7 December 2023
Probably a lovely town.
By John Watson
“Shithole” or “not shithole”, that is the question. No, not whether Stockton is a shithole. No one seems to care much about that but there has been quite a fuss about whether the Home Secretary James Cleverly said that it was one in the House of Commons. The tape running at the time was indistinct and we have to accept the Home Secretaries assertion that he said nothing about Stockton and was merely rude about its MP Alex Cunningham. Suppose, though, things had been different and he had made a flippant comment about that glorious northern town. Would it really have mattered?
Remember the scene in the House. Cunningham, bearded as one might expect of a Northern Labour MP, asks why 34% of the young people in Stockton are also in poverty. It was an annoying question, making a party point rather than seeking an answer and, sitting on the government benches, it would be easy to have been tempted into a flippant comment to one’s neighbour. Anyone might have done that and what would it have meant? Nothing really. It would have been a humorous if callous aside rather than serious commentary. One might have said it without knowing where Stockton is or indeed anything about it other than what everyone knows. The Stockton and Darlington railway, the first to use steam engines, was opened in 1825.
Still, that wasn’t the view taken by some of the more serious-minded on the Labour benches and anyone who has viewed Cunningham’s revelation of the offensive word on u-tube will have been entertained by the reaction of a lady Labour MP sitting behind him. She positively winced in horror, though whether at the use of such a disgusting term as “shithole” or at the injustice of applying it to one of the loveliest towns in the north of England is hard to say. If the former, then modern Labour MPs are more protected from the coarser side of life than I thought.
Of course it’s all too easy for flippant, and indeed not so flippant, comments to get picked up by intruding microphones. George Bush famously described a New York Times reporter as a “major league arse-hole”, something he had not intended to broadcast. Reagan made a deadpan joke about the imminent start of a nuclear war without realising that the mics were switched on and caused a national panic. Gordon Brown famously asked why he had been filmed talking to a bigoted woman and then made the terrible mistake of going back to apologise accompanied by television cameras. The truth of it is that all humans think things they would not want published, and from time to time slip them into a glib aside to a friend. It would be a po-faced world where everyone’s comments were entirely appropriate all of the time.
In the political world, however, it raises two questions. The first is whether we want our politicians to be human or like zombies from a different planet. If the former, then we must accept that from time to time they will make jokes or offensive comments, just as we do ourselves. To leap up spitting with indignation when they are overheard is just a childish form of hypocrisy, appropriate to the hard right and the hard left, where rules have always been valued over people. The other question, however, is a more serious one. Our politics do not suffer from people being too quick to express themselves but rather from the fact that ugly truths do not get spoken at all. Rather there is a temptation to massage what is said into a politically acceptable form.
Consider for a moment the debate over climate change where both the main parties are trying to slide back from what they have said in the past. Is that because the party leadership has lost interest in the environment, preferring perhaps to concentrate on bread and circuses in the Roman style? No, of course it isn’t. The truth is that they both made big promises without considering how practical they were being – rather in the way that Paul Newman undertook to eat 50 eggs in an hour in the film Cool Hand Luke. Did he know that he could eat those eggs? Of course not. 50 just sounded a good number to take a bet on. As it turned out he was lucky but the politicians who promised specific targets for emissions have been less so. Now all the talk is of being honest and levelling with the public. A very good idea in theory but not very consistent with a culture in which every loose word can be analysed for correctness.
The remedy for this state of affairs lies in the public’s hands. If we want more of the truth, we have to be easier on people who speak out of line. That doesn’t just mean sitting on the side-lines and smirking while others do the criticising. It is for us to go in and kick the backsides of those who are overly politically correct. The zealots have had their turn now and a pretty mess they have made of it. It is time for a reaction.