Imitation of life

Apparently Gordon Brown didn’t really think Gillian Duffy’s remarks were bigoted; he thought something she didn’t actually say was bigoted.

Mrs Duffy had asked him about immigration and also mentioned student tuition fees, among other subjects.

The BBC’s Jeremy Paxman asked Mr Brown to explain what he meant when he said he had misunderstood her comments.

He said: “I thought she was talking about expelling all university students from here who were foreigners. I misunderstood it.”

It’s a sidestep of genius, allowing both Brown and Duffy to be in the right – someone who had said that to Brown would have been a bigot; he simply made the honest mistake of thinking that Mrs D. was that someone.

I also think it’s probably sincere. Here’s a section of the full transcript:

GB: We’re linking the pension to earnings in two years time. We’ve got the winter allowance, as you know, which I hope is a benefit, the winter allowance…

GD: I agree with that, it’s very good but every year I talk to people my age and they say they’ll be knocking it off. It will be going, it will be.

GB: We’re keeping it. We have done the bus passes, we have done the free eye tests, free prescriptions…

GD: How are you going to get us out of all this debt, Gordon?

GB: We’ve got a deficit reduction plan to cut the debt by half over the four years. We’ve got the plans that have been set out to do it. Look, I was the person who came in and tried…

GD: There were three things that were drummed in to me when I was a child: education, health service and looking after people who are vulnerable.

GB: That’s what I…

GD: There’s too many people now who aren’t vulnerable but they can claim and people who are vulnerable who can’t claim, can’t get it.

GB: But, they shouldn’t be doing that. There’s no life on the dole for people anymore. If you are unemployed you’ve got to go back to work. In six months…

GD: You can’t say anything about the immigrants. All these eastern Europeans what are coming in – where are they flocking from?

GB: A million people come from Europe but a million have gone into Europe. You do know that there’s a lot of British people staying in Europe as well. Look, come back to your initial principles. Helping people; that’s what we’re in the business of doing. A decent health service; that’s really important. And education. Now, these are the things that we have tried to do. We are going to maintain the schools so that we can make sure that people have that chance to go on. We are going to maintain the health service so that…

GD: What are you going to do about students who are coming in now and all this that you’ve had to pay? You’ve scrapped that, Gordon.

GB: Which one?

GD: To help students who want to go to university.

GB: What, tuition fees?

You can almost see the Thinks bubble by this stage – What, are we doing tuition fees all of a sudden? And it’s entirely credible that he heard Mrs Duffy talking about students who are coming in now and assumed she was still banging on about the foreigners. Whether everything she’d said up to then wasn’t bigoted is another question, on which I’m less inclined to charity than Brown himself appears to be.

More to the point, what on earth did the woman want to hear? First she’s convinced that the winter fuel allowance is going to be cut, because of what other people her age tell her, and never mind what the Prime Minister might say about it (“It will be going, it will be.”) Then she decides that things like the winter fuel allowance have got to go, because public spending needs to be cut if we’re going to get out of all this debt. Then she wants the government not to cut public spending on “education, health service and looking after people who are vulnerable”. And now she’s well and truly launched – Gordon Brown’s hardly got a word out before she’s identified the real problem, which is that the government’s looking after people who aren’t vulnerable – there are too many people (code phrase alert) claiming benefits they’re not entitled to, when more deserving people go without. Brown spots a minority-bashing elephant trap opening up in front of him and tries to shift the ground of the argument – if nobody gets long-term benefits, then a fortiori they can’t be going to the wrong people, irrespective of who the wrong people might be. A neat sidestep, but Mrs D. is having none of it – she wanted to talk about those scrounging immigrants and he wouldn’t let her. You can’t say anything about the immigrants – it’s that dreaded PC omertà, that prevents the political class from speaking the simple truth as revealed in the tabloids. Brown shrugs this off – You do know that there’s a lot of British people staying in Europe as well – before making a pretty decent fist of adopting Mrs D’s three principles for his own. To which she replies by changing the subject to higher education, and returning to the “not enough public spending” line that she’d previously advanced, then dropped, then picked up again, then dropped in favour of complaining about immigration.

