The French expression is l’esprit d’escalier, which translates literally as “staircase wit”, but requires further elucidation. Coined by the great encyclopaedist of the Enlightenment, Dennis Diderot, after an encounter with the statesman Jacques Necker, he was referring to the way “a sensitive man, such as myself, overwhelmed by the argument levelled against him, becomes confused and doesn’t come to himself again until at the bottom of the stairs.” The stairs being those of a Parisian hôtel particulier, a type of large townhouse that has its reception rooms on the first floor – so that to have reached the bottom of the stairs is to have definitively left the gathering without having made a rejoinder.
We all know the feeling, don’t we – encapsulated rather more pithily as “I should’ve said that”, whereupon the “that” in question continues to torment us, and our wounded amour propre presents us with repeated scenarios in which we did say precisely the thing that would’ve not only rebutted the argument levelled against us, but sent its leveller end-over-end into oblivion, the derisive laughter of the multitude resounding in his cherry-red ears.
Anyway, that’s how I feel about the edition of the BBC’s Question Time I appeared on in March 2015. Filmed as ever before a live audience, that week the programme was hosted by the Trinity School in Croydon, and featured a panel consisting of Dia Chakravarty, the singer, tax consultant and erstwhile Brexit editor of the Daily Telegraph; Chuka Umunna, the erstwhile MP for Streatham and one-time poster-boy for Labour’s renewal; the entirely sui generis Shirley Williams, who’s now sadly… entirely erstwhile; and Sajid Javid, who’s held so many ministerial offices under successive Tory administrations it sometimes seems that he’s compelled to demonstrate
over and over again the dictum that all political careers end in failure.
Anyway, if you cast your memory back to 2015, you’ll remember that one of the contentious issues of the day was what to do about the so-called “Isis brides”, prominent among whom was the much-demonised Shamima Begum. Any member of the panel is free now – with the exception of Williams – to dispute my account of what transpired, but as far as I recall, myself included, no one had the temerity or the courage to say the right thing.
Smoothie Umunna temporised, as did Williams and I; while those lickspittles of the extreme right, Chakravarty – and especially Javid – positively whipped the studio audience into a frenzy of denunciation: not only should these young women (many of whom, lest we forget, were children at the time they were groomed and then abducted by the jihadists) be deprived of their British citizenship, but the implication was some assassin should be despatched into the heart of the pseudo-caliphate’s darkness to terminate them – if necessary with extreme prejudice.
It was a disgusting exercise in naked populism: British Asian right wingers playing to an almost entirely white audience of bigots, and I just sat there with a shit-eating grin on my face and made a few lame comments about the quality of mercy not being strained – when really what I should have shouted out loud and clear was: “Shame on you! Shame on all of you, who’re now disowning the rotten mess in Iraq that is a direct function of your own successive governments’ reckless and ruinous military adventurism. And shame on you as well, for your grotesque racism and misogyny!”
These principled remarks rang in my head as the cab returning me home pulled away from the school – and they resound to this day, almost a decade later, reminding me that however sceptical I may feel about the moral probity of the so-called left (and what, pray, precisely is Labour’s plan to deal with the small boats crisis, the current inflection point for every bastard and bigot in the land?), the current behaviour of Suella Cowardlywoman, James Stupidly and especially Rishi Arselick needs to be called out loud and clear.
For not only is the plan to deport migrants to Rwanda a grotesque inversion of anything we might like to call a humanitarian policy, it’s also a knee-jerk response to entirely foreseeable bilateral problems with France that were bound to arise with their beloved bloody Brexit. And yes, the fact that a government helmed by a second-generation immigrant, and assisted by others the same, should be enacting this purge-masquerading-as-a-policy, does indeed make it yet more grotesque. “Shame on you!”
I cry.” Shame on you!” And altogether selfishly, I’m going to keep crying out, “Shame on you!” Because if there’s one thing I loathe besides bigotry, it’s l’esprit d’escalier.