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Sun 26 May 2019
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hang-choice (n.) a choice between equally unappealing options

It was Europe Day on Thursday. Or, as it might better be known, We’re Still In Europe Day.

That’s because arguably the biggest story this week is the fact that Brexit still hasn’t happened. Theresa May still has all her eggs in one Withdrawal Agreement-shaped basket (which she’s yet to realise already contains three clutches of smashed eggs), while Jeremy Corbyn is gamely overseeing Labour’s cunning plan of simultaneously appeasing and opposing everything. And somewhere in between, both main parties spent more time this week convincing everyone that they’re working together than they did, y’know, actually working together.

So in the absence of anything really happening, all eyes have fallen back on Theresa May. And unfortunately for her, those eyes belong to a dozen or so high-calibre, highly experienced, highly accomplished Tory leadership candidates. And Esther McVey.

Mrs May might still be refusing to be drawn on a timetable for her departure from Number 10, but that hasn’t stopped a raft of Conservative hopefuls from already pitching their campaign stalls. So who has made the long list so far?

Well, the week kicked off with a handy guide to the early frontrunners in the Times, “Tory Leadership Contenders Show Off Wives And Policies”—a headline that somehow managed to simultaneously demean both the wives and the policies. As the Times reported, Jeremy Hunt, Sajid Javid, and Dominic Raab have all recently taken it upon themselves to “parade” (in the words of a deeply unimpressed Amber Rudd) their partners in official photoshoots, a sure-fire act of unspoken leadership interest.

Andrea Leadsom too admitted just last week that she was looking to entertain a second bid for Number 10 following her unsuccessful attempt in 2016. And Rory Stewart, Penny Mordaunt, David Gauke, and most recently of all, former work and pensions secretary Esther McVey have all thrown their hats into the ring.

In the weeks to come, it’s likely Michael Gove will also look to rejuvenate his leadership ambitions when the time comes. And although you may desperately, desperately want to, you really can never discount Boris Johnson—who (deep breath) remains the odds-on favourite.


As always though, there’s a word for this kind of situation. So if your choice is between (A) a man who called veil-wearing Muslim women “letterboxes” then cheerfully wished them a happy Ramadan; (B) the man who three years ago stabbed (A) in the back, and thereby neatly ruined both their leadership chances; (C) a man who shamelessly made up a statistic to back up his own point in a recent BBC interview; and (D) a woman who oversaw a DWP error that led to 70,000 disabled people being underpaid as much as £20,000 each in benefits, then what you’re dealing with is a hang-choice.

A term from Scots, a hang-choice is a choice between a set of equally unappealing options. Or, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, “a choice between two evils.”

The precise origin of this term is something of a mystery, but as is always the case when there’s a knowledge gap to be filled, that hasn’t stopped a popular anecdote from emerging to address the shortfall.

According to an 1841 supplement to John Jamieson’s Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language, the term hang-choice refers to an incident in the life of a seventeenth century treasurer to the Scottish royal family, Sir Gideon Murray, who supposedly apprehended a young cattle-rustler named Willie Scott on his land in Elibank in the Scottish Borders. Scott, on Murray’s orders, was thrown in jail and sentenced to death. But when Lady Murray heard of the young man’s incarceration, she keenly reminded her husband that one of their daughters was “Muckle-Mouthed Meg”—a character later immortalised in a popular Scottish broadside as Scotland’s ugliest woman. Scott was ultimately offered a painful choice: Sir Gideon told him that he could either marry his daughter, or be hanged for his crimes. According to legend, Scott initially chose the gallows, but on seeing the noose waiting for him on the morning of his execution, he gamely opted to be wed instead.

Was Willie Scott’s dilemma really the original hang-choice? Alas, we can’t say—but we’re getting a pretty fair idea of how it feels…  

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