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Why ‘Bigotgate’ threw everything into disarray

The Gordon Brown bigot scandal confirms that no one is in the driving seat of this election campaign – least of all us, the electorate.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics UK

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‘Bigotgate’, as Gordon Brown’s in-car gaffe has inevitably been labelled, is striking for three reasons.

First, it reveals the contempt of the political class for the electorate, especially the older, more northern, concerned-about-immigration electorate, whom the metropolitan political oligarchy effectively looks upon as an alien race. When Brown said to an aide that Gillian Duffy, who had accosted him as he was on a walkabout in Rochdale in Greater Manchester, was ‘just a bigoted woman’, he was giving voice to the political class’s rarely openly expressed but always-there disdain for the white working classes.

Bigotgate confirms the utter estrangement of the political elite from the mass of society. And it confirms that it is through the issue of immigration that the elite most acutely experiences and expresses that estrangement today. It is because Duffy dared to ask a question about Eastern European immigrants that Brown privately branded her a ‘bigot’. For the political elite, where you stand on race and immigration, whether or not you show sufficient levels of official tolerance in welcoming controlled numbers of migrants to Britain and celebrating their transformative impact on food, culture and society, determines whether you are one of Us (erudite and culturally aware) or one of Them (dumb, backward and racist). Bigotgate shows what official ‘anti-racism’ really means today: elite disdain for those ugly masses judged to be insufficiently cosmopolitan.

This outlook isn’t restricted to Brown. His real crime was to say out loud (well, through a still-attached microphone) what the political and media elite feels about ordinary Brits but usually expresses in a more coded fashion. Many commentators defended Brown’s comments on the basis that Mrs Duffy does seem to be a frightfully backward individual. ‘Some people are bigots’, said one, ‘and to Gordon, this lady’s views were bizarre’. ‘Gillian Duffy certainly does sound xenophobic’, said another. ‘Brown’s response was perfectly reasonable.’ The run-in with Duffy did not reveal any widespread bigotry amongst the inhabitants of Rochdale, but it did reveal something far more foul: the elite’s treatment of working-class voters as creatures of prejudice who unfortunately, and probably unwisely, must be be engaged with – after all, these morons determine who will govern Britain.

Secondly, Bigotgate confirms the spinelessness of the political class. If there was one thing worse than hearing Brown express contempt for this northern woman, it was watching the spectacle of head-hanging shame and apology that he went through for hours afterwards. This was more than a performance, more than another shallow, cynical, back-covering, Blair-style expression of the ‘politics of apology’. More fundamentally, it captured a political elite which does not have the courage of its convictions (they really do think we’re all bigots, but they’re not prepared to say so on record), and which is so utterly isolated and discombobulated that it is incapable of withstanding the pressure to indulge in public self-flagellation as punishment for expressing in clear English what should only be communicated in secret signs and handshakes.

It is testament to the isolation of the political class, and to its lack of any overarching electoral message or political vision, that its members can be so easily strongarmed into publicly displaying their penitence for all to see. (After apologising to Duffy, Brown described himself as a ‘penitent sinner’.) The Brown-Duffy-apology spectacle, during which he spent 45 minutes in her house effectively begging for her forgiveness, was a product of both the political elite’s desperation, with Brown’s advisers telling him he had to do this to save his skin, and of the rising political clout of the media.

Virtually the entire British news media descended on Duffy’s doorstep to await confirmation of Brown’s penitence. One media outlet joyously described Brown as being like a ‘wild animal having had a leg torn off and being dragged back to the scene of the accident’. Journalists talked about having ‘imprisoned [Brown] in a small house in Rochdale’. The fallout from Bigotgate – the apologising, the penitence, and what one news channel described as a ‘gruesome and humiliating farce of a day’ for Brown – exposed the moral cowardice of a cut-off political elite and the increased ability of the media to write, temporarily at least, the political narrative.

And thirdly, and most worryingly, Bigotgate shows just how arbitrary and chaotic this election campaign is. The fact that one comment said in the back of a car can transform the entire debate (some are predicting that it will overshadow tonight’s televised leaders’ debate and further dent Brown’s already dented standing) is a result of the lack of political coherence in the campaign. Unanchored by any clear clash of ideals, not grounded in anything substantive or visionary or born of the public’s desires, the election campaign can sway and teeter like a skyscraper on the verge of collapse. The focus can shift in an instant. The frenetic nature of the constantly changing debate, and the ceaseless polling to see what we think of Brown, Cameron, Clegg, Duffy, immigration, bigots and whatever else might have popped up, is not a sign of a healthy, engaged political culture, but of its opposite: a political culture so disengaged, so unwieldy, that the script can be ripped up at any minute and replaced with another, while pollsters poke the public as if we were animals in a zoo to see what we are thinking right now. And now? Now? What about now?

This is the thing that should concern us most: Bigotgate confirms that no one is really driving this election, least of all us, the electorate.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics UK

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