap election
By Patrick Hennessy and Melissa Kite
Daily Telegraph website,  06/10/2007

Gordon Brown has ruled out calling a snap general election after a political fightback by the Conservatives.
# Analysis: Gordon Brown's colour now will be yellow
# He would have won, but not by enough
# Q&A: Behind a difficult decision
# Have your say: Has he made the right move?

The Prime Minister today electrified Westminster by ending months of speculation and declaring he will not hold a contest next month.  He also said there would not be an election next year, except in "exceptional circumstances".  Andrew Marr, who had a one-on-one interview with Mr Brown, said the Prime Minister confirmed "there would not be an election this year, and unless there are exceptional circumstances there will not be one next year".  A "remarkably calm, but not sunny" Prime Minister also admitted he had considered calling a snap election, and denied recent poor polls were behind his decision to stall.  The move has opened Mr Brown up to Tory charges of  “bottling” the decision after opinion polls showed a big Labour lead narrowing rapidly in the face of a resurgent opposition.
Tory leader, David Cameron said: "The Prime Minister has shown extraordinary indecision and extraordinary weakness.  He has sent Cabinet ministers out to brief the press, faked troop announcements, faked hospital numbers and brought forward announcements to prepare the ground for a new election. And now we have seen a humiliating retreat."

Stoking up the speculation about an imminent election has turned out to have been a blunder of, probably, middling magnitude.  It seems to have been young and inexperienced Brownite ministers who engaged in it, rather than even younger hot-headed staffers, but it must be assumed that the prime minister knew of and acquiesced in what they were doing, even if he didn't personally initiate it.  The partisan itch to rattle the Tories at their conference seems to have proved irresistible. 

The accusation of cowardice in changing course and deciding against an early election is puerile:  in fact that decision required real courage, and shrill talk of "bottling" and "the colour yellow" simply perpetuates the absurd notion, beloved of politicians and their media hand-maidens, that changing one's mind to respond to changed circumstances is evidence of weakness.  But there is obvious substance in the accusation that Brown and his ministers seriously misjudged the possible effects on public opinion of the Conservative party conference, including especially Cameron's effective speech and Osborne's (actually dodgy, but evidently popular) announcement about inheritance tax. Even worse was the evident willingness, if it had seemed likely to bring party advantage, to call an early election when the national interest did not require it.  The impression of partisan manipulation was strengthened by Brown's gimmicky visit to Iraq in the middle of the Tory conference in what was fairly obviously an ill-judged attempt to steal Tory thunder and to exploit the position of prime minister for political purposes by putting him on display with British fighting troops.  The details of these misjudgments will soon be forgotten, after a week or two in which Gordon Brown will have to put up with much mockery (or worse).  But this week has probably made a permanent dent in his carefully fostered image as a sober, cautious, relatively unpartisan national leader, leading a broadly-based and similarly high-minded ministry, and able to rise above the petty squabbles and manoeuvres of party in-fighting.  Worst of all, he has only himself to thank.

The best that can be said is that the right decision — from virtually everyone's point of view — has finally been taken.  It's tempting to speculate about the possibility that a decisive factor in the decision might have been a discreet and deniable hint from the Palace that a formal request for a patently unnecessary dissolution would have the potential for placing the Queen in a most unpalatable quandary — see my reply to a comment on an earlier post, below.  Funnier things have happened.  But alas! we'll never know.


10 Responses

  1. Praguetory says:

    A chequered post. The fact that you don't know what bottling means corroborates how out of touch this post shows you to be.

    Brian writes: Actually, it's been impossible not to know what the phrase "bottle it" means in its latest context:  I was merely remarking that it's not an expression in ordinary common use, anyway in my inevitably limited experience.  I see that the Observer this morning puts it in quotation marks (not indicating a quotation but rather that the expression is peculiar), and Andrew Marr referred to the expression in his Sunday television programme this morning as 'new'.  So I seem to be in good company if I'm out of touch in remarking on the faddish novelty of the cliché (curious that it's possible for an expression to be both novel and almost instantly a cliché, but that's how it is).  However, I'm happy to acknowledge that the otherwise cautiously anonymous 'PragueTory' may well be miles ahead of me in the faddish cliché area:  his blog reveals that he works in the fashion industry in the Czech Republic, where for all I know 'bottling it' has long been an expression at the height of fashion.

