Alan Watkins: 'Golliwog' or 'depression': they're just words

Carol Thatcher's green room observations and the collapse of Western capitalism are clearly connected

Sunday 08 February 2009 01:00

There seems to me to be a clear connection between the sayings of Ms Carol Thatcher and the collapse of Western capitalism. I shall try to explain why. For some reason the financial pages have taken to calling it "Anglo-Saxon capitalism". What the poor old Anglo-Saxons, who arrived on these shores many centuries ago, have to do with it I do not know. Most of the disastrous financial practices of the past 25 years were imported from Manhattan and refined subsequently in the City of London and Canary Wharf.

The United States has never possessed a socialist movement of any consequence. In this country, socialism was abandoned, quite explicitly, 15 years ago. The last, not socialist, but mildly reformist measure for which the Labour Party fought was over the "Social Chapter" in the Maastricht Treaty.

Here, in 1992-3, the Major government suffered several defeats. Once in office, the new Labour government tried to continue Conservative policies over European protection – or non-protection – of workers in the United Kingdom in every possible way.

The result has been that, deprived of the power to regulate their own lives, they have found solace in contrived arguments, factitious issues, and the taking of needless offence, just for the sake of having a row.

This more or less explains the rise of "political correctness" which, like the corrupt practices of Wall Street, came over from the United States. Grasp that, and you grasp all.

Political correctness is an evasion of proper political argument. There is, I realise, a clever-clogs case to be made to the effect that the Daily Mail regularly denounces political correctness and that, accordingly, there is something to be said in its favour after all. It is quite enough not needlessly to cause offence to others. For my part, I would not want to write for The Guardian, whose contributors have restrictions imposed upon them by the newspaper's oppressive handbook of style (for example, that the public schools should always be called "private schools".)

This brings us to Ms Thatcher. It has been going on all through the week. She had referred to a black tennis player in an Australian competition as a "golliwog". She said this in a green room, a hospitality room or whatever, in a television studio. There were at least two other participants present.

One or both of them made their displeasure known to one of those controlling ladies who inhabit the BBC's corridors as a ramshackle old building harbours mice behind the skirting boards. The lady concerned issued a stern pronunciamento which would have met the case if Ms Thatcher had been found dabbling in the slave trade after hours. Various punitive, or, at any rate, disagreeable consequences were mentioned.

I have met Ms Thatcher only once. It was at a newspaper function of some kind, a few years ago now. She struck me as a lively girl, who enjoyed a drink, or several. I liked her. We chatted about this and that. "Gosh," she said – I distinctly remember her saying "Gosh" – "you must have an interesting life." I demurred. Of course, she might have been trying to be sarcastic, ironical or whatever you chose to call it. But somehow she did not seem so. She appeared agreeable and straightforward enough.

Moreover, from what one can make

out, she did not have an altogether easy childhood or early womanhood. Though she was devoted to her father, Denis, as he was to her, she was rather neglected by her mother. She lived for much of the time with a next-door neighbour. She wrote an invaluable biography of Sir Denis, much relied on (though largely unacknowledged) in the obituaries of her father.

I should not have used the word "golliwog" myself in the context in which she used it. But it is not the worst crime in the calendar. And, as we know, words change their meanings, often after quite a short time and sometimes meaning the direct opposite. For instance, "nig-nog" originally bore no relation at all to the colour of a person's skin. It became generally known though literate national servicemen in the late 1940s and 1950s retelling their experiences at the hands of drill-sergeants and the like.

"You stupid nig-nog" meant a clumsy, incompetent or dishevelled recruit. The usage may have derived from the war years. But it became current in the succeeding decade.

The meaning changed yet again in the 1960s, when it was taken up by the National Front and similarly racist groups. The confusion clearly comes from "wog", which was originally meant to refer insultingly to those from east of Suez, including Egypt.

In the last few years of his life, my late friend John Morgan, the broadcaster and journalist, was regularly referred to in Private Eye as "the Welsh golliwog". No issue of the magazine at that period seemed to be complete without a mention of his name, with the attached sobriquet.

He came from Morriston, just outside Swansea, though he once told me the family had originated in a farm further to the west. He was an impressive-looking man with an abundance of curly dark hair: hence, presumably, the name "golliwog". He looked like a Brythonic or Iberian Celt, which was what he was. There was no fuss at all when he was described as a golliwog, even if one of the Welsh variety. There were no riots in Swansea. But then, we Welsh are used to taking it on the chin. We do not go off whining to the courts or even write many letters of complaint to the papers.

There have been several other complaints about the use of language, however, in the course of the past week. Whereas Ms Thatcher's indiscretion ran and ran, Mr Gordon Brown's error, if that is what it was, was over before the 24-hour news cycle had exhausted its span.

What Mr Brown said was that he was trying to help the world to emerge from a depression. This did not seem to me to be very important at the time when he was saying it. Recession, depression: what was the difference? Mr Brown was still making the same sort of short speech, to exactly the same effect, or lack of effect.

But for a few hours the broadcasting studios seemed to go mad. A gaffe, a veritable gaffe! It is a word reserved exclusively for political reporting. It is heard nowhere else. No 10 issued a hurried denial and said that the Prime Minister had never intended to say what he had clearly said, though it escapes me what difference it would have made if he had intended to say "depression" all the time.

What was more serious for Mr Brown was that the Labour Party was refusing to swallow the explanations for the prison hulk moored off the Lincolnshire coast. These explanations, or excuses, were proferred by Lord Mandelson in the Lords earlier in the week, and a junior minister in the Commons. Neither of them carried much conviction, any more than the whole Government does now. In the meantime, I wish good luck to Ms Thatcher and all who sail in her.

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