Tuesday, August 31, 2004


Tory leader Michael Howard's criticism of the 'frivolous faddism' of the 'politically correct brigade' was an attack on straw men.

Howard blustered about mad officials meddling in people's lives and undermining plain common sense and individual responsibility. He mentioned nursery teachers warned against playing musical chairs, school children told that lunchboxes are a safety risk, hot cross buns taken off the school menu lest they offend.

But taking on these extreme examples of 'plain barminess' leaves political correctness untouched. Political correctness isn't the preserve of loony outsiders. Instead, it has become institutionalised at the centre of British public life. PC is essentially an etiquette, a series of codes by which we are supposed to live our lives. We're told to avoid risks, respect difference, live a healthy lifestyle, and above all to avoid offending anyone. The assumption is that people cannot be trusted to make their own choices, and require rules to guide their every step.

The Tory Party is as politically correct as the rest of Britain. After all, it was the Conservative Party that twice sacked MP Ann Winterton for making 'unacceptable' jokes about race. Winterton wasn't being vilified for supporting racist policies, or for a racist speech she had made in the House of Commons. These were jokes at dinner parties. What is this but 'mind your language' censoriousness, policing individual behaviour to avoid causing offence?

Other Tory MPs have also been hauled up for their inappropriate language. Welsh Assembly member David Davies caused a furore when he described the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) as 'institutionally racist' - he claimed that the commission ignored accusations of racism against white people, which he said made it a 'recruiting sergeant' for the British National Party (BNP). The Tory Party swiftly released a statement saying that 'David Davies has apologised if his comments gave a misleading impression. The Conservative Party supports the work of the Commission for Racial Equality'

Howard complained about the ban on the Women's Institute from making cakes for hospitals. But even these 'mad' examples aren't just the preserve of the loony brigade. When earlier this year a school made the headlines for banning homemade cakes from its school fete, it turned out to be the result of guidelines issued by a Tory County Council, Wiltshire, which had advised schools against selling homemade products. At the time, a council spokesman said: 'Schools should avoid selling homemade products which carry a higher than normal risk of food-related illnesses, including cream or other dairy products, mayonnaise, eggs, fish and meat.' ......

Proliferating codes about how we ought to address other people, eat, play sport, or have sex, restrict individual liberty - our ability to decide how, and with whom, we want to live our lives. These codes demand that we suspend our judgement, and merely bow our heads at the suggestion that something is 'offensive'. Don't think, is the motto here.

Codes and etiquette are no way to deal with issues such as racism, sexism or homophobia. That can only happen through open political debate, where bigoted views are held up to scrutiny. PC is just a matter of tiptoeing around, taking care to use the correct phrases - rather than really treating other people as equals.

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