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.

On Education

I watched Question Time last night.  I’m not sure why I do it every week.  I think I have some sort of inner desire to shout at the telly every seven days, and Question Time allows me to do that.  You also get to play games each week, guessing how many minutes it will take for the unemployed to be referred to as “scroungers” and for immigration to be viewed as the downfall of the country.  I guess it’s easier for the MPs to do that than blame themselves and the bankers for the mess we’re in.

I have to say last night’s discussions were a little less heated than I thought they would be.  After all, with Halloween monster Peter Hitchens seated at a table with Owen Jones, surely Guy Fawkes night would come early and there would be fireworks?  Well, yes there were some, not least because Hitchens thinks global warming is a load of nonsense, but it was still a relatively sedate affair.  However, the programme does allow me suitable cover in order to write about politics (well, education) in a blog dedicated to film, tv and music.  And without anyone noticing.

Much of the discussion last night centred on the issue of whether schools should be able to hire unqualified teachers.  The problem with these kinds of questions on this kind of programme is that the point-scoring politics comes first and the question itself gets shoved to one side.  I admit that I think all teachers should have the basic PGCE qualification so that they are given the necessary tools, knowledge and background information with which to teach in 2013.  That said, I don’t believe that anyone who passes that qualification is necessarily a better teacher than someone who doesn’t

I view teaching a little like I view acting.  You can attend drama school and there you can be taught stage craft, styles of acting, etc but at the end of the day if you couldn’t act when you started drama school you’re not going to be able to act when you leave.  You either have the basic gift to start with or you don’t.  You can attend singing lessons for ten years but, if you don’t have a decent set of pipes to start with, you’re not going to become a great singer.

Teaching is the same.  You’re either good at it or you’re not, and while a PGCE can help you develop that talent, you’re not going to become a great teacher if you don’t have that innate ability to start with.   I was taught by great teachers at school and some crap teachers at school – but they all had the same qualification.  Likewise, I have come across some great lecturers at university and some awful ones – and none of those have a teaching qualification.   So, while I agree school teachers should have a PGCE, I don’t think it necessarily means they are going to be a great teacher.

However, all of this is part and parcel of our school system, and has been for many years – it’s all about passing exams and not learning a subject.  Twenty years ago, I was studying A-level English Literature at sixth form – but actually what I learned was how to pass an exam by studying nine works.  I spent two years studying English Literature and yet was never taught about Dickens, Austen, Chaucer, Hemingway, Keats or Wordsworth. I wasn’t taught the history of the novel, or the development of drama from Shakespeare to the present day.  I was taught to pass an exam.  And this is the way the system works both within schools and beyond, from PGCEs to driving tests.

It appears that things are about to get worse.  Michael Gove’s reforms of the curriculum are going to ensure that some subjects concentrate more on facts than analytical skills.  One has to wonder what decade Mr Gove is living in.  We are not living in a time where knowing the dates of Henry VIII’s birth and death is going to achieve anything – we carry that sort of information around with us all the time now, as we can aceess it via the internet or on our phones.  Surely history is more about analysing the past than trying to remember dates?  Surely music is more about understanding the structure of Bach’s music than remembering where he was born?  And how is learning facts and figures going to prepare people for careers or university?  The only career this is going to prepare people for is a role on future series of Eggheads or The Chase.

Gove was recently criticised by Lord Baker for basing his education reforms on “his own personal experience”.  While it is nice that he looks back on his schooling so fondly, this is also the schooling that helped to create the man who gets booed enthusiastically by the Question Time audience each time his name is mentioned.  I’m not sure that being one of the most hated men in British politics is a recommendation for a trip back fifty years in the school curriculum time machine.

Gove has also presented us with his own hierarchy of subjects that matter and those that don’t.  The arts, apparantly, are superfluous.   And yet, the film industry alone employs an approximate 43000 people in the UK according to a report by Oxford Economics.  £2.2billion was generated through music tourism in the UK in 2012.  But, apparantly, still superfluous.

We have forgotten what our schools are for.  They are not to teach our kids simply facts and figures, although they must, of course, be a part of schooling.  But surely school is primarily there to teach kids the skills that they will need for life, their careers and for higher education if they choose that route.

School should be there to teach our children how to think, how to analyse, and how to criticise.

It should be there so that kids can explore all avenues, discover their aptitudes and learn who they are.

There are things I worry about in our schools much more than unqualified teachers.  I worry, for example, that qualified teachers will not be disciplined for refusing to teach about same-sex marriage in our classrooms.  Why should it be OK for a teacher to pass on his or prejudices to their pupils?  I worry that our kids are going to leave school being able to recite the dates of kings and queens and wars, but not have the skills to understand the implications of what happened between those dates.

I would suggest we should worry less about the very few unqualified teachers in free schools and more about the fact we have unqualified MPs, with no qualifications in teaching or education, setting a national curriculum based on their own narrow-minded views which the qualified teachers then have to do the best they can with.