John Rentoul: We all throw a tantrum once in a while

The people are revolting and they don't care about the small print. Jobs are going – and they're going to others

Share
Related Topics

The mystery is solved. Now we know who was ringing Gordon Brown's mobile phone when the Nokia ringtone interrupted him at Davos on Friday. It was Ground Control.

It is dangerous for prime ministers to be abroad at times of crisis at home. It felt like one of those moments that will define his short premiership. He was talking about "the resumption of lending to the real economy", which was "stage three" of his recovery plan. It was a serious monologue that made perfect sense in the closed context of a televised news conference at an international summit meeting in a Swiss ski resort, but it seemed suddenly irrelevant when it was interrupted by an urgent and unscheduled demand from outside.

Brown is a rational man, but so much about politics is irrational. There is always a gap between the kind of conversation that takes place at Davos and Westminster and the one on the picket lines of Lincolnshire and the streets of Paris. There is a difference between the language used by politicians in news conferences and the placards that protesters print on their computers.

Sometimes there is a crossover between the two discourses. "British jobs for British workers" was one of those moments. As with the abolition of the 10p tax band, Gordon Brown thought he was being clever. He thought that, by putting that label on perfectly respectable policies to get people off benefit and into work, he could appease the anti-immigrant sentiment that was building against the free movement of central Europeans into the British labour market.

Instead he raised expectations, with a phrase that was received and understood in just the way that he must have known it would be, implying that he intended to reserve jobs for British workers when he knew perfectly well that it would be contrary to European law to do so. Did he think that people would hear what he didn't say: "... subject to Articles 39 to 42 of the Treaty of Rome"? It didn't matter so much when the economy was still growing, but it was on a timer, primed to explode when the jobs market started to contract. Talk about hoist by his own petard.

Not only was it disastrous for Brown himself, but it was bad for the twin causes of Europe and the free market. As soon as the poison of BJ4BW enters the rational discourse, people point out that you can't do it under European law and not only does Brown then look powerless, it ratchets up hostility to Europe. It is no use then trying to point out, as Caroline Flint does in her interview today, that British people have been enriched by the free movement of labour in the European Union. That is true, but irrelevant.

She and Gordon Brown are up against a popular mood that can be diverted by rational argument, for a while. But every now and again the popular discontent turns into a rage and says, "Never mind that, we've had enough and you're to blame." We saw it in the fuel protests of September 2000, and again two years later in the countryside spasm that mobilised vast numbers to march on London at the end of the pre-Iraq Blair years. For what? Few in the Westminster green zone can remember now because it didn't make much sense to them. If it did it was because they interpreted it according to their existing assumptions. It was about fox hunting, rural post offices, second homes, and a bit of it was about petrol and diesel prices again, a "rural" grievance with a provisional urban wing. A strong element of it is a fierce anti-capitalism. At one level, everyone understands that liberal free-market economics has made them richer than their ancestors could possibly have imagined; but at another level, many people don't like it, and the poorer and less well educated they are, the less they like it.

We see it in other countries, and shake our head at their incoherence. I recall at the time of the Greek riots a few weeks ago a Greek journalist trying to explain to a BBC radio presenter what they were about. She agreed that it was all unclear; various grievances about government corruption and police brutality had become mixed together. So the violent protests should stop? Oh no, she said, she fully supported the protesters.

Last week it was the turn of the French – just as a French fishing fleet strike triggered the British fuel protest of 2000. There were a million people on the streets of Paris, and Nicolas Sarkozy hadn't joined Barack Obama in the invasion of anywhere.

Some of it is just, as a fellow journalist put it to me, that people want to get out and stretch their legs. Being reasonable all the time can be terribly frustrating, as any child can testify; we all want to shout and stamp our feet from time to time. The usually voiceless, expressing socially -unacceptable sentiments, need to do it most. So suddenly the British National Party gets in on the act; but it is not really about them, it is about the fierce expression of unrespectable opinions.

Now it is happening here and we inhabitants of the green zone – journalists and Prime Minister alike – did not see it coming, although there were news stories here and there that suggested it was about to blow. David Cameron also failed to see it coming and was also in Davos. But his response was different.

He gave a remarkably good speech, using a language that bridged the divide between élite and popular discourses, that accepted that some aspects of modern capitalism were morally repugnant but that, as a means to the better society, regulated markets are superior to any alternative. He seemed to be speaking to the moment; Brown on the other hand was cut off in mid-sentence and told to call home.

The only other politician I know who has been interrupted by his mobile phone while on live television is Boris Johnson, and that was before he became Mayor of London. With Boris, it was easily incorporated into his act. With the Prime Minister, it seemed more like an unwelcome message from the real world. Ask not for whom the phone rings, Gordon. It's for you.

React Now

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

Tradewind Recruitment: English Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: This post arises as a result of the need to...

Tradewind Recruitment: Class Teacher Required ASAP In Uminster

£120 - £150 per annum: Tradewind Recruitment: I am recruiting on instruction o...

Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Director - London - £70,000

£70000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Controller - Fina...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Executive - Wimbledon, SW London

£24000 - £28000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Executive - Wim...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

I’m not sure I fancy any meal that’s been cooked up by a computer

John Walsh
Labour leader Ed Miliband delivers a speech on his party's plans for the NHS, in Sale, on Tuesday  

Why is Miliband fixating on the NHS when he’d be better off focussing on the wealth gap?

Andreas Whittam Smith
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
Why the league system no longer measures up

League system no longer measures up

Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
Diego Costa: Devil in blue who upsets defences is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

Devil in blue Costa is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

The Reds are desperately missing Luis Suarez, says Ian Herbert
Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Former one-day coach says he will ‘observe’ their World Cup games – but ‘won’t be jumping up and down’
Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

Greece elections

In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

Holocaust Memorial Day

Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

Magnetic north

The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness