Last night the Labour MP Emily Thornberry was forced to resign from her role as a front-bench spokesman for her party. It is difficult to have any sympathy for her as a person – leading Labour politicians are utterly ruthless with their political rivals. But I still find the episode shocking.
Her offence was to send out the tweet illustrated here. It was a picture from the streets of Rochester and Strood (Strood, in fact), where there was a by-election yesterday – won for Ukip by Conservative defector Mark Reckless. There was no comment – but because it combined two icons of white working class chauvinism – the St George Cross flag and a white van – it was judged to be snobbish – a chuckle at the expense of Britain’s white working class voters. Britain’s “raucous” (as its sinister political motivation is euphemised) press was certainly taking that view, as it suits their agenda to make trouble for the Labour party. Rather than contest this, Ms Thornberry resigned, apparently at the instigation of the Labour Leader Ed Miliband who was supposed to be “angry”. Sadly, this was almost certainly a wise decision. It was the quickest way of killing a story that could have gone on for weeks with the same end result and much more damage to the party. And this meek surrender can even be portrayed as firm leadership by Mr Miliband – as one Labour MP was claiming on the radio this morning. A more abject demonstration of his weakness cannot be imagined.
There’s an irony here. One of the main complaints of tabloid commentators and the Ukip insurgency is that “political correctness” has crimped freedom of expression. By this they mean the expression of views that might be construed as racist, misogynist or offensive to people with disabilities. But what is this episode if it is is an acute outbreak of political correctness? Pity Labour campaigners! The old norms of political correctness remain as firm as ever, but the list of people they are not supposed to offend, even tangentially, grows ever longer.
This presents a dark picture of our society indeed. People are quick to claim offence, and we are not supposed to have a quiet chuckle at any of our fellow citizens, unless they are rich, aristocratic, a politician or a “celebrity” – in which case we can be as offensive as we like, regardless of any sense of fairness. A society at ease with itself can laugh at itself. What we have is a society of victims and wonton verbal cruelty.
It also shows how Britain’s tabloid press remain in control of the news agenda. Readership may be falling, and people may rely on other media for information, but they still set the tone. Television and radio, including the BBC, meekly follow where they lead. Social media simply promote instant outrage rather than any sense of proportion or justice. A depressing picture indeed.