published on: Guardian
Should politicians speak their mind, or mind how they speak?
Gordon Brown, who has apologised for calling a Rochdale woman 'bigoted'.
Whether or not this exciting and unpredictable election breaks the mould of British politics, it may be remembered as the campaign in which some leading politicians actually said what they thought: Tory Europhobes are in league with a bunch of nutters, and people who disparage immigrants are bigoted. I can't have been the only viewer to do a double take – did he really just say that? – when Nick Clegg used that particular N-word in the second TV debate. But after all the gibberish about "fairness" and empty rhetoric of the manifestos and party election broadcasts, it was refreshing to hear someone use language that had not been vetted into gaffe-proof blandness by the spin doctors. The excellent Tory blogger Iain Dale has pointed out that, as the party leaders had agreed with the charity Rethink not to use language likely to increase stigma against people with mental health problems, Clegg should have apologised. Dale added: "It may be a small thing to some people – and a case of political correctness gone mad for others – and of course people say many things in the heat of the moment, but a word of regret from Mr Clegg may be in order here. "Clegg doesn't need me to defend him – it would be inconsistent of me, given that the Guardian scrupulously avoids the use of offensive words such as "nutter" – but all the same: in an era when, if you say "isn't it a nice day?" to a politician, they will start evaluating how it will play in the tabloids before replying, he surely deserves some credit for being human, and not a permanently on-message android. The same argument might apply to Gordon Brown, had he not characteristically made a difficult situation worse today with his grovelling apologies over what, despite our best efforts to stamp out the automatic application of "gate" to anything remotely scandalous, some of my colleagues are calling "Bigotgate".In reply to the woman who asked "All these eastern Europeans – where are they coming from?" the prime minister might have settled for a simple reply: "Er … eastern Europe."Instead he let slip that he thought her a "bigoted woman". Given that she also said: "You can't say anything about immigrants," he may have had a point. Why shouldn't he speak his mind for a change? Better, surely, than following John Prescott's example and giving her a thump.