The Jeremy Vine show (BBC Radio 2) rang the other day to ask whether I’d come on and talk about the newly ennobled Tory peer Howard Flight’s remarks about ‘breeding’ and the underclass.
The Jeremy Vine show (BBC Radio 2) rang the other day to ask whether I’d come on and talk about the newly ennobled Tory peer Howard Flight’s remarks about ‘breeding’ and the underclass. As usual, my immediate answer was, ‘No. You just want me to come on and be your token hate figure.’ ‘Oh pleeeeze,’ they said. ‘We’ll send a car. A really nice one.’ ‘Oh, all right then. But not because of the car. You’d have sent the car anyway. I’m doing it because I’m a whore, that’s all.’
So on the way to the show I got talking to the driver. I asked what he thought of the Howard Flight business and he said: ‘Ooh, I think it was wrong of him to say what he did.’ ‘What? Eh? Why was it wrong?’ I said, quite testily. ‘Everything Howard Flight said was entirely true. You think, what, people should be banned from telling the truth?’
I read out the quote from the newspaper to remind him exactly what Howard Flight had said: ‘We’re going to have a system where the middle classes are discouraged from breeding because it’s jolly expensive. But for those on benefits, there is every incentive. Well, that’s not very sensible.’
‘It’s that word “breeding” that’s the problem. It was insensitive. It might upset some people,’ the driver explained.
‘But look at the context. If anyone’s going to be offended it’s the middle classes, because they’re the ones it refers to, but they won’t because Howard Flight is clearly on their side and understands their predicament entirely.’
‘Well I still think it’s insensitive.’
‘So what phrase would you have preferred? “Making babies”? “Playing rude tummy games”?’
‘I just think politicians have got to be careful what language they use. Cameron was right to make him apologise because it might send out the wrong message.’
‘Excuse me,’ I said. ‘You’re a driver, not an MP. Since when has it been your job to decide what’s right and wrong based on your second guessing of what it is you think the public will and won’t wear?’
OK, so it was rude of me, but I was really quite cross by this stage. All the more so when the driver confided that he’d come from a working-class family of five and that his father had considered it a matter of personal pride that he’d brought up his kids without any state handouts because he believed that if you’re going to have children it’s your job to find the wherewithal to pay for them. In other words, he agreed with every word Flight had said; he hated political correctness — yet still he had decided that the sophisticated position was to submit to it.
‘Sweet Jesus!’ I thought. ‘It’s even worse than I’d imagined. It’s like the final scene of Invasion of the Bodysnatchers, only instead of hideous alien doppelgängers the entire sentient population has been transformed into a swarming mass of mini Danny Finkelsteins.’
By Danny Finkelsteins, of course, I refer to a genus rather than one man in particular. But the amiable Times leader-writer and senior editor does make a pretty damn good synecdoche for the problem I describe, viz: columnists who will always strive elegantly, wittily and with many choice examples to persuade you that political battles can only be won in the sweetly reasonable, undogmatic, non-horse-frightening centre ground.
And not all of them are former SDP men, either. I can think of plenty of notionally Conservative columnists who invariably argue this way too and what they and almost the entire media opinion-forming class have in common is this: they hang out with MPs; they’re generally interested — way way more than normal people — in the parliamentary process; they empathise with MPs; perhaps they even were once — or still are — MPs themselves.
The result, inevitably, is Stockholm syndrome. Instead of doing their job and questioning the status quo, too many of our media opinion-formers are inclined to think like the enemy, effectively endorsing the cowardice and shabby compromising of the mandarin class by arguing on its behalf that such is politics and that things can be done no other way.
‘Politics is the art of the possible,’ said R.A. Butler, quoting Bismarck. If you’re a politician this is fair enough: your handy, all-purpose ‘dog ate my homework’. But when non-politicians start thinking this way — and not just their useful idiots in the media but even, heaven forfend, ordinary people like my BBC driver — then democracy is in very serious trouble.
Hence, I fear, our dismal can’t-do coalition. That Cameron should have bullied Flight into retracting his statement is sadly all too symptomatic of the coalition’s policies generally: we know the EU does us far more harm than good but we can’t leave because it would be legislatively too complex; we know we’d raise more money for the Exchequer and boost the economy if we cut taxes but we can’t because then we’d be seen to ‘favour the rich’; we know the overgrown state is unwieldy and unaffordable but we can’t cut it because too many people might not vote for us and then we’d no longer be in power.
I know why the coalition cannot but be a failure because I hear it from their myriad apologists everywhere every day. What I don’t hear nearly enough of is people like Howard Flight, telling it like it is without fear or favour. And the fewer there are of us left like Flight and the more of us like that driver, the worse things are going to get. Until we learn to stop thinking like slaves we shall never have the revolution that will set us free.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated December 11, 2010Tags: Freedom of speech