It’s PC gone mainstream!

Michael Howard's attack on 'PC gone mad' misses the point: the Tory Party is now as politically correct as every other British institution.

Josie Appleton

Topics Politics

Tory leader Michael Howard’s criticism of the ‘frivolous faddism’ of the ‘politically correct brigade’ was an attack on straw men.

Howard blustered about mad officials meddling in people’s lives and undermining plain common sense and individual responsibility. He mentioned nursery teachers warned against playing musical chairs, school children told that lunchboxes are a safety risk, hot cross buns taken off the school menu lest they offend.

But taking on these extreme examples of ‘plain barminess’ leaves political correctness untouched. Political correctness isn’t the preserve of loony outsiders. Instead, it has become institutionalised at the centre of British public life. PC is essentially an etiquette, a series of codes by which we are supposed to live our lives. We’re told to avoid risks, respect difference, live a healthy lifestyle, and above all to avoid offending anyone. The assumption is that people cannot be trusted to make their own choices, and require rules to guide their every step.

The Tory Party is as politically correct as the rest of Britain. After all, it was the Conservative Party that twice sacked MP Ann Winterton for making ‘unacceptable’ jokes about race. Winterton wasn’t being vilified for supporting racist policies, or for a racist speech she had made in the House of Commons. These were jokes at dinner parties. What is this but ‘mind your language’ censoriousness, policing individual behaviour to avoid causing offence?

Other Tory MPs have also been hauled up for their inappropriate language. Welsh Assembly member David Davies caused a furore when he described the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) as ‘institutionally racist’ – he claimed that the commission ignored accusations of racism against white people, which he said made it a ‘recruiting sergeant’ for the British National Party (BNP). The Tory Party swiftly released a statement saying that ‘David Davies has apologised if his comments gave a misleading impression. The Conservative Party supports the work of the Commission for Racial Equality’ (1).

Howard complained about the ban on the Women’s Institute from making cakes for hospitals. But even these ‘mad’ examples aren’t just the preserve of the loony brigade. When earlier this year a school made the headlines for banning homemade cakes from its school fete, it turned out to be the result of guidelines issued by a Tory County Council, Wiltshire, which had advised schools against selling homemade products. At the time, a council spokesman said: ‘Schools should avoid selling homemade products which carry a higher than normal risk of food-related illnesses, including cream or other dairy products, mayonnaise, eggs, fish and meat.’ (2)

It’s the same story with healthy eating. When Welsh sports minister Alun Pugh accepted hospitality football tickets from McDonald’s, the Tory leader of the Welsh Assembly Nick Bourne argued that Pugh should have turned the tickets down. There is clear evidence that an unhealthy lifestyle is the cause of obesity, lectured Bourne. (This backfired when it transpired that several Tory assembly members had also received free football tickets – only they had neglected to register them (3).)

Meanwhile, the Tory Party has bent over backwards to show respect to those diverse lifestyles that are deemed acceptable today. The party staged a gay and lesbian summit for young people on 28 March 2003 that discussed issues such as tackling homophobic bullying and promoting health – and was attended by figures such as Tory education and health secretary Tim Yeo, Tory candidate for London Mayor Steve Norris, as well as Brian Paddick, an assistant deputy commissioner for the Metropolitan Police. Steve Norris also gave his support to plans for a gay museum in London. Meanwhile, Tory Welsh Assembly member Lisa Francis proposed a ‘voluntary code’ to discourage English incomers from changing traditional Welsh house names.

The point is not that Ann Winterton’s jokes were funny, but that PC is casting these issues beyond debate. There are a few watchword phrases – ‘completely unacceptable’, ‘irresponsible’, ‘apologise for offence’. You hear them being uttered time and again, as if by machines. These phrases are a demand that individuals submit to a code for correct behaviour. There’s no argument here, no discussion of right or wrong. Instead a particular kind of behaviour – such as smoking, unhealthy eating, or offensive language – is merely deemed beyond the pale. The ritual involves, first, an expression of outrage or offence; and second, self-chastisement and apologies by the transgressor.

