Is 'calm down, dear' really so offensive?

The PM's rebuke to Labour's Angela Eagle sparked snorts of laughter from his colleagues – and howls of derision from the Opposition. Here, we weigh up both sides of the argument...

Yes, says Harriet Walker

To be offended by David Cameron's gaffe is to be offended by the commercial sententiae that seep into our brains when our defences are down like so much kitchen grease into a super absorbent single-ply sheet of Bounty. See? It's everywhere this catchphrase culture – but that doesn't make it OK for us to spout it at each other verbatim.

The fact is, the line "Calm down, dear" was patronising even when uttered by so prominent and popular a chauvinist as Michael Winner in its original context; that was what was supposed to be funny about it. To quote it back in a situation that not only doesn't parallel the hyperbolically stereotyped scenario of the ad but is also riven with the fact that the odds are still stacked against women (how many of them are there in the Cabinet again?) is then unwise at best, and witless at worst. And it wasn't even a very good joke.

Then there comes the question of whether it is appropriate to call a woman "dear" in public. If you're Rita Fairclough, it's fine; if you're her father, it's also fine; if you intend it in an affectionate way, it's fine – and "affectionate" doesn't cover chatting someone up in a bar. But when you're using it to hush up some bird who has made a perfectly valid point – in reply to yours, which was factually inaccurate, no less – then it is not fine. For shame, David Cameron.

The worst of this for the Prime Minister is not necessarily that he will be seen as a head-patting sexist, but that he is weakened in one of his main strategic areas. The careful façade that he has maintained throughout countless meetings with single mothers, problem teenagers and the disenfranchised, that cultivated solicitousness that won so many over to him, has evaporated like all those green policies he kept banging on about a while back.

It's a sad but true fact of a society that calls itself equal but in which gross inequality still abounds: there are certain things you can't say if you're a man, and certain things you can't say if you're posh. "Calm down, dear" is an example of both; it's positively Kenneth Williams-esque. And that's before you take into consideration the fact that Cameron's sniffy upper-class vowels still have a ring of the 1930s voiceovers from all the days-gone-by public service announcements that advised women to know their limits.

The Carry On Cameron lobby will no doubt pitch this as a humble public servant trying to make a rather weak joke. And the antis will be souping up the "Cameron's a Sexist" bandwagon with rocket fuel. But somewhere in between the two lies the fact that it is embarrassing, humiliating and distressing for a woman to be slapped down in such a fashion by a man.

And the old argument will no doubt come out: women, if you can't stand the heat, get back into the kitchen. But women have a right to expect their workplace not to be steeped in the patronising gender terms of yesteryear. That doesn't make them whingeing feminists. How would everyone have reacted, I wonder, if Cameron had referred to a black male MP as "boy"?

No, says Virginia Ironside

"Calm down, dear." Yes, it's a bit patronising, but you surely have to be scraping the bottom of your capacity-for-offence barrel to find anything to feel prickly about if this is said to you.

And what exactly is it in the phrase that causes offence?

"Calm down"? Surely not. "Dear"? "Dear" is about the most innocuous of all words to use, surely, when addressing someone.

I even find myself addressing one and all as "darling" when I simply can't remember people's names, or even sometimes when I can, just to show affection. And I use the phrase "Calm down, dear" to anyone who seems to be in a bit of a tizzy – men, women, people of all races, gay people, children, cats, dogs, explosive voices on the end of the phone...

Of course it's irritating. It was Michael Winner, after all, who gave the phrase its currency when advertising insurance – and anything he says is designed to be irritating. But David Cameron intended to rebuke MP Angela Eagle gently, and there are far worse things he could have said to her. He was speaking in the House of Commons, after all.

Labour MP Tony Banks escaped punishment for describing the former Tory MP Terry Dicks as "living proof that a pig's bladder on the end of a stick can be elected to Parliament". Use of the phrase "political weasel and guttersnipe" also escaped censure and Michael Foot didn't get into trouble for calling Norman Tebbit a "semi-house-trained polecat".

But, of course, these were put-downs intended for men. And men, as we all know, can withstand such insults. Whereas a woman, according to the take-offence lot, just cannot cope even with the words "Calm down, dear." Oh no. they retire in tears at such remarks, and need to be protected in case they have a nervous breakdown.

Personally I find the idea that Angela Eagle – keen cricket fan and one-time chess champion, former Minister of State for Pensions and Ageing Society, one-time Exchequer Secretary and vice-chair of the Parliamentary Labour Party – can't cope with such a remark and has to be protected by a lot of posturing people protesting on her behalf far more insulting to her sex than any put down.

My verdict on the whole thing is: "It would be really good if you could manage, at some point, in your own good time, and after talking it over with family and friends – take your time – to come to terms with it, draw a line under it and, when you're ready, move on."

Or, in plain language, if you can possibly cope with these three little words, and promise me you won't sulk and pout and run for shelter on this day of days: "Get over it."

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