January 21, 2013 8:01 pm

Words that they never uttered

The evidence shows we should hesitate before attributing familiar quotes to famous people

My colleague Jim Pickard wrote in FT Weekend about politicians who have been misquoted, such as David Cameron, the prime minister (“Hug a hoodie”), and former premiers Harold Macmillan (“Never had it so good”) and James Callaghan (“Crisis? What crisis?”). At least they said something vaguely like it. Imaginary quotations are so often ascribed to famous people that I hesitate before using anything familiar.

There seems no evidence, for example, that the economist John Maynard Keynes ever said: “If the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?” One book in 1940 quoted him as uttering a similar but more sensible variant (“When my information changes, I alter my conclusions”), but it is uncertain how accurate even that is.

It appears dubious whether Mahatma Gandhi, the Indian nationalist leader, when asked what he thought of western civilisation, replied: “I think it would be a good idea.” Too glib, surely?

Abraham Lincoln, the US civil war president, has probably had more doubtful quotations attributed to him than anyone, not least: “You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.” There is no contemporary record of this.

Sir Winston Churchill spoke more quotably than any other British politician, so it seems a shame to quibble that he did not coin the phrase “this is the type of arrant pedantry up with which I will not put”, or: “If you’re not a liberal when you’re 25, you have no heart. If you’re not a conservative by the time you’re 35, you have no brain” (believed to have been first uttered by a 19th-century French historian).

Nor did Churchill coin the suggestion that the naval tradition is nothing but “rum, sodomy and the lash”, though according to his assistant, Anthony Montague-Browne, he wished he had.

Possibly the most misquoted person in history is Marie Antoinette, wife of King Louis XVI of France, popularly held to have said “let them eat cake”, for which there is no evidence. The philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau may have started this story in his Confessions by ascribing it to a “great princess”.

Banx illustration

In public hands

Public ownership is on the march again, in a modest way, with council-owned Manchester Airports Group agreeing to buy London’s Stansted, the UK’s fourth-biggest airport by passenger numbers, for £1.5bn. Joseph Chamberlain, the 19th-century Birmingham mayor who pioneered the purchase of gas and water companies, would have understood. MAG is majority-owned by Manchester City Council, with the remaining 45 per cent owned by Greater Manchester’s other nine boroughs. It already owns East Midlands and Bournemouth airports. MAG’s Australian partner, Industry Funds Management, will take just over a third of the expanded group.

Manchester Airport, which tried to buy Gatwick in 2009, recently overtook Stansted to be the UK’s third-largest airport by passenger numbers. The independent Northern Economic Futures Commission has called for Manchester to be developed as the UK’s second international airport hub after Heathrow, but this looks like the north putting its money on airport expansion in the south.

The £1.5bn price looks high for an airport whose passenger numbers are declining and which is reliant on one airline, Ryanair, for 70 per cent of its traffic. But if Stansted is eventually chosen as the new hub for London, it will look cheap. At least this looks like a more promising form of public ownership than the panicky rescue of banks in the credit crisis.

Unspoilt football

“Nearly everything possible has been done to spoil this game: the heavy financial interests; the absurd transfer and player-selling system; the lack of any birth or residential qualifications for the players; the betting and coupon competitions; the absurd publicity given to every feature of it by the press ... but the fact remains that it is not yet spoilt and it has gone out and conquered the world.”

Sounds like an accurate account of modern-day football? It was by the writer J.B. Priestley in 1933.

Worse than snow

Sydney hit a record of almost 46C last week. Snowbound Britain, count your blessings.

brian.groom@ft.com

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