Wednesday, 28 April 2010
The interesting thing about this terrible moment for Gordon Brown - for whom I have begun to feel a kind of sympathy I did not think I would - the moment that he loses his temper with one of the electorate he has just talked to with an electioneering smile on his face, and with whom he has coped perfectly well, is that it is not unusual to think another human being is a bigot. Nor is being bigoted an unusual condition in the human race. It is not confined to this country, not to a particular party base, not to an age group, not to a class, not to persons who might be thought despicable in any particular way. The woman herself claimed to have been a Labour voter. She might well have been. Now she might be one of the Labour voters draining away into the swill of the BNP. After all, there isn't much that divides her from them.
Only today we had our first BNP leaflet (Mid Norfolk) slipped through the door, albeit coyly folded into an advertising brochure. 'We need to invest in our services and the NHS' says one BNP voter pictured on the back. It is just that he prefaces this with British Jobs for British Workers (his capitals). The female voter pictured next to him is similarly on the xenophobia wagon. That is the the BNP's Unique Selling Point (my capitals) as far as they are concerned. But bringing home the troops and raising the weekly pension - other named policies - might well appeal to Bigot Woman, who is, in the end, just a woman. She is practically on their doorstep.
There is the joke about the government preferring to elect a new electorate and voting out the old. That too is understandable at times. A prime minister cannot afford to be overheard contemplating that prospect. Just as the last government in Hungary couldn't afford to call the people names behind what it thought were closed doors. Now they are out and flat out, and look who has taken their votes. The far right.
There is a delicate moral problem here where flattery, tact, hypocrisy, and contempt combine to make a noxious fog it's hard to see through. But maybe one should try. Who knows? It might even pay off.
At Oxford, Jon Stallworthy was recalling how Philip Larkin would respond to people who had sent him poems he didn't like. He would simply write back, saying, 'These poems have the voice of true feeling' and leave it at that, hoping that he would then be left alone. The trouble is that, when I actually think of it, this smacks of something perfectly horrible, something so horrible as to be almost evil - all the more evil for being so understandable. I don't mean that Larkin was evil, but that this move, this smug little, lying little, patronising move, seems to me the beginning of a bottomless contempt. Far better to tell the truth in the most humane way possible.
If this world were just one degree better than it is, Gordon Brown might have stopped and tried to persuade the woman, in the best and nicest way he knew, that she was wrong. Forget the schedule for ten minutes. This is what should have been overheard not the grumble afterwards. This should have been the news. Prime Minister detained in argument on a point of principle. He could just have tried. He could have listened and argued. She was showing bigotry - but she was also a woman who might have been persuaded she was wrong.
The rest is microphones and electioneering. Part of the same machine as the apology that followed. In his tempers at least, Brown is not a machine, but a hassled, anxious, angry, desperate man. I rather fear for him.