David Cameron’s Jibe-Talking Rhetoric

Like other political correspondents, I work in the hermetically sealed Westminster bubble, but whenever I’m let out to cover a byelection and talk to real people, I tend to come back horrified by how anti-immigrant some of them are.

This was Andrew Sparrow, a political correspondent at the Guardian, giving his take on David Cameron’s “bunch of migrants” jibe.

As a side-note, I think it’s interesting that David Cameron’s line is being reported everywhere as a jibe. The OED defines a jibe as “sneering speech”. In 1874, for example – who can forget it? – Prime Minister Disraeli referred to fellow Tory and Secretary of State for India, Lord Salisbury, as a “great master of gibes, and flouts, and jeers”. It’s masculine, political and jocular – the language of the old boys’ network. Oh Cameron, you bounder, stop it with all the flouts and jibes! It’s also the kind of journalist-speak that skims happily over the surface of things while ignoring – because it would be much harder to address – the difference between language that’s off-handedly cynical and actually offensive. I hate the word jibe.

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How ‘real people’ read the news

I also hate Andrew Sparrow’s clichéd dichotomy between a “hermetically sealed Westminster bubble” (where, regardless of party, people are polite, liberal and well-meaning) and the REAL world (where REAL people only believe what they see smeared in chip grease in yesterday’s Daily Mail). These real people don’t question their received views because they don’t have the time or intelligence to namby-pamby around with questions. They love the Queen, the Union Jack, the armed forces and think that people who wear funny shirts are probably hiding a a stick of dynamite underneath.

The more this dichotomy is repeated, the more it’s reinforced. Westminster may be self-involved, but its inhabitants share a base-level of decency and decorum. In the real world, on the other hand, hate and prejudice only conceal further depths of unthought-through hate and prejudice.

You might be thinking How can you possibly know what “real people” think? You blog about Andrew Sparrow and look up words in the OED – in fact, you sound like a bigger ponce than that Sparrow bloke. True as that may be, I think I know at least one real person. In fact, I check in with him most weeks. You could say he gives me my weekly dose of reality, my reality check. He’s called my dad.

When I mentioned the “bunch of migrants” thing to him yesterday, he didn’t bat an eyelid. What’s the issue? I mentioned the asylum seekers forced to wear wristbands in Cardiff and he said that if it meant they could get a free meal then so what. When I pushed him harder on the general seriousness of the refugee crisis he scoffed at me: Why are they all trying to get to Britain anyway? Why are they all men? Why doesn’t Saudi Arabia or some other Muslim country take them in? 

There are various rational responses to these questions (according to the UNHCR, for example, 86% of refugees are being hosted by developing countries) but that’s not really what’s at stake here. What’s at stake is the soul of “real people” everywhere.

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A Real Person

Whereas politics was once aspirational – concerned with championing the interests of broad-based social groups – it now makes a virtue of its disengagement. In a hollowed-out service economy with high unemployment and inequality, social groupings are fragile. The most effective kind of spin is negative.

My dad doesn’t really care about politics. He’s never been a member of a party and doesn’t feel that strongly about them. Like most people, he’s thoughtful and decent but mainly worries about the security of his family. If he actually met a Syrian refugee, I’d like to think he’d empathise more.

But politics and the media has conspired to return us to a culture which, as it did 140 years ago, revolves around “gibes, and flouts, and jeers”. Politics stays in one bubble and “real people” in another.

Those in power can skirt awkward questions about unpaid corporate taxes by saying they’re standing up for real people, as Cameron did yesterday. Instead of faulting his logic, a false debate ensues about whether or not this is what “real people” think. Is it just because I work in a hermetically sealed Westminster bubble? Journalists love nothing better than to speculate on their own obsolescence. And this plays into the hands of politicians who, no longer preoccupied by the idea of public consent, can go on implementing policies that make themselves and their donors richer.

The kinds of stories we should focus on – that don’t fit the narrative of a bigoted Middle England – receive little-to-no coverage. In the Medway, for instance, a white working-class area where UKIP’s Mark Reckless was once MP, local people are “committed to building a culture of hospitality and welcome, especially for refugees seeking sanctuary from war and persecution.” It’s just one of over fifty such Cities of Sanctuary across the country.

This hasn’t received nearly as much coverage as Cameron’s jibe because it doesn’t sell papers. And politicians don’t talk about projects like this because they can achieve more by being hostile and divisive. The right-wing media laps it up (a politician who “says what we’re all thinking”!) and it sends the Guardian into a tailspin of navel-gazing self-doubt.

What “real people” really think is impossible to say. But politicians shouldn’t be allowed to say offensive things because of the concern that “real people” might sometimes, in some places, agree with them. My dad’s views don’t justify Cameron’s policies. They only reflect a partial media and suggest how much further we need to go to show the links between politics and reality.

One thought on “David Cameron’s Jibe-Talking Rhetoric

  1. great post Will – completely agree that it’s better to be on the front foot rather than bemoan Real People’s negative attitude towards immigration. The public response to the migrant crisis for example does show there’s quite a range of attitudes in this country, and that most people’s attitudes are quite complex. It’s a shame we don’t have the debate reflected in Parliament so much – though I thought the Cameron jibe was a particularly cynical way of addressing it.

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