Last month, a multi-millionaire mate of the country's Old Etonian Prime Minister drunkenly assaulted and verbally abused a colleague for ordering him the wrong slice of dead animal for a late-night meal, duly securing his own suspension (and ultimately losing his contract with the BBC). How is it that a significant swath of the public came to consider him a victim? Notorious for bigoted and racist slurs against gays, Mexicans, Romanians, Roma, 'pikeys', 'niggers', 'slopes'; for joking about dead Argentineans and trade unionists; for having reportedly sold golliwog dolls and inspired at least one neo-Nazi mass murderer, how is it that the same man is not only tolerated but widely loved – and even portrayed as a martyr for the cause of free speech?
Anyone marvelling at this may find some insight in a University of Sheffield briefing on British attitudes to minorities and equality legislation published in November. One straight, middle-aged white British man told the researchers:
if you get caught saying 'that bloody Paki over there has run me off the road today', if anybody hears you they can report you for it. It's a sackable offence now. It's political correctness gone overboard, I think.
When racist abuse at work is curtailed, this loss of racial privilege is recast as victimhood – especially, as the quote suggests, via the language of 'political correctness'. Far from confined to the occasional crackpot, though, this discourse has deep roots in the public mind. The Sheffield researchers found
widespread hostility towards laws and regulations which were viewed as unfairly privileging minority groups and curtailing freedom of expression. Employing dominant narratives around 'political correctness', respondents perceived equality legislation to have resulted in an over-bearing regulation of public space and to the excessive empowerment of minority groups.
For these members of the public, such laws had brought about an 'erosion of "normal" and legitimate cultural practices', 'effectively curtailing "natural" or "normal" ways of behaving towards minority groups'. While 'the majority of the respondents acknowledged their ignorance' of the law, 'many nonetheless expressed hostility' – echoing 'pronounced hostility from right-wing commentators and the tabloid press'.
A favoured rhetorical tool in both Britain and the US, the language of 'political correctness' figures prominently in the 'culture wars' by which the right pit the 'ordinary majority' against demonised minorities and the disadvantaged. This common language, though, conceals divergent histories unfolding in different contexts. In the UK, the campaign against 'political correctness' aided the Thatcherite New Right in confronting Labour-dominated municipal councils. When these local authorities began to assert and defend the rights of women, ethnic minorities and homosexuals, decrying 'politically correct' lunacies helped the Thatcherites curb local powers. As James Curran, Ivor Gaber and Julian Petley reveal in Culture Wars: The Media and the British Left, the right-wing press led the charge, securing political space for a concerted counter-attack by ministers and politicians, sometimes aided by centrist or even liberal politicians and media. Lending this rhetoric its force was a concerted smear campaign: provocative and emotive myths demonising modest measures to defend equal rights as overweening, absurdist, lunatic attacks on the 'normal' majority.
The gay-friendly educational book Jenny Lives With Eric and Martin, for instance, came to public attention when a teacher's centre in Islington stocked a copy – using it on a limited basis with older pupils, subject to parents' consent. Despite this mundane, even mildly homophobic reality, the book became totemic in a hysterical media campaign against 'gay propaganda' in schools. Sunday Mirror columnist George Gale, for instance, cited 'pictures of Jenny on a bed with two queers'. As he wrote:
The idea that homosexuals form an oppressed minority is nonsense. The notion that they are entitled to propagate their peculiar practices at the public's expense is preposterous. Yet they are contriving to do so. They are now insinuating their sexist propaganda into some of our schools. Homosexuals are not entitled to promote before a captive and impressionable audience the gospel of Sodom and Gomorrah.
'Vile book in school', The Sun reported. 'Pupils see pictures of gay lovers.' The hysterical Today reported: 'Scandal of gay porn books read in schools'; 'The government was under intense pressure last night to stem the tide of pornography finding its way into schools'. The paper would later call the book 'pornographic, obscene' and 'offensive'. Politicians soon got involved: the Daily Mail cited Education Secretary Kenneth Baker: Jenny was 'grossly offensive', 'blatantly homosexual propaganda'. The Sunday Telegraph condemned it as an example of London schoolbooks that 'promote homosexual relationships'. 'Books reveal a new chapter in moral corruption', proclaimed the Daily Express. 'The full extent of the pollution of children's minds can be gauged by the wide selection of sex guides and advice now available in some classrooms'.
When Haringey Council committed to protect the rights of gay and lesbian staff, help kids struggling with their sexuality and include positive portrayals of homosexuality in the curriculum, they met what has been called 'Britain's best-organised, most intense manifestation of homophobia'. A Conservative leaflet screamed 'You do not want your child educated to be a homosexual or lesbian' and 'We do not believe in prejudicing young minds. AIDS is a killer'. The Sun reported:
Head teachers have been ordered to start the courses to counter the 'pernicious effects' of straight sexual relations. … They call for the promotion of positive images and practices of lesbianism and gays.
The Daily Express decried 'gay teach-ins' and ''gay" lessons'. 'We are on the edge of an abyss', screamed the local Hornsey Journal, quoting local Tory councillor Peter Murphy: 'No person who believes in God can vote Labour now. It is an attack on ordinary family life as a prelude to revolution.' The Daily Telegraph condemned 'a deliberate attempt to molest the sexual education of children without their parents' consent'. The Times decried 'malignant causes' of 'extremists' promoting 'sexual propaganda'.
On the eve of the 1986 Tory party conference, Paul Johnson complained in the Daily Telegraph that
an ever-expanding 'official' sex industry, largely financed by taxes and rates, is being permitted to corrupt the nation, and especially its young. The public promotion of promiscuity, especially of homosexuality, is now proceeding on an enormous scale, above all where Labour councils hold sway.
The object of such programmes is to destroy the faith of the young, not merely in the principle of sex within marriage, but in marriage itself and normal sex, above all, to recruit the homosexual partners of the future.
The immediate dangers of active, aggressive homosexual proselytising are obvious enough, given the alarming spread of AIDS.
Some of those involved in Labour local authority programmes clearly have evil motives. They want to proselytise on behalf of their sexual inclinations, with political recruiting as a bonus.
Flirting with direct incitement, Johnson concluded:
A number of well-organised and evil people and groups in this country have, in effect, declared war on the institutions of marriage and the family, and the Judaeo-Christian moral tradition. … It is time that the normal majority declared war in their turn, counter attacked, and took the warfare into enemy territory.
The media demonology soon provoked a political response, culminating in the notorious Clause 28 of the Local Government Act 1988. The Earl of Swinton called Haringey's policy 'pretty horrific'; Lord Campbell of Alloway labelled it 'the provision of explicit books' to children, 'the promotion of homosexuality' and 'a direct attack on the heterosexual family life'. Decrying a taxpayer-funded 'pile of filth', MP Dame Jill Knight stated:
There is evidence in shocking abundance that children in our schools, some as young as five years, are frequently being encouraged into homosexuality and lesbianism … Hundreds of thousands of pounds are being spent by some councils promoting homosexuality in our schools.
'At last,' The Sun exulted, 'Education Secretary Kenneth Baker is curbing the poisonous flow of homosexual propaganda into the schools'. Through pure propaganda, the media had turned measures to extend fairer treatment to a marginalised minority into an attack on the rights of the majority, thereby recasting the 'right' to dominate, marginalise and repress as natural and normal.
Racial and gender equality measures encountered the same campaign of demonisation, forging some of the most enduring, pervasive myths about 'political correctness'. These included baseless stories about Haringey's bans on black bin-liners, costly 'toilets for gypsies' and 'gay and lesbian unit'; 'Creole lessons' and replacing the borough's coffee with 'Marxist' Nicaraguan coffee. Brent was subsidising black people's trips to Cuba; Hackney changing the allegedly sexist 'manhole' to 'access chamber'. Following urban riots in 1985, the Daily Express even reported a 'chilling plot' by 'a hand-picked death squad believed to have been sent into London hell-bent on bloodshed'. 'Street-fighting experts trained in Moscow and Libya were behind Britain's worst violence', it claimed, some of its members 'lying low under the umbrella of outwardly innocent racial pressure groups in London'.
Most notorious was Hackney, Haringey and Islington Councils' fictional ban on 'Baa Baa Black Sheep'. . Alleging that Haringey had replaced the rhyme with 'Baa Baa Green Sheep', the Sun announced 'Green sheep take over': 'Labour has promised to step up the numbers of coloured immigrants. That's a mistake.' 'It's as pathetic a complaint as wanting to remove from the marmalade pot the friendly golly kids love', a letter in the Ilford Recorder complained. The myth almost found its way into an SDP party political broadcast, and was still being cited by The Sunday Times in 1998, the Daily Mail in 1999, the Evening Standard in 2000 and the Sun and Mail as late as 2003.
Political mythology, then, turned equality measures into extremist affronts against 'common sense', in turn defending racist policies. Instrumental in this campaign was the reframing of anti-racist action as itself not only racist or fascist, but an intrusive, oppressive, mendacious attack on the nation's naturally fair, tolerant and reasonable way of life. For the Daily Express, race relations law gave black people 'special status', 'dividing the two communities, instead of uniting them'. The Daily Telegraph dismissed the Commission for Racial Equality's equal opportunities code as 'bossy nonsense'; the Daily Express dubbed them 'the thought police'; the Daily Mail called it an 'agent for discord'; 'the equivalent of the Holy Inquisition'. The Daily Mail called a Greater London Council video on policing and a Commission for Racial Equality cartoon book on racism 'evidence of the torrent of lies and twisted truths that is indoctrinating our society today'. The Standard inveighed against the 'inverted racism' of the 'Thought police.' Anti-racists, stated philosopher Roger Scruton in The Times, are 'the real racists'. The Daily Mail called anti-racist policies 'reverse discrimination'; the Daily Express called them 'school apartheid', 'racist, patronising, divisive'. 'Nowadays,' the Mail asserted, 'racial strife is less likely to be caused by ordinary folk than by the professionals of the race relations industry who in effect go round looking for ways of stirring it up.' These extremists 'prate the evils of racism' but themselves 'personify fascism'. In the same paper, Roy Kerridge wrote:
Anti-Racist year, an encouragement to those whose interests lie in a racial power structure, seems to have set the seal of officialdom on a black movement that is essentially no different from the National Front.
'Much more effective than the National Front in stirring up racial hatred today are those ostensibly dedicated to anti-racism', wrote Peregrine Worsthorne in the Sunday Telegraph. 'I can think of nothing more likely to stir up race trouble in Britain than the activities' of the 'race relations fanatics', wrote Paul Johnson in the Daily Mail, adding that 'the National Front and the race relations doctrinaires are in unconscious alliance'.
It was over Brent's school 'race advisors' – dubbed 'race spies' – that the press created a true moral panic around anti-racism. Even the more neutral-sounding word 'race adviser' was in fact a media invention, and three government reports exonerated the borough, praising staff for pursuing 'their proper role' promoting racial equality in school practices and curricula, and condemning media coverage as 'outrageous' and 'disgraceful'. An undaunted media nevertheless demanded government intervention in the most hysterical terms, conflating 'politically correct' anti-racism with Soviet-style repression.
The Mail on Sunday wrote of 'teams who will move in at the first sign of prejudice.' It continued:
The plan is Orwellian. In every school teachers will be monitored for a 'correct' attitude towards racial matters. Those who do not conform will lose their jobs. Lessons will be watched and leisure activities, such as playgroups and school libraries, will be put under the microscope. Everybody and everything will be forced to conform to what the Race Relations Department of Brent Council regards as appropriate behaviour.
Unsure whether to acknowledge, dismiss or exploit black grievances, the article continued in a morass of self-contradiction:
These people's interest is in keeping black people down. They need black disaffection. The only people exploiting the black people in Brent are the racists of Brent Council. It is a racist council because it is using the legitimate and sometimes very painful grievances of black people for their own purposes.
It concluded: 'That is true cynicism. That is true evil. And that is true racism.'
The same paper's opinion column decried 'Race Commissars' that 'shame the nation':
'George Orwell's Thought Police have arrived. The barbarism of totalitarianism where the only wisdom is the state's wisdom, and the only Truth the State's Truth, is upon us. … Their aim is quite simply: To bring our democratic society crashing down around our bourgeois ears.
The Daily Express argued that they would promote 'racial disharmony': 'The more advisers, the more the mayhem'. The Sun portrayed a Soviet-style totalitarian 'nightmare', comparing Brent's staff to Russian 'commissars' enforcing 'the Communist party line'. A Daily Telegraph leader screamed 'Race disgrace', attacking 'the race relations policies of Brent Council proceeding from the absurd to the evil'. The policy was institutionalised 'persecution':
For too long there has been too much unquestioned defence of the manufactured sensibilities of the race relations lobby. … The race relations demagogues have accrued to themselves power and influence of ridiculous proportions … If necessary, Brent must be made an example of.
The Standard diagnosed a 'bigoted and oppressive system of control':
They are building up to a systematic control of what is taught and how as can be witnessed in Komsomol schools in the Soviet Union. And they are doing so through fear, and through intimidation … By … discriminating against white job applicants, Brent councillors are inciting racial prejudice … Brent must be made an example of.
Citing 'Baa Baa Black Sheep', The Times condemned Brent for funding 'malign political causes', calling racial equality workers 'unproductive' fomenters of 'social discord':
All this breeds the very thing, racialism, which it purports to prevent. Anger is stirred up among decent white people who resent the accusation of racism.
Even the liberal press was not immune. One Guardian leader stated:
Anti-racism is too important to be left to the anti-racists. Their effect – perhaps even their aim – is to provoke racism rather than to damage it. … The kind of anti-racism which says that it is better for white teachers to lose their jobs unfairly than for white staff to teach predominantly non-white children would be racism by any other name. There is evidence that this is now happening in Brent.
The Times Educational Supplement linked staff shortages to 'intense pressure from the ruling Labour group to implement the authority's race relations policies vigorously'. A Daily Mail headline screamed of 'Blacks' campaign to drive out heads'; the same paper decried 'racial obsessions and political extremism'; a leader thundered that children's 'schooling is far too precious to remain the plaything of municipal gangs of political paranoids, who regard promotion on merit as a white racist plot.' The paper's Paul Johnson condemned 'the Labour bigots who think "peace studies", "racial consciousness" and perverted sex lessons are more important than the "three Rs"'. The Star denounced 'the utter lunacy of extremists who hijack the worthy cause of better race relations with their infantile bans on Noddy books, Little Black Sambo and golliwogs on marmalade jars.'
This vicious media campaign against racial, gender and sexual equality, portraying the majority as hapless victims of extremist discrimination, reflects tendencies in right-wing thought with a far longer pedigree. As political theorist Corey Robin writes, conservative ideology has long drawn power from direct, felt experience of recent loss, promising to restore prior social arrangements. In this it distinguishes itself from the left, whose grand programme would right injustices and effect social progress, forging new arrangements without historic precedent. The right thus articulates a universal experience, channels popular grievance and – unlike the left – offers a modest, limited, restorative goal that recent experience proves both plausible and realistic. The conservative merely 'asks his followers to do more of what they have always done' – but learns from the left, borrowing their mode of populist agitation. Robin writes:
Conservatism not only has depended on outsiders but has also seen itself as the voice of the outsider … a tribune for the displaced, his movement a conveyance of their grievances. Far from being an invention of the politically correct, victimhood has been a talking point of the right ever since Burke decried the mob's treatment of Marie Antoinette. The conservative, to be sure, speaks for a special type of victim: one who has lost something of value, as opposed to the wretched of the earth, whose chief complaint is that they never had anything to lose. His constituency is the contingently dispossessed … rather than the preternaturally oppressed. This brand of victimhood endows the conservative complaint with a more universal significance. It connects his disinheritance to an experience we all share—loss—and weaves that experience into an ideology promising that what is lost can be restored.
People on the left often fail to realize this, but conservatism does indeed speak to and for people who have lost something. The loss may be as material as a portion of one's income or as ethereal as a sense of standing. It may be of something that was never legitimately owned in the first place. Even so, nothing is ever so cherished as that which we no longer possess. It used to be one of the great virtues of the left that it alone understood the zero-sum nature of politics, wherein the gains of one class necessarily entail the losses of another. But as that sense of conflict diminishes on the left, it has fallen to the right to remind voters that there really are losers in politics and that it is they—and only they—who speak for them. Conservatism is not the Party of Order, as Mill and others have claimed, but the Party of Loss.
The chief aim of the loser is not preservation or protection but recovery and restoration, and that is the secret of conservatism's success. Because his losses are recent, the conservative can credibly claim that his goals are practical and achievable. He merely seeks to regain what is his; the fact that he once had it suggests he is capable of possessing it again.
Clarkson and his defenders are part of the most privileged section of British society, persistently 'punching down' at the marginalised and oppressed, but they nevertheless parade on the public stage as victims, articulating the losses of those that would reverse recent gains in race, gender and sexual equality. Where Thatcher-era campaigns pitted an older generation's norms of restraint and deference against the sixties' legacy of openness, diversity and permissiveness, however, Clarkson injects a fresh, anarchic libertarianism into popular conservatism. Like 'anti-establishment' establishmentarian Guido Fawkes who ran to his aid, like Murdoch's Sun (which publishes both), he combines a radical, populist style with elitist, hierarchical values. Connecting with his mass audience via a wink and a cheeky smirk even as he defends privilege and entitlement, Clarkson – like his defenders – is the ultimate right-wing outrider.
Tim Holmes is a writer and activist. He lives in mid-Wales.