Lord Hannan of Kingsclere is a Conservative peer, writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.
The moderates’ response was more telling than Angela Rayner’s original outburst. Calling Conservatives “scum” is hardly a new departure for Labour, as anyone who has been at either party conference will attest.
Indeed, an anthropologist coming new to the peculiar dialect of the British Left might assume that “Toriskum” was their standard word for people outside their tribe.
Rayner had simply rattled off one of those compound phrases that Lefties use: “homophobic, racist, misogynist, absolute pile of banana republic Etonian piece of scum.”
OK, “Etonian” was a colourful addition (and a questionable one if the speaker’s intention was to suggest that you shouldn’t categorise or “other” whole groups of people) but, apart from that, it was a standard collocation: a stringing together of words that are so often placed next to one another that the speaker isn’t really thinking about their individual meanings.
In Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell calls it duckspeak, a term of approbation in Party circles, meaning “to make articulate speech issue from the larynx without involving the higher brain centres at all.”
Much more interesting was the way in which supposedly grown-up, centrist Labour front-benchers reacted when asked about their deputy leader’s tirade. Well, they said, Angela might have used slightly OTT language, but her essential point was sound: this was indeed a hateful administration.
Typical was the interview given by Rachel Reeves, the Shadow Chancellor, on Monday’s Today Programme. Nick Robinson asked her whether that list of adjectives was entirely fair when the Tories had had two female prime ministers, when two of the four great offices of state were held by women and two by British Asians, and when the education and health secretaries were also Asian, the business secretary black and so on. Here is how she answered:
“Look at what happened during the pandemic, where if you’re from a black, Asian or minority ethnic background, you’re more likely to get the virus, more likely to die from the virus. The virus exposed some of those divisions and inequalities in society. I do understand why a lot of people feel very angry with this government. I feel angry with them as well.”
Robinson let it pass and, as far as I can tell, no one else has picked it up. But that response struck me as far more revealing than Rayner’s rant. Here was Labour’s Shadow Chancellor – in a BBC interview, not in some high-spirited speech to activists – accusing the Conservatives of causing needless deaths on grounds of race.
Whether they were doing so through neglect or out of some hidden Nazi impulse was left unsaid. But the differential in death rates was, in Reeves’ view, plainly ministers’ fault. Her suggestion that it was proper to “feel very angry with this government” was a straight imputation of blame.
It is true that, especially in the first wave, ethnic minorities were more vulnerable. No one knows exactly why. Epidemiologists have proposed different theories. Some link the higher fatality rate to being in more exposed occupations; others to multi-generational households; others to genetics; others to a greater incidence of pre-existing conditions; others to being a more urban population; others to vitamin D deficiency, which is more common in dark-skinned people at relatively sunless latitudes. More recently, differential rates in vaccine take-up have been identified as a factor, though that obviously didn’t apply during the first wave.
Maybe one or more of these explanations are correct; maybe it’s something else entirely. I have no idea. Neither have you. Neither has Reeves. But she thought nothing of blaming the deaths on Tory racism – an astonishingly serious charge to level if you’re not in a position to back it up.
My purpose is not to have a go at the Shadow Chancellor. In most interviews, she has struck me as pleasant, polite and personable. That’s the point. So natural is it in Labour circles to assume that people to your Right are murderous bigots that even the sensibles do it; and, when they do, no one bats an eyelid.
To see how odd it is to level such accusations, consider the related question of whether Covid is more dangerous to men or to women. Here, the differential is far greater than among ethnic groups. Although the sexes are equally likely to catch the virus, men are nearly three times more likely to need intensive treatment, and are significantly more likely to die.
Again, there are competing theories as to why, though here there is a clear front-runner, namely differences in immune response systems which make women less vulnerable to some viruses.
No one, to my knowledge, has tried to argue that the higher death-rate among people who carry a Y-chromosome is the result of sexism, and rightly so – it would be an absurd proposition.
But suppose, for the sake of argument, that the differential had been the other way around, and that women had been likelier to lose their lives. Would Labour MPs have followed the science and concluded that biological differences were beyond the power of the state, or would they have blamed Tory misogyny? I think we all know the answer.
Here, in a nutshell, is why Labour is struggling to make progress. It keeps stirring up a culture war that, in present circumstances, it can’t win. Its obsession with identity politics – organisers of Labour meetings in Brighton were declining to take questions from white men on grounds that they needed to talk less and listen more – puts it hopelessly at odds with the majority of British people.
It is possible, I suppose, that the majority will eventually shift, as woke youngsters grow up, carrying their values with them. Britain might end up like Canada (or at least English-speaking Canada) where there is genuine electoral demand for a measure of identity politics.
But that shift, if it happens, is many years away. In the meantime, the ugly combination of wokery and self-righteousness is as repulsive to the electorate as Corbynism was.
What an extraordinary state of affairs when our second party votes, by 70 per cent to 30, to condemn the defence pact with Australia and the United States as “a dangerous move that will undermine world peace”.
How shameful when the Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition, the man aspiring to lead the next government, supports that motion. What a bizarre situation when he cannot bring himself to say that someone with a cervix is a woman.
I feel almost sorry for Keir Starmer, caught as he is between the electorate and his aggressively pacifist, bitterly internationalist, viciously tolerant activists. Still, what a needless and self-inflicted row. Never mind the cervix, Sir Keir. Consider, more immediately, the arse, the elbow and the difference between them.