Gordon Brown, Bigot-gate, and Brexit.

Was this the moment that resulted in Brexit?

It was ten years ago this year (October 2009) that the BBC’s Question Time reached an audience of eight million viewers for the only time in its lengthy history. The reason? Well, that was human curiosity at the inclusion of the leader of the British National Party, Nick Griffin, on the panel. For those that don’t remember, the invite to Griffin to appear on the show caused considerable controversy. There were protests and complaints. Columns in the national press suggested that Griffin’s appearance would normalise the BNP and make it seem just like any other political party. Home Secretary Alan Johnson said that it would “legitimise” the views of the BNP and compared the party to fascism and the National Front. It didn’t happen. Griffin was revealed to be the vile creature he was. At the election in 2010, less than a year after the Question Time appearance, the BNP contested 339 seats. They won just 1.9% of the national vote despite the number of contested seats, and the average votes per candidate had gone down from the 2005 number, despite (or perhaps because of) the publicity on the BBC programme.

Let’s skip forward a few months to the election campaign in 2010 and Gordon Brown being recorded by accident telling those travelling with him in his car that the woman who he had just been speaking to was “bigoted” after she complained to him about the amount of Eastern Europeans “flocking” to the country, and about there being too many immigrants. The media jumped on him for his comments, and he apologised. More than that, he then went back for a forty minute chat with the woman in order to try to save face. But what had happened between October 2009 and April 2010? Nick Griffin was lambasted and reviled for his views on Question Time (and rightfully so) and yet there was outrage when Gordon Brown called out a woman for being bigoted for her views on immigration, but little anger for what she had actually said.

My suggestion is that it was that moment, “Bigot-gate,” when the seed was sown for Brexit. It wasn’t Question Time, accused of legitimisising the views of the far-right by allowing Nick Griffin to appear and show himself to be a vile human being, it was Gordon Brown apologising for the bigot comment. By apologising (and some might say grovelling), Brown did something that neither Griffin or Farage had managed to do – he admitted it was OK, legitimate, to think what Mrs Duffy thought about immigration and air those views in public. It’s certainly true that, in comparison to what many have said since (or what Griffin was saying at the time), her comments were relatively tame, but that is beside the point because everything we have now, not least Brexit, but also the racism, the xenophobia, the Islamophobia, the increased homophobia and misogyny – all of which we see on a daily basis on Twitter and in newspaper headline, and overhear down the pub – stems from Gordon Brown’s apology. In apologising, effectively saying that it wasn’t bigoted or wrong to have those thoughts, Gordon Brown brought bigotry, hatred, and the distrust of those unlike ourselves back into the mainstream. He gave Mrs Duffy a voice. It opened the floodgates; people need no longer be ashamed of what they thought about any group of people.

This begs the question of what should Brown have done once he had said Mrs. Duffy was a bigot? The answer, in all likelihood, is that he should have gone on TV, smoothed things over by saying he had chosen his words badly, and then gone on to explain why what had been said had upset him so much in the first place and why it had no place in British society. Instead, the opposite happened.

While Nick Griffin sank back into obscurity, the next couple of years saw many changes. Immigration became a core policy of the coalition government formed in 2010, and, beyond that, political language changed – it was fine for Cameron & Co to name and shame those they thought were responsible for the state of the nation. Immigrants weren’t the only enemy of the people, but also the unemployed (people were either workers or shirkers) and the disabled who couldn’t work. The people wanted someone to blame for the financial crash, and, now he felt he could pick on certain groups, naming and shaming them for all to see. It was OK to do that now.

Then, of course, there was the rise of UKIP and Nigel Farage in particular, leading his party in the 2013 local elections to 23% of the vote. Within three years of Mrs Duffy’s comments about immigration, one in four people at the polling booth were voting UKIP (in the wards where they put forward a candidate). By 2014, Mrs Duffy’s comments seemed mild compared to what Farage was saying at his party conference:

“In scores of our cities and market towns, this country in a short space of time has frankly become unrecognisable. Whether it is the impact on local schools and hospitals, whether it is the fact in many parts of England you don’t hear English spoken any more. This is not the kind of community we want to leave to our children and grandchildren.”

(Nigel Farage, 2014 UKIP conference speech)

And this, of course, is the kind of rhetoric and opinion that led many to vote for Brexit in 2016. Would Farage have been saying this if Gordon Brown hadn’t opened the door for him by legitimising this train of thought? Would Boris Johnson be getting away with his “letterbox” and “bank robber” comments? We shall never know for sure, but for me there is a clear trajectory. Without the “bigot” incident there would have been be no legitimate voice for UKIP, without that there would have been no referendum in an attempt to stop Tory voters flocking to UKIP, and without the referendum we wouldn’t be where we are now as new year begins with the UK in chaos. Oh, Gordon Brown and Mrs. Duffy, what a wonderful thing hindsight can be.

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Naive Nick’s Mental Health Pledge

nick clegg mental health

Are those with mental health conditions meant to be jumping for joy at Nick Clegg’s announcement today that a target would be set that all sufferers will have access to talking therapies within eighteen weeks should the current coalition find themselves still in power after the next election?  This will, apparently, mean that around £120m of extra funding (more about the “extra” later) will be spent over the next two years – this will, I guess, go towards restoring some of the funding that has been cut over the last four years since the coalition  has been in power.

For me, the whole thing smacks of empty rhetoric, grave naivety and a cynical touting for votes.  No-one is going to moan that waiting times are going to be cut or that more spending on mental health will take place, but the ridiculous simplicity with which mental health is being treated is rather insulting to those who are suffering from these conditions.  It’s thought that up to 10% of sufferers die as a direct or indirect result of their condition.  Suicide is the biggest killer of men under 50 in the UK.  If those stats were related to a form of cancer, there would be a considerable outcry if a waiting time for treatment was reduced to eighteen weeks.  Reduced.  God knows how long the wait must be now if you’re not one of the lucky few who lives in the right postcode.

The lack of understanding of mental illness by those spouting these latest wonders is only too evident with the announcement that suicidal patients will get the same priority as those with a suspected heart attack.  That’s all very nice, but people with a suspected heart attack ring 999 – people who are suicidal do not.  Suffering from a mental health condition for up to eighteen weeks without access to certain treatment might be enough to turn someone suicidal in the first place. And there’s also this strange notion that people are either suicidal or they’re not – something which fails to take into account that people might be fine one day and not the next.  That MPs are simplifying conditions in this way is insulting – the least they could do is try to understand the issue in the first place.   But to do so, and to acknowledge the complexities doesn’t make for such rousing speech-writing.

And how about reviewing the benefits process for those with mental health conditions.  The Personal Independence Payment form might give an indication of how serious a physical disability is, but it’s a joke when it comes to mental health, with half of the questions not even applying to people with depression, schizophrenia, bipolar, and the like.  Can we use the loo?  Well, yes, thank you very much – but why aren’t you asking us about issues of concentration that prevent us doing things, or panic attacks that might stop us going to a supermarket.  And, wait for this one folks, if you can’t use public transport due to your condition you might be awarded a free bus pass.  I kid you not.

Charities have welcomed today’s news – they have little choice: more funding is better than funding cuts, no matter how modest the targets that have been set.  Just six weeks ago, The Independent ran a story stating that mental health services are “dangerously close to collapse,” and that there were 3000 less nurses working in the sector than two years earlier.  57 mental health trusts had lost £253m in funding.  And yet we should be saying “well done” and “how wonderful” to the coalition for promising to put half of that money back.   That’s hardly “extra funding.”

I confess that I have been lucky during the twenty years I have had my own condition.  When I first fell ill, I got to see a doctor within hours (this was 1995 when you could do that) and, since then, I have always been treated by my succession of GPs with respect, concern and (thankfully) good humour.  The last in that list might seem like an odd addition, but actually it highlights the importance of striking up a rapport with your GP, especially with regards to mental health conditions where, more than ever, everyone is different.  I have a great relationship with my GP, not least because she knows I’m more than willing to find the humour within the issues that I have.   It’s the way I get through.  Another doctor wouldn’t get or understand that.

The problem is that seeing your own GP (including my own) is not that easy anymore.  Often the waiting time to see your regular doctor these days is two weeks, not two hours.  If I had a severe turn for the worse with my illness, would I even contemplate seeing a doctor I didn’t know?  Probably not – and with good reason: notes on a screen are not the same as talking to someone who has seen how your condition has changed (or not) over a number of years.  Mental health conditions aren’t a series of test results, facts and figures, where X+Y = medication A.  It’s far more complicated than that – which is why some of the rhetoric used by Nick Clegg today comes across as so naive.