Howard talks about the ‘politically correct brigade’ enforcing these mad ideas against the ‘common sense, decency and humanity’ of mainstream Britain. But no such brigade exists. There is almost nobody who would say that they were ‘for’ political correctness. There doesn’t have to be – these ideas are so broadly accepted that they enforce themselves. After all, who stands up for the unacceptable nowadays? Not the smokers huddled outside office buildings, most of whom apparently would also support a ban on smoking in bars and restaurants. Not Beenie Man, the reggae singer chastised for his homophobic lyrics, who issued the cloying apology: ‘certain lyrics and recordings I have made…may have caused distress and outrage among people whose identities and lifestyles are different from my own…. I offer my sincerest apologies to those who might have been offended, threatened or hurt by my songs.’ (4)

If anything, PC is led by the traditional establishment – the church, the police, as well as the Tory Party. With the corrosion of the establishment’s values, it is quick to engage in ritual self-flagellation to show that it is ‘up with the times’. In the wake of the Macpherson Report into the murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence, the police force has become a testing ground for some of the most extreme policies codifying ‘acceptable’ behaviour. It was a Birmingham vicar, Canon Rob Morris, who called for a pub called Saracen’s Head to be renamed because it was ‘offensive’ to Muslims; and a rector who rewrote the words of the hymn I Vow To Thee My Country after the Bishop of Hulme Stephen Lowe said that they were offensive and echoed the US far right.

It’s easy to attack ‘PC gone mad’, mocking extreme cases and railing against ‘meaningless waffle’. It’s harder to admit that these mad cases are an expression of ‘PC gone mainstream’, which has the whole of society in its grip. Attempts to ban hot cross buns may be going a bit far, but they are entirely consistent with the mainstream view that causing offence to other religions and ethnicities is to be avoided at all costs. There’s no such thing as a silent majority that has hung on to its traditional, commonsense values. These ideas have got into every nook and cranny, which is why so many of the ‘mad’ ideas Howard references are from local schools, swimming pools and hospitals – rather than from any PC officials patrolling the streets of Islington.

In fact, part of Howard’s problem with ‘PC gone mad’ seems to be that it gives ‘PC gone mainstream’ a bad name. ‘Good, decent initiatives are undermined by steps that go too far – and then they are tarred with the same brush’, he said. He gave his support to ‘sensible measures to combat race, disability and sex discrimination’, which were apparently not ‘political correctness’ but ‘plain common sense, decency, humanity’ (5). It was about ‘balance’: ‘everyone recognises the need not to put undue pressure on our children. But the examples I have quoted…take molly-coddling to the nth degree.’ Presumably, then, his concern is to achieve a reasonable degree of molly-coddling, without getting too carried away. This reinforces today’s censorious climate.

Proliferating codes about how we ought to address other people, eat, play sport, or have sex, restrict individual liberty – our ability to decide how, and with whom, we want to live our lives. These codes demand that we suspend our judgement, and merely bow our heads at the suggestion that something is ‘offensive’. Don’t think, is the motto here.

Codes and etiquette are no way to deal with issues such as racism, sexism or homophobia. That can only happen through open political debate, where bigoted views are held up to scrutiny. PC is just a matter of tiptoeing around, taking care to use the correct phrases – rather than really treating other people as equals.

The assumption is that people tend naturally towards bigotry, and can only maintain a veneer of civility by rote-learning appropriate rules of behaviour. By these accounts, people cannot be trusted to do what’s best without the PC handbook to guide them. Yet in reality, people today are more tolerant and even-handed with others than ever before – in most areas of life, your sex, sexuality or race is no longer an issue. But tolerance is increasing in spite of PC, rather than because of it.

The result of the mainstreaming of PC is that it is virtually impossible to have a sensible and open debate about anything. Now that really is mad.

(1) Tory apology over CRE claims, BBC News, 26 February 2004

(2) School bans cakes in poison scare, BBC News, 4 June 2004

(3) Apologies in ‘Big Mac’ soccer row, BBC News, 24 February 2004

(4) Singer sorry for ‘anti-gay songs’, BBC News, 3 August 2004

(5) Full text: Michael Howard’s speech, Guardian, 26 August 2004

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Topics Politics


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