Howard Jacobson: A morality play for these muddled times

Remember that the next time you ask for honesty: you don't want to hear it

Here's a little play I've written to take your minds from more serious matters of state. Bigotblundergate, I've called it. A one-act tragical-farcical two-hander, though a large crowd of Hypocrites is present on the stage throughout.

After the performance the Hypocrites will descend from the stage and pass around a bucket. What you do in the bucket is your affair.

Break a leg.


Dramatis Personae:

Gordon Brown: Clown

Gillian Duffy: Woman

ACT 1:

A residential street in Rochdale. Enter, stage right, Gordon Brown smiling and carrying a Ken Dodd tickling stick, aides having confused Rochdale with Liverpool. Enter stage left, not smiling, Gillian Duffy, woman, widow, pensioner, granny, long-time (now former) Labour voter, protected species.



GORDON BROWN: You being an ordinary person I'm here to have an ordinary conversation with you.

GILLIAN DUFFY: I am an ordinary person and as such I have an ordinary question for you.

GORDON BROWN: Fire away, as I'm informed that 68 per cent of ordinary people say.

GILLIAN DUFFY: All these Eastern Europeans what are coming in, where are they flocking from?

GORDON BROWN: Eastern Europe, where do you fucking think.

Exeunt Hypocrites bearing microphones and notepads, jubilant.


You have a problem with that? Write to my agent.

Excuse the belligerence, but I'm out of patience. Candour, we keep demanding. "Stop your lying," the papers tell our politicians every day. "Be honest with us," we, the baffled electorate, plead. And then, when one of them blunders into honesty, we throw our hands up in horror. How dare he call bigotry by its name?

This was no act of intellectual heroism on Gordon Brown's part. He was more horrified by his blunder into honesty than anybody. But then he knows us: he's a politician, a practitioner of the art of not saying what you think because the minute you say what you think no one will vote for you. Remember that the next time you ask for honesty: you don't want to hear it.

They are right, those commentators who argue that Brown should never have been so rattled by a nothing-much conversation with a pleasant enough woman who didn't have anything out of the ordinary to say. And they are right again that immigration is an issue that dare not speak its name – so good for Gillian Duffy for raising it.

But to talk of raising an issue begs the question of the spirit in which it's raised. And don't tell me that the spirit doesn't matter, because in that case we might as well all be members of the BNP. Gillian Duffy didn't simply say she was concerned about the level of immigration in Rochdale, and the effect it was having on local services and employment. She said, "All these Eastern Europeans what are coming in, where are they flocking from?" In the calm light of day what word would you use to describe Mrs Duffy's question? Allow me to make a suggestion. How about bigoted?

We must assume she wasn't testing Mr Brown on his geography. What's the tallest mountain in Poland, Gordon? What's the longest river in Romania? Where are all these Eastern Europeans coming from? To be sure, it isn't the most odious question one's ever heard. It isn't another Rivers of Blood speech. Nor, on account of it, would I send Mrs Duffy to one of our overcrowded prisons, for all that there's a chance she'd meet a few Eastern Europeans there and have the opportunity to ask them herself where they've come from. But yes, there's some "obstinate and unenlightened attachment to a prejudice" to be discerned here all right, in Mrs Duffy's querulousness of tone, in the blanket hostility of the phrase "all these", and in her choice of the verb "flock" used in that present continuous tense beloved of xenophobes the world over – "coming in" and "flocking from" implying a swarm whose source is impenetrable and whose numbers are never-ending.

The popular press would have it that Gillian Duffy speaks for the majority of ordinary people in this country, and I don't doubt it. Ordinary people are by the very nature of their ordinariness bigoted. It takes extraordinary qualities of mind to overcome the pressures to think as everybody thinks. I don't for a moment castigate Mrs Duffy for not, in this instance at least, overcoming them herself. But to be outraged that Brown called her a "bigoted woman" when you are praising her for giving voice to the ordinary bigotry of the British public is worse than illogical, it is hypocrisy in its most poisonously populist form.

These have been disgusting days in the political life of the media, from the villainous television personnel rushing to tell Mrs Duffy what Brown had said and getting her to respond on the spot, because discomfiture makes good telly – and for all the sanctimony about Gillian Duffy's hurt feelings, good telly trumps everything – to the journalists who have cynically pressed all the granny widow woman pensioner buttons and made her expression of an ill-informed and common-minded grievance (which, let me repeat, does not take from its genuineness) a rallying call for the nation.

If we get the politicians we deserve then we deserve even worse than we've got. I have grown to admire Gordon Brown throughout this campaign. He is twice the political thinker either Cameron or Clegg is, and for much of the time has looked twice the man, if only he'd remembered to switch off his microphone. But the nation has decided not to like him because he lacks that art of dissembling we call the "common touch", and that's that.

Here's another play I've written, shorter than the last. It's called The Common Touch and has only one character, not counting the crowd.

Act 1:

Enter, centre stage, Gordon Brown smiling.

CROWD: Kill, kill.