  2. Bob says:

    Oooh Brian; your élite socialisation is showing!  You should pop along to any south London playing field on a Saturday morning, or to Craven Cottage in the afternoon, and you'll be treated to a variety of derisive renderings of 'He bottled it !'. The villain of the piece will probably have (a) retreated from or shirked a tackle, or (b) lost his nerve when about to shoot – or shown lack of steel in some other way. It represents an abbreviation of the original – ' to bottle out of ', and I hear it more in football grounds in the London area than in the north, hence the characteristic glottal stop. Personally I find it an ugly expression – though it seems to be getting a social makeover through the offices of a gang of peeved old Etonians desperate to throw some mud at Gordon Brown for sensibly not holding an election. I bet they can't even do the glottal stop properly….

    Brian writes:  I had a sneaking suspicion that all this 'bottling it' might turn out to be sports-speak, a language that I don't claim to be familiar with.  I certainly agree that it's ugly.  It sounds as if the usage has developed from those who don't know what 'bottle' means (in the sense of courage, willingness to have a go), and so don't realise that the omission of 'out' from 'bottle out' reverses its meaning.  Anyway, what's the matter with 'to funk', or even 'to shirk'? 

  3. Bob says:

    Brian – yes, the dreaded sports-speak  I'm afraid. Worse still, footie-speak. And I don't think you're quite getting it. The users know full well what 'having bottle' and 'bottling out' mean. By abbreviating 'bottling out of' to simply 'bottling', they are half-way to creating an example of rhyming slang – possibly even unintentionally. In fact it wouldn't surprise me if a version isn't already in use somewhere. ( Bottled out of >Bottled > Bottle of gin > bin. Hence 'he binned it.'  Possibly?)  I'll keep my ears pinned….

    Brian writesThanks, Bob, for the most ingenious defence of 'bottled' (as developing into rhyming slang) that I have seen or heard so far.  I can't say that I'm convinced, though — yet, anyway!  I await further bulletins from the terraces with deep foreboding.  Now that football has become the fully-fledged national religion (with football shirts and songs at funeral services in grand cathedrals), I suppose it's inevitable that football argot seeps into the national political discourse, giving its user an illusion of machismo, being one of the lads, logged in to the Zeitgeist, "in touch".  Pure indolence, in fact, anyway after the first striking innovative use.

  4. Michael Hornsby says:

    Brian,  Even your considerable powers of ratiocination have failed to persuade me that Mr Brown’s decision not, after all, to call an election was an act of statesmanlike good sense and courage rather than, as was all too evident, the consequence of a sudden loosening of the bowels and loss of nerve ( I am more than happy to substitute "shirking" or "funking" for "bottling", though I must agree with Bob and other commentators that this – admittedly unlovely – example of football terrace patois has been around for some while). It is, of course, always sensible, as Maynard Keynes once said, to change your mind if the circumstances change. What that implies, however, is a calm, considered and judicious re-examination of a previously-held opinion in the light of new evidence. That would be a very charitable description of the process Mr B has gone through over the last two to three weeks. It would have been courageous if, as soon as the first speculation about the calling of an early election began to circulate, Mr B had firmly and publicly denied any such intention, citing all the sound reasons that you and others have given. Instead, he said nothing while allowing his junior ministers and other minions to stoke up election fever, and even to set in train arrangements for an early dissolution of parliament. One can only assume that he had allowed himself to be carried away by his post-Blair "bounce" in the ever-volatile opinion polls, and was seduced at least for a time into believing that he might emerge from an early election with an enhanced majority.  That left The Boy Dave with little option but to indulge in the "bring it on" bluster and gung-ho show of enthusiasm for an electoral contest that, at this stage,  he cannot in reality have possibly relished or welcomed. Then comes the predictable post-Tory Conference about-turn in the opinion polls, GB realises with horror that he has made a dreadful blunder, and, yes, funks it. The use of that verb is, I think, justified even though GB had excellent reasons for the funking: namely, that it would have been madness, on the narrowest party political grounds, leaving aside the more august constitutional arguments against the holding of unnecessary elections, to go to the polls now. But he should have known that at least three weeks ago when election speculation started and should never have allowed himself to have been driven into this corner. Cameron, by contrast, who had been starting to look a bit of a busted flush, has suddenly, and quite fortuitously, been dealt a much stronger hand of cards. We shall have to wait and see whether Mr B can regain the initiative and whether Mr C can turn his undeserved good fortune to longer-term account. Michael