Any increase in mental health budgets is to be welcomed, but it shouldn’t have got this bad in the first place – and the amount of money involved doesn’t get close to making up for the cuts from the budgets over the last few years.  And, while Clegg has said he wants to work to stamp out the stigma associated with such conditions, that promise seems very empty too.  There are few, if any, signs of how he plans to do that.  Does he mean well?  Possibly.  But, as with most things he does and says, his ineptness and lack of deep understanding of the problem is laughable or offensive, depending on your mood (swing).

The “gay cake” row.

cake

The “gay cake” row has been rumbling on for a few days now.  The BBC website states the following:

“A Christian-run bakery that refused a customer’s request to make a cake with a slogan supporting gay marriage could face a discrimination case in court.

Ashers Baking Company declined an order from a gay rights activist, asking for cake featuring the Sesame Street puppets, Bert and Ernie.

The customer also wanted the cake to feature the logo of a Belfast-based campaign group called “Queerspace”.

The cake was ordered for a civic event in Bangor Castle Town Hall, County Down, to mark International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia”

The arguments on the web over the issue are becoming heated, which is rather surprising considering this appears to me to be a clear cut case of discrimination – just as in the case of the B&B that refused to allow a gay couple to share a room a few years back.  However, not everyone agrees.  Tina Calder of “News Letter” website write the following:

“While my personal opinion is to live and let live and I support everyone’s right to choose I have to say that includes the bakery.

I may think it is wrong for the bakery owner to refuse to make the cake but the solid facts of the matter are that this business proprietor had an absolute right to decline any order they didn’t want to service.

Surely serving a customer is at the discretion of the business owner?

If we are going to insist on fighting for equality then it’s important that we extend that right even to those we don’t agree with.

We may not believe in the same ethical principles as one another but it is important to respect people’s right to hold their opinion or beliefs.”

So, Miss Calder, the “serving of a customer is at the discretion of the business owner?”  Would you feel the same way if the cake owners had a sign in their window saying “no ethnic minorities?”  Would you feel there was anything wrong with that?  After all, it’s up to the discretion of the business owner who they serve, right?

Bollocks.

Unsurprisingly, the Daily Mail (ever the voice of reason!) have rather exaggerated the issue:

“The challenge to the Christian-run Ashers Baking Company is the first likely legal case in which anyone has been told it is against the law to refuse to take part in gay rights publicity campaigns.”
Errr, that’s not strictly true.  They were being asked to provide a cake – that they were getting paid for.  That’s hardly the same as holding them at gunpoint and making them walk down the street in drag with a rainbow flag.

Steve Doughty of the Daily Mail goes on (and on…):

“Mr Lee was turned down not because of his sexual orientation but because of the provocative nature of the cake he wanted baked.”
Hardly provocative given that we are living in 2014.  We are talking about two characters from Sesame Street here.

Of course, the Daily Mail article has the backing of the “news”paper’s readers. “Daffodil” suggests that:

“the answer is ,,,Bake the cake and charge ’em £ 1000.00. that should do it .”

This might be a great decision.  The bakery could then donate the £1000 to “Daffodil” so that she could go to evening classes and learn how to use full stops, commas, and capital letters.  A win-win situation.

Meanwhile, “Papillon” writes states that the situation is:

“forced tolerance. makes a lot of sense. I feel so guilty to be a white heterosexual male. I must be the bad guy.”

Well, Papillon might well be the bad guy.  He does, after all, have an avatar of a man cocking a pistol (oh, the irony).

“F2” asks the following question:

“Should gay bakers be forced to make cakes with “Oppose Gay Marriage” slogans?”

Whether we like it  or not, that is a question that needs to be asked, even if the scenario is as unlikely as being asked to bake a cake with a slogan on it supporting gay marriage.

What seems most odd, however, is why a certain group of people believe that rules do not apply to them because they believe in a man in the sky.  Yes, they have a right to believe what they want – and I have no argument against that – but if they run a company (whether a B&B or a bakery) designed to serve the public, then that is what they should do.  The law that states that business owners have a right not to serve people at their own discretion is archaic and needs to be changed.   This may well be a test case for that if it ever gets to court.

The key thing here, though, is that religious beliefs should not be used as a valid excuse for discrimination.