The day Britain went mad

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Kenneth Roy

The hysterical over-reaction to Gordon Brown’s minor transgression tells us everything we don’t want to know about the state of the country….

Kenneth Roy

A neighbour found herself on the edge of a crowd surrounding Gordon and Sarah Brown in Glasgow city centre a few days ago. She could just see the tops of their heads. The man standing next to her, too shy to go up himself, urged my neighbour to push herself forward and ask Mr Brown a question about youth unemployment in the city – essentially, what Labour intended to do about it. But she didn’t, and he didn’t, and the question was never asked. A pity. It is a question that needs to be considered.
     But the answer, if there is one, is more complex than it seems. It is many years since Charlie Gordon, leader of Glasgow City Council as he then was, told me in conversation that the city, in order to go on functioning, depended on the daily influx of workers from adjacent counties such as Ayrshire and Renfrewshire; that, were it not for the willingness of people living outside the city to travel to work in it, the basic services of Glasgow would not be long sustained.
     How so? I asked.
     Mr Gordon was disarmingly candid. He explained that a high proportion of the indigenous population of working age was ‘economically inactive’ – that was the phrase he used – and I understood from his remarks that it was now a generational phenomenon. There is no evidence that much has changed since my long-ago talk with Charlie Gordon on the ‘economic inactivity’ of so many Glaswegians, including the young, except this – the pressure on the good people of adjacent counties is no longer so intense. The arrival of hard-working East Europeans has filled many of the lower-paid vacancies.
     They are to be seen in other parts of Scotland, too, of course. Last weekend, in a Galloway hotel, dinner was served by a gentle, conscientious, eager-to-please young woman from somewhere in Eastern Europe. Early the next morning she returned to serve breakfast.
     Mrs Duffy asked Mr Brown: ‘All these Eastern Europeans that are coming in – where are they flocking from?’ In the case of the waitress in the Galloway hotel, I would not be able to give Mrs Duffy a country of origin. But I felt for her last night. Not for Mrs Duffy, who now has a public relations consultancy to represent her interests, and from whom we can expect to hear again, but for the young waitress in Kirkcudbright, and for the many others who do work beneath or beyond the native Brit. How must it feel to be described in this way – to be told by Mrs Duffy that you have ‘flocked’ to this country?

Gordon Brown made a mistake. He failed to detach a microphone – supplied, I understand, by Rupert Murdoch’s Sky TV – which for some reason, no doubt innocent, had not been removed by the television company before the prime minister entered his car. Thus his ordeal began.
     It is the stuff of nightmare – for broadcasters and public figures alike – to find some unguarded remark has been picked up by a mic which, in the tiredness or distraction of the moment, you had forgotten was still pinned to your lapel and still live. ‘Jesus wept’, muttered a dying Richard Dimbleby during some ceremonial occasion, thinking he was off-mike. The media were outraged on that occasion too – not that we had invented the media as a term – although weeping Jesus is one thing, a Rochdale elector quite another. A pensioner, too, as we are constantly reminded, making the offence so much worse from the media’s perspective that Mrs Duffy might have been a gift from heaven.
     The common factor between the Dimbleby and Brown experiences was a moment of human vulnerability. In that moment, the prime minister uttered something disobliging about Mrs Duffy. Had he not, just a few minutes before, been perfectly civil to her? This is the crime of which he stands accused, which this morning’s newspapers assure us will ‘seal’ the outcome of the election and ensure the ‘meltdown’ of the Labour vote: the prime minister has been hypocritical, pleasant to someone in public yet unpleasant about her in private.
     So universal is the condemnation of Gordon Brown, it seems almost unpatriotic to issue a caveat here, but don’t we all do that quite routinely? Is it not, to a large extent, what makes the everyday business of humanity possible and tolerable? Our inner perceptions of other people are often too cruel to be admitted. It is a kindness to keep our feelings to ourselves. Mr Brown was being courteous.
     There is a larger hypocrisy in pretending that this is not how humanity works. But it is more serious than hypocrisy. It is a form of madness. In the hysterical over-reaction to Mr Brown’s minor transgression, Britain went a little mad yesterday. Or, rather, the media did. It is possible that most people are more mature in their thinking, and more forgiving in their nature, than their tribunes give them credit for.
     The madness continues. Early this morning, a BBC interviewer demanded to know of the home secretary, the likeable Alan Johnson, whether Mrs Duffy’s concerns about immigration would be raised in the last of the television debates tonight. Not unreasonably, Mr Johnson replied that the BBC, as the organiser, might be in a better position to answer this question. The prospect of immigration being discussed for a third week in succession, in such an inflammatory atmosphere, is unspeakable, even by the debased standards of this campaign. The ‘flock’ of East Europeans, as Mrs Duffy so uncharitably calls them, are entitled to feel afraid.

Read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review.