  5. John Miles says:

    I agree with you Mr Brown’s decision is probably the best one under the circumstances, though I’m not convinced he made it for the right reasons; and I would think more highly of him if he had announced it a month or two ago.                  

    Why do you think this decision required "real courage?"

  6. Brian says:

    Michael, John,

    I’m not arguing that Gordon Brown’s thought processes or actions leading up to his (eventually correct) decision not to ask for an early election were admirable, judicious, statesmanlike or even defensible.  It was always a lousy idea.  But Brown has now admitted that he did consider going for an early election, and in his situation at the height of his bounce he would hardly have been human if he had not at least considered it.  He must yearn for that personal mandate that Blair was able to claim; the opinion polls were strongly in his favour; the Tories were at sixes and sevens, and likely to be rattled and wrong-footed by the prospect of facing an election for which they were by no means ready;  and the country’s economic circumstances are likely to get worse over time rather than better.  No wonder some of the younger members of his coterie were urging him to go for it — and backing up their advice by spinning the case for an early election to the media and putting the party on alert for an early election in the belief that it was likelier to happen than not.  It was, though, always a bad idea, not because the Brown camp’s arguments for it were faulty — they were intrinsically sound — but because the timing of a general election ought to be decided by reference to need and the national interest, not by partisan party political calculations, although in the real world these will always be a major factor.

    Anyway, for all these reasons, the spinning and preparations, plus media frenzy provoked by them, built up a formidable momentum, to the point where it all began to get out of control, with the penalties for suddenly going into reverse becoming daily more daunting. 

    At this point some of the reasoning behind the case for going early quite suddenly began to be undermined by a dramatic change in the Tories’  fortunes, brought about partly by the populist and popular tax bribes set out on George Osborne’s stall, partly by a spectacular stage act by Cameron with his apparently impromptu speech, and partly because the threat of an early election forced the Tories to close ranks for their conference and put up a smoke-screen to conceal their fundamental divisions, mainly between the reformers and modernisers favouring the maintenance of well funded public services, and the old-fashioned reactionaries favouring tax cuts for the better-off at any price.  So the party-political case, from Labour’s point of view, for an early election began to crumble. The risk of either losing a significant part of Labour’s majority — Blair’s majority — or, much worse, perhaps ending up as the biggest party but without an overall majority, came to outweigh all the other arguments, especially when the old guard had been against an early election all along on national interest and constitutional grounds.

    At that point the cowardly thing to have done would have been to take the risk and go ahead rather than face the inevitable accusations of cowardice — "Bottler Brown", as our tabloids charmingly put it — and of weakness and indecisiveness, the accusation gleefully levelled today by a mightily relieved David Cameron (still taking us all for idiots by pretending that he was terribly disappointed by having instant electoral victory untimely ripp’d from him).  Brown however took the braver course of standing down his troops and accepting the humiliating insults that he knew would come in the wake of a decision to call the whole thing off.  (He too takes us all for idiots in asserting that the opinion polls had nothing to do with his decision:  if that were true, he would have no business leading a political party, and everyone knows it.)

