You Can’t Think That

The furore surrounding Ann Winterton’s gaffe is not about how the Tories view race, but about how society views jokes.

Jennie Bristow

Topics Politics

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UK Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith has sacked Ann Winterton from her position as shadow rural affairs minister, for telling a racist (and unfunny) joke (1).

Why should we care? Whom the Tory Party hires and fires is up to its leadership, and such decisions are about as irrelevant to the rest of us as are most of the Opposition’s policies.

But commentators have been quick to point out that this latest slip of sensibilities goes beyond internal Tory Party politics. The line pursued by everybody from the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) to the leader writers on the conservative Times and Daily Telegraph is that Winterton is a public figure, and that her racist jokes can be seen to represent how the Tory Party, and society at large, views ethnic minorities. Consequently, the reaction – coming down on Winterton like a ton of bricks – should be seen to express how the Tory Party, and society at large, views racism.

In fact, this whole furore tells us more about how today’s society views jokes. The impact of Winterton’s joke is negligible; the impact of her public flogging is not.

The UK has a long, and not-so-honourable, tradition of racist joking, epitomised by that fat old fart Bernard Manning. And yes, racist jokes were a product of a racist society – which is why anti-racist campaigners were not generally to be seen applauding in the audience of Manning’s comedy clubs. But when it comes to mainstream comedy, with the exception of Manning and the even more ridiculous Stan Boardman (2), racist jokes are a thing of the past. That’s why any overblown debate about the evils of anti-Pakistani gags has to drag Manning out of his retirement: nobody else will even say that racist jokes are funny, let alone tell them.

In Manning’s day, it was also recognised that there was a difference between a racist joke and a racist policy. Enoch Powell did not joke about ‘rivers of blood’ before 160 well-oiled diners at a provincial rugby club – he made a serious point at a political meeting. The right-on left have always been po-faced about racist jokes, but in the past Winterton’s stupidity might have got her banned by a students’ union, not sacked from the front bench of her own party.

A joke contains an implicit disclaimer; the statement ‘I was only joking’ is a way of avoiding responsibility for what you have just said. Which is why comedy could be laughed at and politics was taken seriously. What counted was not the jokes you made, watched or laughed at, but what you stated when you meant it.

Today, we have lost that distinction between jokes and statements. We no longer know whether people mean what they say; and increasingly, it seems, we don’t care.

Winterton’s comments, and her subsequent sacking, spurred a discussion about the image of the Tory Party. Praising Iain Duncan Smith’s ‘swift’ and ‘decisive’ response to Winterton’s gaffe, the Daily Telegraph said: ‘Blair-like, he took an apparently unpropitious situation and used it to demonstrate both a determination to reform his party and strong leadership.’ (3)

On the other hand, Nick Assinder, BBC News’ political correspondent, castigated Duncan Smith for his ‘hesitation’ in sacking Winterton: which has, he says, ‘created an impression that Mr Duncan Smith did not immediately comprehend the offence her so-called joke would cause. And that will play into the hands of those who believe the Tory Party’s campaign to rid itself of racists is more about image than fundamental beliefs’ (4).

Of course, people will read into the Tory leadership’s handling of this situation whatever their own political persuasions encourage them to see. But all this discussion about image highlights the fact that this is a debate about etiquette, not politics. Just as home secretary David Blunkett’s comments that children of asylum seekers were in danger of ‘swamping’ local schools caused a row over possible connotations of the word, so just about every debate that purports to be a political debate about race and racism becomes a discussion about the need for appropriate, non-offensive language (5).

This emphasis on the etiquette of the race debate is censorious, insulting and dishonest. It assumes that the key issue in the race debate is not what policies are proposed or what views are expounded, but the language within which they are couched. And it presumes that the electorate are quite pathetic creatures, who are upset and offended by a badly chosen word – or, if they are not, are spurred on to go and vote for the far-right British National Party (BNP). (Some argued that Winterton’s remarks were particularly unfortunate, given that they were made only a few miles away from Burnley, where the BNP last week won three local council seats.)

In this climate, freedom of speech is considered too dangerous to be permitted; censorship is called for in the name of protecting tolerance and democracy.

But the emphasis on racist jokes – as opposed to merely racist language – goes further than this. When people are prevented from saying what they really think, the only way to tell what they think is to second-guess their views from insinuation, rumour or slips of the tongue. There is a notion, enshrined in the 1999 Macpherson report into the murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence, that the most self-avowed anti-racist can be an ‘unwitting’ racist, and that this unwitting racism must be rooted out.

Ann Winterton presumably knew what she was doing in making That Joke. Yet it was a joke (something that was not meant to be taken seriously, as a statement of policy or even belief), and she immediately apologised for making it. The string of disclaimers surely indicates that, whatever Winterton’s personal beliefs about race, she is not compelled to argue for them politically or publicly (at least, outside of the fairly distorted public arena of a Cheshire rugby club). Like everybody else engaged in mainstream politics, she is compliant with the dictum of You Can’t Say That.

What she may have underestimated is the degree to which, in today’s climate, You Can’t Think That. For as the etiquette of political debate becomes more firmly established, and people rarely say what they believe, the search is on to uncover people who think the wrong way too. No matter if their views have no political consequence, or even if they bear no relationship to their behaviour – if they are out of sync with the orthodoxy, however unwittingly, they must be purged. This is a kind of moral purification process that treats etiquette as religion and prejudice as sin. And in this process, politics becomes irrelevant.

I shed no tears for Ann Winterton – not least because the issues that she does go public on, such as her opposition to abortion, embryo experimentation and fluoride, mark her out as my opponent. But a climate that sends in the thought police benefits nobody at all.

Read on:

The ‘s’ word, by Josie Appleton

The new etiquette on asylum, by Brendan O’Neill

spiked-issue: Race

(1) Tory sacked in racist joke row, Guardian, 6 May 2002

(2) Racist jokes make Leeds United sorry, Guardian, 3 May 2002

(3) Tories are a’ changin’, Daily Telegraph, 6 May 2002

(4) Analysis: Racism and the Tories, BBC News, 5 May 2002

(5) See The ‘s’ word, by Josie Appleton

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Topics Politics


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