Thursday, April 29, 2010

Bigotgate: the morning after

Fifteen years ago today, Labour approved its new Clause Four, and the party soared to even greater heights of popularity. The following week, Labour scored a massive victory in the local elections. How things change.

So, here’s one response to bigotgate – which, I have no doubt, will top the lists of election gaffes for decades to come:

Gordon Brown probably read more than he should have into Gillian Duffy’s comment: “You can't say anything about the immigrants because you're saying that you're... all these Eastern Europeans what are coming in, where are they flocking from?”

This remark, made amid a series of other complaints to Brown, was dumb: of course many people - and many newspapers - can and do express views hostile to immigration all the time. (And where does she think Eastern Europeans are going to be coming from – South America? West Africa?)

I don’t think it’s hard to construe this as ignorant and intolerant. But, in what Mrs Duffy went on to say today, she seemed more reasonable and didn’t even make the connection between her immigrants remark and the possibility of bigotry. So who knows what significance she meant to attach to it? I certainly don’t. Maybe Brown just leapt too far to his conclusion.

And of course most of us can think of plenty of times when we’ve come out of a frustrating meeting and mouthed off about a disagreeable person – to whom we’ve just had to be all sweetness and light – in theatrically extreme terms. Brown just had the grotesque carelessness to get caught. I note that Cameron and Clegg have been pretty minimalist in their comments on this – there but for the grace of God go they?

And here’s another response:

If Cameron had been caught in a similar mess, and then followed it up with a series of painfully flailing attempts to apologise and explain, what sort of blog post would I be writing?


Liam Murray said...

Very honest & fair post.

There are - I think - some people who don't understand how the issue of immigration has evolved. Post-war until about a decade ago it was, in my view, quite legitimate to question the motives of anyone who moaned about immigration. There was no great scale, no adverse pressure on public resources etc. so it was probably fair to say that anyone having a moan - even in the mildest terms - was probably just objecting to people with different coloured skin or different accents.

That has clearly changed now. On the phone with my Labour mate last night and he simply said the word 'flooding' was 'evidence' of bigotry or racism which is nonsense of course - by any possible framing of the statistics it's a valid word to use. Brown (like my mate) is old-school Scottish Labour, he hasn't adjusted his understanding of immigration over the years and has a residual belief, hard to shake, that working class English people - even when life-long supporters of his party - has unreconstructed attitudes to race.

Anonymous said...

I'm intrigued that Gordon Brown said he misunderstood the lady.

Could this poster explain it?

Tom Freeman said...

Yeah, the people in my office - mostly 20/30somethings who aren't all that political but tend towards a left/liberal outlook (but can't stand Brown) were mainly scornful of Mrs Duffy. Her remark did press various coded buttons, but I suspect wholly unintentionally. Just as it is technically possible to say "I'm not being racist but" and genuinely not be racist.

I wondering whether her choice of "flocking" might suggest a dehumanising attitude, but then I decided that would be overinterpretation.

CS Clark said...

Not that I think the following is absolutely the case, or that it would constitute a good excuse even if true, but... I would point out that bigoted, like prejudiced, doesn't have to be about race. Someone who refuses to listen or change their minds can be a bigot even if they are on the matters of race 100% kosher.*

Like I say, I imagine that Brown was using it in the way everyone assumed he meant it. But it is interesting to me in the sense of a) we all immediately looked for the racist bit and b) it's an example of common meanings versus dictionary meanings to go alongside the sort of phrases which seem ok on the surface but are often used by people with issues.

*OED: Bigot - 1. A religious hypocrite; (also) a superstitious adherent of religion. Obs. 2. a. A person considered to adhere unreasonably or obstinately to a particular religious belief, practice, etc.
b. In extended use: a fanatical adherent or believer; a person characterized by obstinate, intolerant, or strongly partisan beliefs.

Tom Freeman said...

True, and I did wonder whether Brown meant more that she was unbendingly critical - he did say in the car that the problem was "everything". But then in the radio interview after he'd just had it played back, he floundered his way through an answer about how she'd brought up immigration - so it does look as though that's what made him feel that way.