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Tuesday, 22 May, 2001, 13:08 GMT 14:08 UK
Two fingers Prescott

In gesture politics, nothing is more potent than a variation on the famous Churchill V-sign. But such emulation has its risks, writes BBC News Online's Ryan Dilley.

When John Prescott decided to illustrate to the assembled press his claim that the government had delivered economic security and social justice, he was perhaps unwise to count these achievements on two raised fingers.

Sir Winston Churchill
"I'm branching out ... how's this one?"
Mr Prescott's lingering "V-sign" was undoubtedly quite innocent. However, since he chose to present his digits knuckles-forward (an insult in the UK) some observers may have concluded the embattled deputy prime minister was cultivating his newly-won defiant image.

While "flicking the Vs" languishes fairly low down the league table of disparaging gestures, it retains the power to upset many Britons.

V on signs

London Underground recently banned a poster advert for a clothes shop which showed five women giving the V-sign, deeming the pose "rude, offensive and extreme" and "too aggressive".

The law also takes a dim view of the so-called two-finger salute, with those who indulge in the gesture risking a reckoning in court.

Prince Charles with a longbow
Archers: earthy
Stirling Albion goalkeeper Garry Gow faced just such an ordeal when he was charged with a breach of the peace following a soccer match in April 1999.

Mr Gow was accused of having gestured to fans of opposing Inverness Caledonian Thistle. The player explained he had been merely celebrating his side's scoring of a vital second goal in the match. He escaped conviction.

Though today more associated with irate British motorists, the V-sign actually has its roots in the nation's medieval military adventurism.

Archery enemy

During the Hundred Years' War between France and England, the English longbow archers proved decisive.

So adept were they at decimating the enemy's ranks, that captured English archers supposedly had their index and middle fingers amputated to prevent them ever taking up their bows again.

President Richard Nixon
"See ... nothing up my sleeve"
On the battlefield, English archers responded to this custom by offering the French a jeering two-finger salute before employing their bow fingers to more deadly effect.

The insulting, proletarian gesture was returned to polite society during a more recent war, that against Nazi Germany.

With much of Europe crushed under Hitler's heel, British prime minister Winston Churchill made the V-sign his own shorthand for hope and resistance.

Coarse, of course

Churchill's "V" stood for victory, or victoire if you were in Occupied France and vrijheid for the Flemish.

However, "Winnie's" choice of gesture wasn't entirely removed from its earthy roots, according to Richard Overy, professor of Modern History at King's College, London.

Former PMs Edward Heath and Margaret Thatcher
"Wasn't it two terms, Margaret?"
"The famous V-sign was deliberate, coarse and impertinent as well as defiant."

The list of those who have borrowed Mr Churchill's gesture is as varied as it is long.

With palm facing forwards, the V-sign was adopted as a peace symbol, finding particular favour in the counterculture of the 1960s. This did not stop Republican president Richard Nixon appropriating the V-sign, even while he continued the war in Vietnam.

The third way

Conservative prime minister Margaret Thatcher altered the salute, famously adding a third finger to symbolise her third straight election victory in 1987.

The same gesture was used by President George W Bush in his recent election campaign. The third digit was here intended to reflect Dubya's all important middle initial.

President George W Bush
In all its recent incarnations, politicians have been scrupulously careful to present the inside of their hands to the public so as to avoid offence.

However, Mr Prescott may take comfort that his minor gaffe was very much in keeping with the Churchillian tradition, according to Natalie Adams of the Churchill Archive.

"We have photographs of Churchill giving the V-sign both ways, it doesn't seem that he was discriminating."


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