Really, you’ve got to feel for Brown. For most of the conversation Mrs Duffy wasn’t even arguing with him – she was arguing with herself. Nothing Brown could have said would have satisfied her: if the government’s spending money, it’s spending too much; if it’s cutting spending, it’s cutting too much. There’s a really basic incoherence to Mrs Duffy’s remarks, even before we get onto the Eastern Europeans (incidentally, nice one, Charlie). Calling this the thinking of “a pretty average Labour voter” (John Harris) is an insult to average Labour voters. As Jamie says, this argument “seems to rest on a conviction that the ‘core Labour vote’ is synonymous with the ‘confused Granny vote’”.

On the other hand, Mrs Duffy’s free-associating switchback of an argument does rather effectively dramatise the contradiction we’re all caught in at the moment, even (or especially) Gordon Brown: public spending absolutely must come down, for reasons related to capitalism and state aid for the banks, but public spending absolutely must go up, for reasons relating to “education, health service and looking after people who are vulnerable”. The bigotry comes in as a solution to the problem: Mrs Duffy squares the circle by concluding that there would be enough public money to go round if it wasn’t being spent on the wrong things (or rather the wrong people). In this light, John Lanchester‘s conclusion that Mrs Duffy’s remarks had “no racial edge” – even if it has now effectively had Brown’s retrospective endorsement – strikes me as quite bizarre: this was plainly bigoted, minority-hating, exclusionary thinking.

I don’t think it helps matters to describe Mrs D.’s thoughts on immigration as (Lanchester again) “a concern shared by millions of older white working-class voters”, if only because at this level of thinking immigration isn’t a “concern”. This isn’t to say that labour mobility within the EU is unproblematic. Nick Clegg scored a point against David Cameron in this area last night – challenging him to acknowledge that the vast majority of immigration to the UK (including Mrs D’s “Eastern Europeans”) comes from EU countries and therefore can’t be controlled – but it was strictly a tactical point, resting on a shared foundation of political ‘realism’ rather than any positive principle. (Nigel Farage of UKIP made hay, and frankly deserved to: “that’s how things are and we’re stuck with it” is never a very inspiring argument, least of all from someone whose selling point is a relentless insistence that things can be different.) Concern about the disruption which can be caused by immigration – particularly by immigration exploited by business for gain – can’t be wished away or automatically labelled as racist; it has to be engaged with, articulated in ways which can’t be reclaimed for racism. Essentially, it needs to be reframed in class terms (as Socialist Party activists very effectively did at Lindsey).

But that’s a real concern. What Mrs Duffy articulated – “got to spend less, got to spend more, got to spend less, blame the immigrants” – was more of a very real concern. A folk devil, in other words – a scapegoat for what’s going wrong, with an added element of fear of how much wronger things could go if someone doesn’t do something about it.

Yes, Gillian Duffy is an ordinary working-class Rochdale pensioner; yes, she’s representative of Labour’s core vote; yes, there are millions like her. And yes, she said we should sort things out by taking it out on the foreigners, a line of argument that can only be called bigoted. What’s the alternative – to assume that working-class Labour-voting grandmothers can’t be bigoted? Because I think you’ll find they can. One commenter on Lanchester’s piece was reminded of

my late nan – bewildered at the world she found herself in compared with what she used to know and understand, and surprised to find herself listened to by a politician whom she assumes should care about what she felt.

It could have been my late grandmother too, although her 60s were rather before my time. She lived in Thornton Heath; this was an area of considerable Asian settlement in the mid-1970s, and she was certainly bewildered by it: I remember her holding forth to me at some length about how Indian cooking was “dirty”, a view she held to in the face of anything I could say to dislodge it (I’m sure they wash the spices before they put them in…). I talked to my mother about it afterwards. “She probably thinks the brown comes off their fingers,” she said.

The supreme irony is that in practice you (or we) really can’t say anything about the immigrants (or about the effects of immigration, or about the expansion of the EU…); and that’s precisely because we can’t be sure whether we’re dealing with real concerns or very real concerns – and if it was the latter, the debate could turn very bad very quickly. Exclusionary thinking is scarily powerful stuff – it’s not even “do it to Julia”, it’s “do it to the strangers”. And why not? They’re strangers, aren’t they? Just ask Harry Lime.

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