John Lanchester · Brown and the 'bigoted woman'

In Geoffrey Madan’s Notebooks, there’s a story about Gladstone. Someone tells him an anecdote about two brothers having an argument about an inheritance in Derbyshire on Christmas Eve; the younger one, with the help of the butler, attacked the elder and caused GBH. He was put on trial, and fled the country on his solicitor’s advice. Told those bare facts, Gladstone immediately said that seven points were ‘especially worthy of attention’, and went through them at length.

To adopt a conciser form of the Gladstonian manner, I’d like to draw attention to the following seven points about our prime minister’s encounter with Mrs Duffy of Rochdale:

1. The fact that the ‘spontaneous’ encounter with a member of the electorate was supposed to be a stage-managed event with a hand-picked lifelong Labour supporter.

2. The whingeing.

3. The blaming of sidekicks.

4. The fact that she was by no serious standard a bigot, and that there was no racial edge to her remarks, which, whether you agree with them or not, voice a concern shared by millions of older white working-class voters.

5. The very, very rare glimpse into the way politicians talk in private. This in turn reflects the following:

6. The fact that professional politicians tend not to forget when they are wearing a microphone, especially if it belongs to a news organisation owned by Rupert Murdoch (Sky).

7. And last, the fact that almost any one of us can imagine doing something similar. I don’t mean about the specific case, I just mean saying the exact opposite of what we came out with when we were doing ‘nice’.

I doubt this will actively put anyone off Labour and onto another party, but it will depress activists no end and may do something to stop people from turning out to vote. It doesn’t take much to turn a reluctant loyalist into a non-voter, and that ‘bigoted’ thing might just do it. Still, here’s a good suggestion about how Brown might turn things round, from the satirical news site Newsbiscuit.


  • 29 April 2010 at 2:37pm
    alex says:
    by no serious standards a bigot? So it's ok to be against East Europeans then. They're not black, so it's not 'serious'...

  • 29 April 2010 at 2:43pm
    A.J.P. Crown says:
    Not Mrs Duffy, but I thought you'd like Mervyn King's prediction, as described in the Guardian.

  • 29 April 2010 at 3:03pm
    bc282 says:
    I think Brown just misheard Mrs Duffy when she said "Eastern Europeans... where are they flocking from?". If he did, I have nothing but sympathy for him.

  • 29 April 2010 at 3:43pm
    Phil Edwards says:
    The fact that she was by no serious standard a bigot, and that there was no racial edge to her remarks

    "No racial edge"? Well, first she said there were too many people claiming benefits they weren't entitled to; then he said something about getting people off benefit; then she said "you can't say anything about the immigrants". What that says to me - and clearly what it said to Brown - was that too many people was code for "too many of the wrong sort of people, not that I expect you to care about that, you don't have to live round here".

    She expressed the views of a bigot (rather incoherently), and he called her a bigot behind her back. The worst you can really say of Brown is that he's two-faced and doesn't risk expressing his real views when it might antagonise a potential supporter. You'd almost think he was one of those 'politicians'.

    • 1 May 2010 at 10:45pm
      Phil Edwards says: @ Phil Edwards
      For what it's worth, I've developed these thoughts - and looked at a transcript of the exchange in some detail - here. Quote:

      Concern about the disruption which can be caused by immigration – particularly by immigration exploited by business for gain – can’t be wished away or automatically labelled as racist ... But that’s a real concern. What Mrs Duffy articulated – “got to spend less, got to spend more, got to spend less, blame the immigrants” – was more of a very real concern. A folk devil, in other words – a scapegoat for what’s going wrong, with an added element of fear of how much wronger things could go if someone doesn’t do something about it.

  • 29 April 2010 at 4:00pm
    Allan House says:
    You don't have to do alot of deconstructing to work out that he called her a bigot not because he'd decided she was a racist but because he was angry that he'd been put face-to-face with a disaffected ex-Labour supporter when the deal for all politicians doing walkabout is that their staff prevent them meeting real people. She went on about everything was what he said, once he'd clarified which of his stooges was going to get it for making him look bad. I wonder if Sue is still working for the good of the cause?

    Many working class British people express these sentiments about immigration in exactly these terms - that's because they are the only terms offered them by our media. If you press on (unlike Broon who simply wanted to shut her up)then what you find is not usually racism but concern about jobs being taken by people who will take crap work at low rates in non-unionised places, or do overtime for time rather than time-and-a-half. So its fundamentally economic or social discontent expressed as apparent xenophobia.

    • 29 April 2010 at 4:17pm
      Phil Edwards says: @ Allan House
      I agree with your last couple of sentences, but I don't think that's at all what Mrs D was saying. She was talking about the deficit and about benefits as an example of public spending, and about "too many people" claiming benefits - it was only going one way.

      I also think it's a bit far-fetched to say that "bigot" just meant "punter with inconvenient views" - I think if that had been all he would have called her a stupid woman, not a bigot. (Would that have been better or worse?)

