Thursday, 29 April 2010
“Bigotgate”: it’s what happens when you compromise
That confrontation between OAP and PM never happened. That’s the important point to grasp.
“Happen” derives from an old English verb, “to hap” – “to come about by hap or chance,” where the noun “hap” means “chance or fortune (good or bad).”
As in the old rhyme:
Were it to hap that we should meet
In some poor northern town,
Arriving, I would grin and greet,
Departing, curse and frown.
So the meta-story was that Gordon Brown, touring Rochdale, happened upon 66-year-old Mrs Gillian Duffy, a pensioner and widow with whom he happened to have a happy and lively conversation, but in an unhappy sequel, when he thought he was unobserved in his car, he happened inexplicably to lose his temper and call her a “bigoted woman.”
And the real story? Of course, the entire Rochdale excursion was confected for the media, up to and including the meeting with Mrs Duffy, who was propelled into the PM’s presence by his entourage, they having auditioned her on the street and established that she was a salt-of-the-earth Labour supporter who wouldn’t spit in his eye.
Which she didn’t.
He spat in hers, metaphorically, when the car doors were shut and he thought the media circus had been switched off.
The problem is that Gordon doesn’t do “spontaneous,” doesn’t embrace, if you like, encounters and events which “hap.”
But that meant all his campaign appearances to date had been cast, structured and scripted, an artifice of which the audiences were not unaware, since audiences aren’t fools (but are easily bored), and a constraint which made the media restless and tempted to satire.
So, the idea gained force among Gordon’s staffers: “let’s have some spontaneity; let’s find the great man some space in which he can improvise” – and they promptly set about structuring the spontaneity, delimiting the space and trying to script the improvisation.
Gordon, as I say, does not do “spontaneous” – not, I believe, because he is either incapable or frightened of it – but because he knows (or I suspect he knows) that what passes for spontaneity in a modern election is even less genuine than artifice and that, with respect to Mrs Duffy, the kind of person who will come up to you for a “spontaneous” conversation in the street, with a hydra’s tentacles of lenses, lights and gun-mikes weaving around your head, must be conscious that the “happening” is really nothing more or less than a performance.
And that, I think, was why he described his interview with Mrs D as “a disaster” in the car and said “I mean, it’s just ridiculous.” He wasn’t referring to that particular interview. He was saying that all interviews in that genre are ridiculous and will be prone to disaster, because they have no integrity, a quality which, in spite of everything that’s being flung at him, I think he has.
Of course, that doesn’t excuse his calling the poor woman a “bigot” – a cruel epithet which brought the day’s two most poignant images: Mrs Duffy on the street, wounded to the quick, near to tears, and Mr Brown in a BBC Radio studio, head in hand, in despair not just at the hurt he’d caused, but at the fact that he’d caused it by surrendering to a strategy of which he’d all along been sceptical.
The scandal – and I suspect that this may also affront Mr Brown’s moral sensibility – is that when politicians publicly meet non party-card-carrying electors, they use them solely as a means to an end. Brown’s staffers didn’t want him to get to know and listen to and care about Gillian Duffy. They wanted Gillian Duffy to be an instrument to burnish Mr Brown’s image and help him back to Downing Street.
And if Gordon Brown has integrity, so has Mrs Duffy. Despite the paucity of her pension (about which she’d protested to Brown), she turned down a newspaper’s cheque for her “exclusive” story because the deal required her to endorse David Cameron.
So there you have the first paradox. Two people, both possessed of integrity, swept into a degraded media spectacle which in different fashions humiliated them both.
And the second paradox? I think the appeal of Mr Clegg lies not entirely in whatever virtues he may possess, but also in the fact that a lot of electors see him as an instrument: a means to an end, which is punishing and damaging the political establishment.