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

Share
Related Topics

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.

BIGOTBLUNDERGATE

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: Hello.

GILLIAN DUFFY : Hello.

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.

END

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.

END

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Marketing Manager - Central London - £45,000-£55,000 + bonus

£45000 - £55000 per annum + bonus: Ashdown Group: The focus of this is to deve...

Application Support - Enterprise Java, SQL, Oracle, SQL Server

£45000 - £55000 per annum: Harrington Starr: A well-established financial soft...

Service Desk Analyst (Graduate, Helpdesk, Desktop, Surrey)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst (Graduate, Helpdesk, Deskto...

Service Desk Analyst (Graduate, Helpdesk, Desktop, Surrey)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst (Graduate, Helpdesk, Deskto...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

August catch-up: architecture, suitcases and ‘pathetic figures’

John Rentoul
Mosul dam was retaken with the help of the US  

Air strikes? Talk of God? Barack Obama is following the jihadists’ script after James Foley beheading

Robert Fisk
Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

Nick Clegg the movie

Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

Waxing lyrical

Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

Revealed (to the minute)

The precise time when impressionism was born
From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

Make the most of British tomatoes

The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
10 best men's skincare products

Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape