British politics was shaken by a ‘leak’ from a BBC employee this week. Notable BBC bigmouth Jeremy Clarkson, presenter of a television programme about cars, was caught making outrageous (and accurate) comments about a national leader. Clarkson has been touring Australia with a stage version of the BBC driving show Top Gear (the mind boggles – does Stig test drive hot hatchbacks up and down the aisles in a partial recreation of scenes from the Italian Job?). Whilst on stage, the outspoken celebrity had the ill grace to comment about Kevin Rudd, the Australian Prime Minister. In an unrehearsed outburst, he openly and unashamedly implied that Rudd was an honest politician. This has caused a furore, though seemingly not in the outback.
Ooops, I got confused there. Nobody is upset about what Clarkson said about Kevin Rudd. At least, I cannot find any newspapers saying people were upset about that. In fact I cannot find any newspapers saying anybody who was actually there was upset about that or anything else. But I can find plenty of British newspapers (The Mirror, The Sun, The Guardian and plenty more) reporting how plenty of British politicians (none of whom were at the event) were very upset with what Clarkson said about the British Prime Minister.
The funny thing is, when you compare two things, if one is treated favourably, the other must come off less well. Put simply, Jeremy Clarkson said that Gordon Brown, British PM, was not as trustworthy as Kevin Rudd, at least when it comes to explaining how bad the world’s economic mess is. And that is what has caused the upset, perhaps…
Part of the job of politics is to communicate. Jeremy Clarkson should know all about that. He is a very effective communicator, and his success depends entirely on his ability to amuse audiences by saying things they think are true, but do not hear other people say. There are a lot of politicians who could learn a valuable lesson from how Clarkson builds empathy with an audience by playing the part of the plain-speaker. Politicians do not talk plainly. They say the word ‘rhubarb’ over and over, as if it has some meaning (say it to yourself a few times without pausing – you will get the idea). As of today, whilst we know that a lot of Gordon Brown’s political supporters are upset, it is not very clear what they are upset about. Brown has steered clear of the topic. Brown’s office wisely decided not to pour fuel on the fire and simply said that Clarkson “is entitled to his own interpretation of the economic circumstances”. Last time I checked, in the British democracy, people were entitled to have negative opinions about politicians, as well as positive ones. Democracy would not work well otherwise. Imagine if Clarkson, and everyone else, was mandated to say: “Gordon Brown is as honest as Kevin Rudd who is as honest as David Cameron who is as honest as Nick Clegg who is as honest as George W. Bush who is as honest Tony Blair who is as honest as Barack Obama who is as honest as Ehud Olmert who is as honest as Vladimir Putin who is honest as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who is as honest as Josef Stalin who is as honest as Gandhi who is as honest any other politician or world leader you can think of.” Not everybody is as honest as everybody else. If we cannot voice opinions that say Mr. A is better than Mrs. B at such-and-such, you might as well not bother having a democracy.
For all that, commenting on Brown’s honesty has only been a peripheral cause of complaint. After talking about Kevin Rudd, this is the exact phrase which described Brown and caused all the trouble:
“We’ve got this one-eyed Scottish idiot.”
Why has this upset people? The number one reason, measured by the number of words in each newspaper, is that Clarkson described Gordon Brown as Scottish. The Scottish Labour leader, Iain Gray, responded by saying:
“Most people here are proud that the prime minister is a Scot and believe him to be the right person to get the UK through this global economic crisis.”
Hmmm. I presume Iain Grey is not so silly to believe that Gordon Brown is the right person because he is a Scot, so why he is worked up about the mentioning of something that was, in hindsight, irrelevant?
Coming in a poor second, the next most popular reason for upset was that Clarkson referred to the fact that Gordon Brown has a glass eye, a consequence of an accident whilst playing rugby. The chief executive for the Royal National Institute for Blind, Lesley-Anne Alexander, said:
“Any suggestion that equates disability with incompetence is totally unacceptable.”
Some combined disability and Scottishness into a hybrid cause for fury. Angus Robertson, the Scottish National Party’s leader at Westminster, said the comments were “totally inappropriate” and also said:
“Everyone should be upset about someone making jokes about someone else’s partial blindness and nationality, but knowing Jeremy Clarkson I don’t hold out a lot of hope that he will be apologetic.”
You should re-read that. Everyone should be upset about jokes about disability and nationality. Everyone. What a saint Angus Robertson must be. Perhaps we should follow him around the campaign trail, as he visits the homes of ordinary people, or chats with them in the pub. Because, by his admission, everyone should be upset by jokes about nationality, which includes Scots not making jokes about the English. Do you reckon Angus gets equally upset whenever one of his voters makes an uncouth comment linking their hatred of the English to their reasons for wanting Scottish independence?
The number three reason for alarm, hardly mentioned at all in any of the quotes in any of the newspapers, was that Clarkson implied Brown was not that honest. I could only find one quote that refers to it, and it comes from Lord Foulkes, a former Labour Scottish minister:
“He has insulted Gordon Brown three times over: accusing him of being a liar, having a go at him for having a physical handicap, and for his nationality.
“It is an absolute outrage of the worst kind. Disabled people will be up in arms about it, Scottish people will be angry – and it should concern all of us that the prime minister has been accused of lying.”
How interesting. Of all the multitudes of people who are upset, the vast majority are only worried by the implication that Gordon Brown is a one-eyed Scot. Only one politician spotted that implying he was dishonest was not very nice. Politicians are liars, so here is a quick fact-check in relation to Clarkson’s comment, which once again was:
“We’ve got this one-eyed Scottish idiot.”
1. Does Gordon Brown have only one eye?
Yes. Unless you count his glass eye as an eye, which it is not, then Brown has precisely one eye.
2. Is Gordon Brown Scottish?
Yes. He was born in Glasgow, was brought up in Kirkcaldy, went to University in Edinburgh and has been an MP for a Scottish constituency for over 20 years. I doubt anyone would question his Scottishness.
3. Is Gordon Brown an idiot?
You can decide that for yourselves. But in the reporting of this fuss and nonsense, I can see plenty of other politicians who seem like idiots to me. They could speak more plainly, like Clarkson. For all the fuss and bother about Brown being a one-eyed Scot (which he is) nobody thought to defend him on the really important point of whether he is an idiot. Calling somebody one-eyed is not an insult, if they have one eye. Despite all the clamour over Clarkson saying Brown is Scottish, there is no reason to believe that Clarkson considered that bit to be the insulting part of his comment. The insulting part of Clarkson’s quote was calling Brown an idiot. However, not one of this mob who so desperately leaped aboard the press quote bandwagon felt it necessary to mention whether they thought Brown was an idiot or not.
All in all, it seems the vast majority believe Clarkson’s mistake was to call Brown a one-eyed Scottish idiot. If Clarkson had simply said ‘Brown is an idiot’, presumably nobody would have had any reason to complain.
An interesting update to the story was that Clarkson issued an apology. However, the apology only covers the ‘one-eyed’ bit of the comment. What an absurd world that a man who makes his living from saying provocative things feels compelled to say sorry for calling a one-eyed man a one-eyed man. At least he did not turn his humour in the direction of farce, and rejected any demands that he say sorry for calling Brown Scottish, as if being Scottish was something that cannot be discussed in polite society. Of course, what the rhubarb crowd who (mis-)manage the country want is for him to say sorry for calling Brown an idiot, but they know they will never get that, and nor should they.
Britain is a democracy, at least on the surface. Our Prime Minister is a one-eyed Scot, and thankfully, nobody thinks that should be a state secret. It is a plain fact. There is no reason to deny it or prevent people saying so openly. Clarkson could call Brown a one-eyed Scot ten thousand times over, and it still would not be an insult. Calling him an idiot in an insult, and implying he is liar is an insult. The chief executive of the RNIB gave the game away with her comment about equating disability with incompetence. If Clarkson called Brown a one-eyed Scottish hero you would not get someone from the RNIB moaning that the reference to the partial blindness of a hero, or somebody from the Scottish Parliament crying fowl that the hero’s nationality was referred to. Everyone caught defending Brown’s disability, or Scottishness, should have a hard think about what they want from this world. Is it unfair to call a Scot an idiot, as if there could be no idiots in Scotland? Is it wrong to point out that a man has both one eye and is an idiot, implying that losing an eye guarantees an above average intellect? Calling somebody one-eyed is not an insult, unless you link it to their also being an idiot. For all this nonsense, Clarkson’s only sin is to have called somebody an idiot at the same time as the other things, but in a PC world gone topsy-turvy, nobody asks him to retract the ‘idiot’ comment…
After all the uproar, hardly anyone thought to defend Brown’s competence, or asked Clarkson to focus his apology on those points. Is this a tacit admission, even by Brown’s supporters, that the British PM is a lying idiot? If you are not going to defend Brown as a politician, he needs no defense for being the one-eyed Scot he is. There is plenty of irony that, in aiming to shout down Clarkson, so many are obviously hoping to grab column inches using pretty much the same tactic as Clarkson himself – saying something daft just to get attention. If our politicians were more dignified, they would have done the opposite of Clarkson, and keep their mouths shut. Brown’s being a one-eyed Scot is a matter of fact, not an insult, no matter how stupidly Clarkson put his jibe. It is certainly not a secret and denying people the right to say facts out loud is ludicrous. Whatever next? Is it okay to call Barack Obama an idiot, good to call him a black hero, but outrageous to call him a black idiot? I keep getting fed up with references to Boreama’s blackness, so you can understand why I find it a little confused that some adjectives need to be repeated ad nauseam when conjoined with praise, but can never be said out loud when mixed with criticism. Either being black or Scottish, or one-eyed is irrelevant, or it is not. The problem with PC ethics is that distinctions between people are encouraged, when linked to something positive, but treated as disdainful when associated with a fault. Logically speaking, being a Scot is relevant to Brown’s competence as PM or it is not. It is hypocrisy to say, on one hand, that you are proud that the PM is a Scot, and on the other to complain about mentioning the PM’s nationality whilst implying he is incompetent.
That Brown is an idiot is a matter of opinion, and is an insult. But the good thing about democracies is that they entertain freedom of speech. Even idiot politicians are allowed to have their say, for what little good that does. I saw that the original Pop Idol winner, Will Young, was a novelty addition to the usual rent-a-gob goons (Chakrabarti, Farage etc) to the BBC’s Question Time this week, which says everything you need to know about the standard of political ‘debate’ in the UK. Not only did he appear, but he was crediting with boosting the ratings to a season high! But however poor debate is, people are entitled to say what they like, and that includes people calling politicians idiot liars if they feel like. Even Will Young knows that. It was Young, the amateur amongst the other all-pro gob squad, who had the courage to point out that the obsession with saying the right thing, and avoiding offense, means “everything is becoming a little bit vanilla”.
Calling a politician an idiot or a liar is fine by the average voter, who would only agree. Demanding censorship of such statements is the real disgrace in this story, and gives the game away on how much these politicians really care for the freedom of speech that democracy depends upon. Thankfully, like Rudd, Clarkson, and the audience of his stage show, there will always be plenty of plain-speakers to tell the politicians when they are wrong – though most of the plain speakers will just ignore all this rhubarb and turn the telly to Top Gear.
*** Update ***
Does Jeremy Clarkson read my blog? Probably not, but it seems he had the same insight into what was right, and wrong, about all the complaints over what he said. So, to make his position clear, Clarkson has said sorry for pointing out that Gordon Brown is a one-eyed Scot. Though this is true, Clarkson says he was wrong to point out Brown’s nationality and disability whilst also calling him an idiot. But Clarkson is not sorry for calling the British PM an idiot! Whilst it seems incredible this non-story has run so long already, I eagerly look forward to what the rent-a-quote crowd say now. Will be they complain that saying Brown is an idiot is unfair to idiots everywhere?