It has always been the norm in political life never to apologise for saying or doing things which are obviously wrong, but now there is a new trend, which is to apologise for saying things which are obviously right.
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Norman Lamont could sing Je Ne Regrette Rien in the bath after his catastrophic handling of the ERM crisis. Tony Blair goes as far as saying “we thought there was an active WMD programme and there wasn’t”, but won’t actually say sorry for misleading Parliament. And the fiery pits of Hell will resemble this morning in Dundee long before Gordon Brown admits he made a hash of the economy.
But leaving aside the points of similarity between Gehenna and Dundee in more clement conditions, Mr Brown has in fact apologised in the past. It was to Gillian Duffy, who had challenged him about immigration, and whom he had called “a bigoted woman” when he thought no-one was listening. When he discovered his remarks had been broadcast, though, he was, according to his wife, “mortified” and “hated the fact that he had hurt someone. His apology was from the heart.” I’m quite prepared to believe that bit of it. What I don’t believe is that Mr Brown changed his view that Mrs Duffy was a bigot, so I can’t see why he apologised.
But it was, until very recently, axiomatic in mainstream political discourse that anyone who wants to discuss immigration is a bigot. Similarly, anyone who wants to reintroduce capital punishment is an extremist. Anyone who wants to leave the EU is a xenophobe. Anyone who analyses levels of street crime amongst young black men is a racist. Anyone who questions the fact that every year sees a record increase in success in exams is engaged in running down real achievement by young people. And anyone who wonders whether some of the 7% of the population of working age who are on Disability Benefit might be capable of working at something or other is a callous monster.
These rules apply to politicians and the liberal commentariat, but not everyone that we’ve ever met in real life. To take one instance, Labour voters listed rising immigration, not the Iraq War, as the party’s greatest mistake. And very few voters seem bothered by restrictions on civil liberties, so long as it is only a few Islamic extremists who are affected.
As it happens, I disagree. But there is no common position on all those issues. I prefer industrious immigrants to the native-born workshy. I’m opposed to capital punishment. I think Labour’s creation of an authoritarian surveillance state is an even more dangerous legacy than their economic one. I think street crime amongst young black men is a social and cultural catastrophe (not least because they are also predominantly its victims), not fundamentally a racial one. I notice that some of those with excellent exam results seem to be illiterate and innumerate, that the EU’s structures are, as a matter of objective fact, undemocratic and that, to pick a random example, gyrating energetically whilst singing Radiohead’s Creep in a Brazilian accent on The X-Factor seems not to affect your eligibility for Incapacity Benefit.
We may differ in our views on these matters, but surely they are fit for political discussion? After all, in saloon bars, playgrounds and hairdressers, and by office water coolers up and down the country, they rival Cheryl Cole’s frocks as constant topics of conversation. Yet in the past couple of weeks, two Tories, Lord Young and (unless this row stymies his chances) the soon-to-be Lord Flight, have been obliged to apologise for comments that were largely true, but deemed unsayable.
In Lord Young’s case, he said that people who had mortgages and have remained in work had done fairly well financially out of the recession, and that taking back public spending to 2007 levels wasn’t exactly ripping the welfare state to shreds. This was an idiotic thing to say in political terms, because it ignores rising food and fuel prices, worries about redundancy even by those luck enough still to be in work, and the fact that the cuts have not yet been introduced. They are indicative of a major failing amongst Mr Cameron’s circle, which is that they imagine that the middle classes are much richer and more homogeneous than they actually are. But it doesn’t alter the fact that what he said was correct for the group he identified.
Mr Flight’s remarks, to the effect that working families were financially much worse off for every child they had, while there was no similar financial disincentive for those on benefits, was seized upon because he spoke of “breeding”. Interestingly, he used it in connection with the middle classes, not the benefit claimants. His statement had nothing to do with eugenics, that unscientific and morally repulsive theory which was so popular amongst Fabians and Socialists before the Second World War. He simply pointed out that it is not sensible for the state to pay people not to work and to raise generations of children who have no understanding that work is the norm.
The overpopulation lobbyists, like the eugenics lot before them, have always been wrong, because they invariably see human beings solely as consumers of resources and not as potential contributors to society. Any child may grow up to devise some great boon to humanity, and that child might spring from any economic, racial or religious group.
Only one thing is likely to be a serious impediment and it is not – as history demonstrates – poverty or social background. It is a culture which does not value work, education, moral improvement and respectability. It is, in short, exactly the culture the benefits system has enshrined as the norm. That is what the political conspiracy of silence on these issues has created, and it is that we should get an apology for.