The day the political oligarchy stood exposed

‘Bigotgate’ is the most telling moment of the election, capturing the unspoken clash of values and attitudes between the rulers and the ruled.

Frank Furedi

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Topics Politics UK

For Gordon Brown, this was more than just a gaffe. It was the moment he instinctively realised that it is no accident that he is a prime minister elected by his fellow cronies rather than by the British public voting in an actual election. As he sat in the BBC radio studio, listening to a replay of his contemptuous put-down of the 65-year-old Rochdale resident Gillian Duffy, whom he had branded a bigot, Brown knew that he was entirely exposed for what he was – a narrow-minded oligarch without an ounce of empathy and understanding for the concerns and lives of the vast majority of British people.

From a sociological point of view, the interpretation of Brown’s slight of Mrs Duffy was even more interesting than the humiliating exposure of the PM’s unpleasant character. Most of the media discussion focused on Brown’s casual dismissal of Mrs Duffy’s concerns as ‘bigoted’. Some of Brown’s mendacious supporters even went as far as to suggest that this woman could not really have felt slighted, since in all probability she is unlikely to know what the word bigot actually means. In a sense, they are not totally wrong. Words that serve as terms of abuse and insults within the British political oligarchy do not have the same force amongst the population at large. Certainly Mrs Duffy felt pained – but it was the disrespect that upset her. As she explained later, what really hurt was not being labelled a bigot but being dismissed as ‘that woman’.

When she heard Brown’s reference to ‘that woman’, Mrs Duffy rightly experienced it as a snobbish devaluation of her identity. ‘As if I’m to be brushed away’ is how she described the insult. She said: ‘I’m not “that woman”’, adding that this is ‘no way to talk of someone’. Mrs Duffy lives in a world where the meaning attached to certain words is very different to the way they are used by New Labour public-relations operatives. Such PR merchants would find it difficult to make sense of Mrs Duffy’s plea for recognition. ‘Why couldn’t he have said “that lady”?’, she asked. For this pensioner, the term ‘lady’ represents an affirmation of her identity. In contrast, New Labour communicators interpret the term lady as outdated and sexist, the usage of which is confined to ‘hard-to-reach’ white working-class misogynists and xenophobes.

The choice of words used to describe a person is not simply rhetorical. Words invariably touch on values and signify meanings. What the Bigotgate episode reveals is not simply the true feelings of the New Labour oligarchy towards its own working-class supporters, but also a fundamental clash of values and attitudes and disagreements about what gives meaning to a person’s sense of being. Is it any surprise that in many public-sector institutions, such as the National Health Service (NHS), staff are explicitly warned not to call women ‘ladies’? According to the experts who police the linguistics of everyday life, the word lady is not only old-fashioned, it is also demeaning. So the language code of one NHS trust instructs staff that the term lady is ‘not universally accepted and should not be used unless in conjunction with “gentleman”’.

The policing of language by moral entrepreneurs is one of the least discussed aspects of contemporary political culture. Yet the regulation of public language through formal and informal speech codes plays a crucial role in the regulation of public debate itself. When Brown denounced Mrs Duffy as a bigot, he was effectively reminding his staff that there are certain words and political formulations which cannot be said, which are ‘unacceptable’.

The spiral of silence

One of the most remarkable features of this election campaign is the complete silence of the public’s voice. Party hacks can just about handle stage-managed photo opportunities where a handpicked audience asks carefully vetted questions. Occasionally it is possible to make out the muffled voice of a heckler as he is thrown out of a meeting. But almost everything we know about public opinion is transmitted through the analysis and interpretation of journalists and experts. And since people know that certain sentiments are stigmatised today, what they communicate to pollsters is not always their genuine view. A significant proportion of the ‘opinion’ communicated to pollsters is influenced by a pressure to provide the right responses. Many people do not want to be perceived as ‘bigots’, or even as old-fashioned, and in part they experience a demand for their views as a pressure to conform.

The pressure to conform and the fear of social isolation can lead to what the German social scientist Elizabeth Noelle-Neumann identified in her 1974 book as a ‘spiral of silence’. According to this theory, people’s assessment of the opinions held by the majority influences and modifies the way they express their own views. Some individuals feel anxious about expressing sentiments that differ from the consensus communicated by the mass media, and it is argued that ‘prompted by a “fear of social isolation”’ some are ‘less likely to express their own viewpoint when they believe their opinions and ideas are in the minority’. Typically, the fear of negative social sanctions influences the way people express attitudes about morally charged ‘threats’, such as foreigners, crime or terrorism. ‘People monitor the climate of opinion and when they perceive themselves as a minority, individuals are less willing to express themselves politically’, notes an important study of this process.

Of course, in virtually every social setting there is always an element of self-censorship. But in contemporary Britain, the all-too-understandable impulse to conform is continually reinforced by the message ‘you can’t say that’. The main casualty of this informal regulation of speech is any kind of flourishing public life. Private concerns and hopes remain just that: private. They are rarely transformed into the language of public life. Now and again, the lack of connection between people’s genuine sentiments and their representation by the political class becomes glaringly obvious. That’s precisely what happened when Mr Brown met Mrs Duffy. At such moments, you don’t even need a little boy to expose the emperor to public ridicule.

Frank Furedi’s latest book, Wasted: Why Education Isn’t Educating, is published by Continuum Press. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

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Topics Politics UK

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