    So he acted both rationally and bravely in responding to dramatically changed circumstances and abandoning what had never been more than a provisional inclination:  despite what he saw as the initial strength of the case for an early election, he was always sufficiently prudent to know that a firm decision would have to await the opinion polls following the Tory conference.  His serious, but not fatal, misjudgments were in allowing (or even prompting) his younger ministerial colleagues to build up public and media expectations of an election long before he was in a position to make a definite decision, anyway in party political terms:  and his failure to give greater weight to considerations of need and the national interest than to his chances of getting a good election result.  Not admirable, not statesmanlike, but not too surprising either; the guy is, after all, and contrary to frequent appearances, only human.  He’s now paying a stiff price for these failings.  He has only himself to blame;  but the charge of cowardice simply doesn’t stick.

  7. Praguetory says:

    Ok, Brian. Sorry to be so harsh on your ignorance of what I thought was very common vernacular.

    But this is still a chequered post. After briefing to the media that he would be studying polls this weekend, it seems odd (some would say cowardly) that those polls do not now figure in the reasons for Brown’s humiliating retreat.

    If you think the details of this episode will soon be forgotten, think on.

  8. Michael Hornsby says:


    OK, let’s drop "cowardice" – an overloaded word – from the charge sheet. But to represent GB’s final decision not to call an election as an act of courage requires a degree of spinning of which Alastair Campbell, of unlamented memory, would have been proud. The genuinely courageous and decisive thing would have been either (a) to have called an election as soon as that course of action began to be mooted by his advisors/junior ministers etc (and, who knows, it might have worked – GB had made a good start as PM, was riding high in the polls and Dave C was looking decidedly flaky), or (b) to have stamped at once on such speculation and made clear that he saw no need to renew a mandate which he and his party already had. Instead, he shillied and shallied, allowing the situation to drift out of control, and then, when he saw the precipice over which he was about to plunge, had to scramble back to safety in an undignified unconvincing manner. Of course, as I said in my earlier comment, DC’s "bring it on" rhetoric was pure bluster, and he must indeed be hugely relieved that his bluff wasn’t called. But he had little option. No leader of the Opposition – at least not in the world of politics where appearance counts for more than honesty – can admit to being frightened, or "frit" as Mrs T would have said, by the prospect of an election. He’s a lucky man. You may well be right that it will all turn out to be no more than a nine days’ wonder, but I think GB may have suffered some permanent damage.


  9. The phrase to 'bottle it' is actually derived from the vintners of southern Cornwall who, on realising that their wine might improve if they didn't just drink it directly from the demijohn, would cry 'bottle it' when they saw their relatives demolishing the year's bounty in one afternoon.  Metaphorically speaking, Gordon Brown is simply letting his 2007 vintage mature into something more fruitful.  At the end of the day though, Cornish wine is shit.

    Brian writes:  Amazing!  But I can quite believe what you say about Cornish wine.  I'll stick to those glorious pasties and crab sandwiches washed down with St Austell Ales. 

  10. Jeremy Varcoe says:

    As a patriotic 'son' and follower of Trelawney I cannot allow Antipholus Papps's slur on Cornish wine to go unchallenged. Whilst I can understand the possible natural affinity between "Brown" and "shit", present day Cornish wine certainly  rates higher than many foreign products, including nearly all English wines. Indeed Camel Valley Cornwall Brut (not being allowed to be described as champagne) had the doubtful honour of being selected by Tony Blair to be served to the Heads of Government at the last EU summit in UK.Although history does not relate what the delegates thought of it, I can personally vouch for the quality of the Camel Valley wines. Today the Cornish could be forgiven for being reluctant to bottle their wine given the temptation to swig back their newest vintage!  Based on his recent debacle I doubt that Gordon Brown's judgement or sincerity will be much enhanced by keeping – in or out of the bottle- over the next two years.

    Thank you, Brian, for your tribute to the humble pasty (though only a few of those objects sold here are worthy of the name) and to the St Austell ales . You should, however, next time try Doom Bar brewed in Rock by Sharps.

    Brian writes: Thanks for these tips, Jeremy.  Next time we're down in the faraway wild south-west we'll certainly try the Camel Valley bubbly, a pint or three of Doom Bar, and — as always — several pasties.  We've certainly had our share of mediocre pasties in Cornwall over the years, but also some truly historic ones, and we're optimists.  And I can't recall encountering a mediocre crab sandwich in Cornwall.  Bliss.

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