Saturday 19 December 2009

The Parliamentarian as troll

Philip Davies MP is Parliamentary spokesman for the Campaign Against Political Correctness, which surely deserves an award for Britain's most headache inducing political website.

His letters to the Equality Commission, reported in the Guardian today, demonstrate a rare ability to bring the forensic intellectual skills of the blogosphere troll to the apex of policy and parliamentary debate.

But what is his point?

Some of what is called 'political correctness' is simple civility. And much of the rest is myth and nonsense. There may sometimes be a few hyper-sensitive and over-zealous council officials somewhere, much of what Davies and the CAPC do is propagate regularly debunked myths about the abolition of Christmas and the banning of baa baa black sheep from the nation's nursery schools.

I was on a radio five discussion of "has political correctness gone too far" with Davies earlier this year. I wanted to clear up one simple question. Was there anything he wanted to say on the radio which he felt he couldn't because of PC?.

This was not long after Christmas last year. I had been delighted to find that it hadn't been banned at all, having watched Carols from Kings broadcast by the state-funded BBC to get everyone in the mood on Christmas Eve. Happily, Davies had managed to have a very good Christmas too.

So what couldn't Davies say that he wanted to? Nothing at all, that he was able to identify anyway, it seemed. He muttered something about some organisations not feeling they could use the word "chairman". But he seemed to agree that whether they preferred "chairman" or "chair" should be up to them. "Is that really all you have got? asked a not particularly impressed Nicky Campbell.

So what had we lost? It seemed to me that words like "poof" and "paki" were understood to be pointlessly offensive, and were not much used in polite society. I thought that was a good thing. And Davies was not, of course, the type to see anything to regret in that.

But the idea that debate about immigration had been "silenced" seemed to be disproved every time one opened a newspaper or switched on the radio. That had demonstrably been the case throughout the last forty years. (Here is chapter and verse on not just the debate, but the frequent restrictive legislation under governments of both parties in this period of 'silence').

The unwitting casual racial stereotyping of shows like "Love Thy Neighbour" had fallen out of fashion, but it was difficult to find that they would find a mass audience today. (Though shows like Goodness Gracious Me had shown that race and identity are often the source of humour: poking fun at certain British Asian traits and images but, as in the going for an English sketch, directing the satire in different directions too). And though The Times headline suggests the Tory MP is 'lobbying for blacking up, I don't think Davies wants the 'black and white minstrels' back on TV, unless he could advise otherwise: that is why I would suggest that he appears to simply be trolling for effect.


So the really odd thing about 'political correctness gone mad' campaigns in Britain is that we have had much more of the backlash than we ever had of the thing itself.

It is an attempt to import US style culture war backlash politics. Yet there have never been significant affirmative action programmes, nor did most of the academy in the UK ever see anything like the battles in parts of the US over the need literary canon to dethrone the Dead White Male. (I once chaired a CRE event with Boris Johnson, when an MP, where speaking alongside Sarah Teather and Sadiq Khan, he launched into a Philip Davies-style 'why can't we celebrate Shakespeare' lament, and he seemed enormously chuffed when both Sadiq Khan and myself couldn't see what was stopping him. "I'd plant my Union Jack on that" he said, excited at the idea that the left had been doing a good deal of thinking about Britishness).

If Jan Moir or Rod Liddle seem to cross the line into unthinking prejudice, then the deal should be the freedom to offend, and the freedom of others to call you a bigoted idiot. So I have never quite understood why those who demand the freedom to offend so often seem to regard criticism of their views as stupid. The gain or loss of public reputation perhaps depending on how cogent or ill-informed you are seen to be. How has the freedom to speak out robustly been lost if you are robustly criticised?


Davies might well think that he is simply arguing his own version of what Sadiq Khan has (rather more substantively) called a 'fairness, not favours' approach to equality and discrimination.

Yet that doesn't seem the case either. Davies may think he is mostly arguing against 'special' rights - yet he is also (confusingly) prepared to troll in the cause of opposing straightforward equal treatment too.

I know this because had a call from his office in March, as reported here at the time, seeking some background on the issue of Royal succession, as he was planning to talk out Evan Harris' bill to end male primogeniture.

His office didn't seem to know much at all about the issue - and Next Left does provide a comprehensive briefing service on the 'equal rights for Royal princesses' campaign.

In sending the information, I asked for confirmation that he was indeed opposed on principle to ending male primogeniture, noting that it had proved very difficult to identify any MP who was, and that we would be amused to have somebody to argue the principle against. I mentioned that those dangerous radicals on the Times leader writing team had backed the Fabian gradualist reform Bill by arguing a strong Monarchist case that "it would be intriguing to see how any parliamentarian could publicly defend the present method of succession" when it was "ostentatiously bonkers". (This seemed to me a strange case of 'political incorrectness gone mad'. Why on earth would a proud Monarchist like Davies want to argue that women were less suited to the role after the 50 year reign of the Queen?).

Perhaps this had an educative effect. Davies did not mount much of an argument in his speech. Indeed, he was still (just about) against the Bill but not against its principles. He noted that he was opposed to gender discrimination, and so ought to oppose it in this case too. "The points made about discrimination are, on a superficial level, perfectly clear and understandable, and nobody believes in such discrimination, so those points are well made".

Yet conservatives had to be very wary of unnecessary changes. After rambling speech (Hansard), in which MPs intervened to try to get him to clarify whether his lengthy contribution was intended to support or oppose the Bill, he arrived at what he had decided was his point.

The relevant point is that this may be a matter of great interest to academics and to people in debating societies, but the vast majority of people in this country are worried about losing their jobs and homes and about rising crime levels, and I wonder whether this issue is at the top of their list of concerns. How important is it to the nation as a whole? I suspect that most people in the country would think that this is unnecessary stuff. They may even mildly support the Bill, if they were to hear all its provisions, but they would not think it one of the most important matters for the Government to legislate on.

Perhaps Parliament should have better things to focus on. And yet Davies himself clearly does not. So whether he is filibustering Bills because the issues don't matter, or peppering the Equality Commission with his incisive questions, Davies' efforts and energy surely merit some recognition.

Since little may be forthcoming from his own frontbench, I do hope he will be proud that Next Left has decided to dub him Philip Davies MP, chief of the Parliamentary trolls.

And though all common sense would say "don't feed the trolls", we do look forward to following him more closely in future.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

That woman is the queen of parliamentary trolls then.

There is a difference though, Davies may well be embarrassed by your excellent piece and other examinations of his nonsense, the truly psychotic troll will not be.

So he may not be quite the prince he no doubt likes to imagine.

I have always wondered who actually decides what is politically correct. Our society's mores vary from time to time and milieu vary.

How much does anyone wish to have in common with these people?