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Tuesday, 20 November, 2001, 12:54 GMT
Airy fairy libertarians: Attack of the muesli-eaters?
airy fairy libertariansn, those people, says Home Secretary David Blunkett, who oppose his moves on terror which include detention without trial of foreigners suspected of terrorism.

CITATION: "We could live in a world which is airy fairy, libertarian, where everybody does precisely what they like and we believe the best of everybody and then they destroy us." Blunkett, Nov 2001.

EXPOUNDED: by Labour MP Kevin Hughes: "Don't you find it bizarre, like I do, that the yoghurt-eating, muesli-eating, Guardian-reading fraternity are only too happy to want to protect the human rights of people who engage in terrorist acts?"

DISPUTED: by senior judge Lord Donaldson: "This has no precedent. Habeas corpus goes back centuries. This is not an airy-fairy issue, this is a fundamental right without which we are entirely at the mercy of ministers."

ORIGINS: Early usage of airy fairy (Tennyson, WS Gilbert) relates to being delicate. By 1920s (DH Lawrence) it had become disparaging, meaning weak and insubstantial. By the late 19th Century, "fairy" was an anti-gay insult. Now almost a comic term, could have been applied by Dennis the Menace to Walter the Softy.

COMPARE WITH: Hampstead liberals, woolly liberals, terms used by Mr Blunkett's predecessor, Jack Straw (cf Liberal elite)

VALUE: of political insults is undoubted, even if like this term, they are not vicious. What matters (see Denis Healey's "savaged by a dead sheep") is that they strike a chord.

PARLIAMENTARY LANGUAGE: Manners still count, though. Responding to strong questioning from Bob Marshall-Andrews in Commons on 19 Nov, Mr Blunkett said: "I know that my honourable and learned friend is a barrister and, as a non-lawyer, I always listen carefully to those who are - [MPs interjected: "Airy fairy ones?"] - I listen carefully whether they are airy fairy or not."

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