Comment: The hypocrisy of the attack on Brown

Brown’s ‘bigot’ gaffe may be unpleasant, but those attacking him should look in the mirror.

By Ian Dunt

A short while ago Gordon Brown was caught making unguarded comments about Gillian Duffy, a voter he had chatted with, while campaigning in Rochdale. The media response is already fevered, not least of all because journalists hate talking about economics and the economy was the only other issue on the news agenda today.

The prime minister spoke pleasantly to Mrs Duffy, asking about her children and telling her how great her family was. It was after he got into his car that he branded her a bigot. Watch the extended three minute video and it seems to be pretty nasty, two-faced stuff. Later, listening to the recording during a BBC Radio 2 interview, he looked utterly beaten and there’s a danger the image will haunt him longer than the comments themselves.

You can see why he is so dejected. The gaffe is symbolic of the sense the public has that politicians are secretly sneering at them. They are all smiles at election times and then abject distaste behind closed doors, locked in their shiny, beautiful cars.

Duffy herself could not have been better picked: retired, widowed, working class and eloquent – she is perfect for the tabloids. Perhaps they created her out of stem cells.

But – and I imagine I’ll get my fair share of hate mail for this – Brown had a point. This is what Duffy said about immigration: “All these eastern Europeans that are coming in – where are they flocking from?” Beyond the fact that she has answered her own question, this statement is profoundly problematic. This sort of talk about immigrants has become more and more acceptable, but we would do well to remind ourselves that it is not acceptable to use animal or geographic metaphors about immigrants. Talk of ‘flocks’ and ‘swamps’ serve to cement a sense of immigrants being ‘the other’. They are not so different to us. They marry us, drink beer with us, work with us and live side by side with us.

Brown himself is actually as guilty as anyone of allowing the rhetoric of the far-right to corrupt the mainstream debate, by popularising that primitive and narrow-minded phrase ‘British jobs for British workers’. But it is not tolerable for people to discuss immigrants in this way, and it reflects badly on the character of the person speaking.

Brown’s behaviour was undeserving of the criticism he has received for another, broader reason: he did what you do everyday.

We all have two faces: our social face and our private face. Nobody loves everyone in their office, or everyone in their extended family. We show our smiling social face in the day, ask people we are utterly uninterested in about their children, and then we go home and complain about how boring they are to our partner over dinner. That is normal human behaviour, not least of all in Britain, which is still more private than most other countries.

If we despise the robotic version of politicians which have invaded our TV screens, the pre-programmed Cabinet-level automatons who emit soundbites and vacuity, then we must accept that politicians will behave like humans. They are not moral paradigms. Behaviour we would tolerate in a friend or colleague should be tolerated from them as well. This disproportionate reaction to their all-too-human failings will just provide us with another generation of political robots.

The attack that’s currently underway won’t fade quickly, and it will frame perception of his performance in Thursday’s TV debate, which he desperately needs to win. But Brown isn’t particularly out of order – you’ve done the same thing yourself. Glass houses and all that.

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