    • 29 April 2010 at 5:06pm
      Saffy says: @ Allan House
      And the irony is, if you actually watch the encounter between them, she pats him on the back of his hand and says something like "keep up the good work". She was pretty mild - there was no rant, no haranguing from some poisonous old woman with an agenda. This was clearly not some set-up where a grieving mother used by or in cahoots with (depending on your view) a Murdoch-owned newspaper tapes his conversation and berates him on his poor spelling and handwriting. She was just saying her piece when she could and how she could and when she had the chance.

      It must be a very long time since Brown had a fairly normal conversation with a fairly normal, average voter. That he could have said that was a disaster suggests he is wildly out of touch, to me, and that he may lack a few personal social skills. I suppose an indication of when he first imagined that this meeting was a disaster was when he attempted some uncomfortable small talk with her about her grandchildren and all the while she is now clearly trying to get away from him - and yet he presses on with his questioning, not picking up that she has said what she needed to say and now wants to get away. It starts to look at this stage like she's stuck with someone very boring and/or awful at a party and she's trying to edge away, politely. That is the only really obvious 'disaster' at that stage - that he doesn't seem to know how to interact with her on an everyday level.

      John Harris in The Guardian writes an insightful piece about all this and suggests that Brown's gaffe and interpretation of the meeting - "bigot", "ridiculous" - is symptomatic of a huge disconnect between many Labour politicians and ordinary, working class and traditionally Labour voters - this 'bigotted' woman could have been my late nan - bewildered at the world she found herself in compared with what she used to know and understand, and surprised to find herself listened to by a politician whom she assumes should care about what she felt.

      I felt so sorry for the poor woman when she was told by a reporter that she had been called a bigot by the man with whom she had just had a reasonable conversation. Or so she thought. She looked amazed and really, really hurt.

    • 29 April 2010 at 5:09pm
      alex says: @ Phil Edwards
      This is all speculative. It's not logical to say GB decided Ms. D. was bigoted 'cos he ended up looking bad (and the IPPR research bears no relation to this question). It's the other way around - he ended up looking bad because she was bigoted - and bigoted is popular, but he still had to put her right. Which he did. Rightly and politely (before sounding off in the car).
      More on the East European angle from the Guardian:

    • 30 April 2010 at 3:48pm
      Apologies, the question to which I was saying the IPPR bears no relation is 'how GB decided Mrs. D. was bigoted', ie. Allan's first para., not his second.
      But while we're at it, Allan's argument that 'apparent xenophobia' is caused by (real) socio-economic and political exclusion, is actually the reverse of what the IPPR report posits, namely real xenophobia being fuelled by imagined exclusion.

  • 29 April 2010 at 5:32pm
    Geoff Roberts says:
    Megagaffe costs Brown the election? Can't work up any indignation about that - he deserves to lose after this.

  • 29 April 2010 at 7:02pm
    Allan House says:
    One of the other things I noticed about the exchange was what I think of as the Bob Monkhouse syndrome. Monkhouse was famous for having a big database of one-liners that he learned by heart and trotted out when the prompt was right. This was most noticeable when he appeared on Have I Got News for You. He wasn't joining in the banter - he was waiting for key words or phrases that triggered a particular gag, so his contribution was entirely (and embarrassingly) non-interactive.

    Broon was just like that - education produced one phrase; crime another. If Ms Duffy thought she'd been talking to a man with whom she'd just had a reasonable conversation then she can't have been concentrating.

  • 29 April 2010 at 7:30pm
    Saffy says:
    I like the Monkhouse comparison but the viewer(on youtube etc) has a different perspective to Mrs (Ms?) Duffy and she may well have not been concentrating - I'm going to make a guess and assume that she isn't used to talking to the Prime Minister under the gaze of various reporters, photographers and an assortment of minders and handlers. Concentrating on what he was actually saying may well have been tricky under those circumstances and she may not have completely taken it all in that this was a mantra being applied to her questioning.

    I'd say she was concentrating though well enough by the time she had had her say. That's when he turned into something like a clueless vicar character trying to be chummy over a lukewarm cup of tea at a dismal village hall with an old dear whom he knows he should know something about - but she's just a silly old bigotted biddy and he really can barely manage it. And so asks about the grandchildren and gets it woefully wrong - no they're not going to university yet, they're only 12 and 10, she tells him. "Ah, a good family", he chips in, "Yes", she says as she shuffles further away. By that stage, I agree, she may not have thought the conversation was particularly reasonable.

  • 29 April 2010 at 7:41pm
    Saffy says:
    Damn. Misspelt 'bigoted'. And in the LRB as well..

  • 29 April 2010 at 10:07pm
    A.J.P. Crown says:
    I'm surprised anyone thinks Brown has a different opinion of Mrs Duffy than Cameron or Clegg would have had in similar circumstances. That would be the only reason for him to lose votes over this incident.

  • 29 April 2010 at 10:25pm
    simonpawley says:
    Life imitates art. I thought for a moment the news had been replaced by an election special of 'The Thick of It'.

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