‘This idiot has no place in British public life’

This is an outtake from Alwyn Turner’s new book, All in Together: England in the Early 21st Century (to be published on 17 June).

David Cameron’s aim was, in the terminology of the time, ‘to detoxify the Conservative brand’. The 2005 election campaign (‘Are you thinking what we’re thinking?’) had been, he concluded, ‘too right-wing and rather mean-spirited’. That had been the nasty party.

So the Tories had to repent of their sins – particularly their sexism, homophobia and racism – and the first sacrificial offering was Patrick Mercer. Formerly an army colonel, now a Conservative MP and the party’s spokesperson on homeland security, Mercer gave an interview in 2007 to Times Online, in which he discussed race and racism in the forces.

Most black soldiers, he said, would have been on the end of racial insults, in the same way that ‘a chap with red hair, for example, would also get a hard time’. Such expressions were common. ‘That’s the way it is in the Army. If someone is slow on the assault course, you’d get people shouting: “Come on you fat bastard, come on you ginger bastard, come on you black bastard”.’ He’d served in the Worcestershire and Sherwood Foresters, and had seen it for himself. ‘I had five company sergeant majors who were all black,’ he said. ‘They were without exception UK-born, Nottingham-born men who were English – as English as you and me. They prospered inside my regiment, but if you’d said to them: “Have you ever been called a nigger?” they would have said: ‘Yes’.

On the other hand, he said, one had to distinguish between words and deeds: ‘I never came across a piece of nastiness inside the battalion that was based exclusively on racism.

His comments provoked an immediate outcry. Some senior Tories spoke up for Mercer, including Ken Clarke and Michael Ancram, and more importantly so too did some of the black soldiers who had served under him. ‘He never tolerated racism in the battalion,’ said one, ‘and not a single one of his men would consider him to be racist.’ Another, a former regimental sergeant major, talked of working with him ‘on initiatives to eradicate racist attitudes and to recruit people from ethnic minorities’.

Nonetheless the story was easily portrayed as nastiness rearing its head, and within a couple of hours of the piece being posted, Mercer had become the first frontbencher sacked by Cameron. The Tory leader said that the comments were ‘completely shocking’, and added: ‘racism is completely unacceptable and completely disgusting.’

This, though, was not quite the point. Mercer’s offence was not anything he’d done, rather what he’d left unsaid. He had described a situation and had not added words of condemnation. ‘The issue is not whether he is racist but his casual acceptance of racism in Britain,’ pontificated an editorial in the Daily Mirror (though in early editions the paper did refer to Mercer as ‘this racist’).

There were similar editorial comments elsewhere. ‘His words sent an appalling message about the acceptability of racial abuse,’ said the Independent. ‘He had to go.’ The Daily Express agreed (‘Mr Mercer had to go’), as did The Times, while the Daily Star went further and said Mercer should resign as an MP: ‘This idiot has no place in British public life.’ The Sun was unequivocal: ‘Ugly racism should be stamped out wherever it exists.’ Only the Daily Mail rejected what they called the ‘puffed up, politically correct zeal’ displayed by Cameron.

There were in these years any number of similar instances, people criticised for their words, and increasingly they were met with this near-unanimous condemnation. There was broad agreement that language should be policed.

And indeed that had always been the case. Isaac Cruikshank’s cartoon ‘Indecency’ (1799) depicts a woman urinating in the street with the caption: ‘Blast you, what are you staring at?’ Except it doesn’t actually say that; the first word is blanked out, so that it reads: ‘B—t you, what are you staring at?’ The image is fine, the blasphemy of the language is not.

In the 20th century, that attitude came to look terribly old-fashioned. On the other hand, sexual slang that had once tolerated was now considered beyond the pale. The Oxford English Dictionary notes that there have been at least twenty instances of streets named Gropecunt Lane in England, but none has survived into the modern era.

Similarly, excretory references. There’s a cave system in Derbyshire traditionally known as the Devil’s Arse, in reference to the deeply unpleasant noises made by the water. The name was changed to the Peak Cavern back in 1880, for fear of offending Queen Victoria who was coming to visit, but in 2001 – standards having changed again – the old name was restored (and visitor numbers were said to have risen by 30 per cent).

In dealing with offensive language, modern newspapers did the same as had Cruikshank in the 18th century and blanked out letters. Some had to remain, though, otherwise the meaning was lost; when Paul McCartney was quoted in the Sun in 2003, calling the American illusionist David Blaine ‘a stupid ****’, it left the Guardian wondering what word he’d actually used: ‘It might be tw*t, s***, pr*t or (as was the case) c***.’ Mind you, c*** was ambiguous, admitting of more than one possibility, as was ‘b******’; which is why in 2014 the Daily Telegraph reported James May as saying that his fellow Top Gear host Jeremy Clarkson was a ‘b***e**’.

The problem with this approach was that it threw the onus of offence onto the reader. The publication was too polite and proper to say ‘shit’, but ‘s***’ still put the word in the readers’ heads; it did nothing to protect their sensibilities, it merely covered the paper’s own a***. Likewise, formulations such as ‘the F-word’ and ‘the C-word’. If the listeners didn’t know the expression, then it was meaningless; and if they did, they internally translated it into the original words.

Further complications arose with phrases that transgressed in multiple directions. When the Chelsea and England football captain, John Terry, was accused in 2011 of calling a rival player, Anton Ferdinand, a ‘fucking black cunt’ during a match, many newspapers asterisked out the first and third words, to give us ‘f****** black c***’. But in this instance it was the one word the newspapers were prepared to print that landed Terry in court, charged with a racially aggravated public-disorder offence. ‘When someone calls you a cunt, it’s okay,’ said Ferdinand, giving evidence. ‘But when someone puts your colour into it, it takes it to another level.’ (Terry was acquitted.)

There is, of course, always language that is forbidden, and the choice of what is banned reflects the public values of society at the time. In modern Britain, as Mercer discovered, racial epithets were the new taboo. The F-word and the C-word, even if sometimes permissible in private, were still unacceptable in public conversation, but the N-word and the P-word were entirely off-limits in all contexts.

coming soon:


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