Within the space of just a few hours this week, two Cabinet ministers have had to issue grovelling apologies after spouting gratuitous and offensive insults. A third should have done, but didn’t.
First, the Northern Ireland secretary Karen Bradley had to grovel after claiming that deaths caused by British troops and police in Northern Ireland during the Troubles ‘were not crimes’.
Which is (a) wrong, and (b) about as offensive as it’s possible to be to the families of those who were killed. Hence the grovel: ‘I am profoundly sorry for the offence and hurt that my words have caused. The language was wrong and, even though this was not my intention, it was deeply insensitive to many of those who lost loved ones.’
(This is the same Northern Ireland secretary, you may recall, who freely admitted last year that when she first took the job, she had no idea that nationalists in the province didn’t vote for unionist parties and vice versa.)
Then Amber Rudd – a former home secretary, no less, who you might have thought would have learned something by now about diversity and minorities – somehow managed to refer to the shadow home secretary Diane Abbott, who is by far the best known black politician in the country, as ‘coloured’ – an epithet that ceased being acceptable at about the same time as the Black and White Minstrel Show went out of fashion.
Ms Abbott rightly called it ‘an outdated, offensive and revealing choice of words.’ Ms Rudd immediately apologised for her ‘clumsy language’.
And then – yes, there’s more – Andrea Leadsom replied to a question in the Commons on Islamophobia by suggesting that the questioner, Labour frontbencher Naz Shah, should ask the Foreign Office, which gave the very distinct impression that she regards Muslims as, well, not really British.
A headline in The Times sums it all up admirably: ‘One day, three gaffes as ministers offend Irish, blacks and Muslims.'
What is it with these people? Are they stupid? Careless? Racist? And it’s not just Conservatives, either – remember the Independent Group and former Labour MP Angela Smith, who just a couple of weeks ago barely managed to stop herself referring on TV to people who are ‘black or a funny tinge’?
I recognise that not everyone chooses their words with as much care as a professional journalist or broadcaster. Sometimes even the best of people are caught out when the brain trips up the tongue – as my former colleague Jim Naughtie notoriously discovered when he mis-spoke the first consonant of Jeremy Hunt’s surname.
But this is something different. This is the tongue revealing what the brain forgets to conceal, or in the case of Karen Bradley, the tongue revealing the gap where the brain should be.
I think it also reveals something else. It reveals an appalling level of ignorance about the world beyond Westminster and the social circles in which too many MPs spend their lives. And although I hesitate to accuse anyone of bigotry without sufficient evidence, I think it’s at least arguable that these repeated ‘mis-statements’ or ‘clumsy language’ do reveal attitudes that should have no place in twenty-first century Britain.
Which brings us to out-and-out bigotry, against minorities of all descriptions, but in particular against Jews and Muslims. On Thursday, the equality watchdog, the Equality and Human Rights Commission, announced that it has embarked on the first step of a statutory inquiry into whether the Labour party is guilty of unlawful discrimination against Jews.
This is serious stuff – because the only previous occasions when it has taken similar action were when it ordered the British National Party to rewrite its constitution so as not to contravene race relations legislation, and when it found that the Metropolitan Police were discriminating against minority ethnic, gay and female police officers.
On the other side of the political divide, the Conservative party has now suspended fourteen members who are alleged to have published Islamophobic comments online. And the Tory party chairman Brandon Lewis has been accused of failing to act against several other complaints of racism and Islamophobia.
One Tory activist in Portsmouth, who came to the UK from Iran forty years ago and whose daughter is a British army officer, was quoted as saying: ‘People in the party feel able to be as racist as they wish now.’
Hardly surprising, is it, given that it was a former Tory foreign secretary no less – Boris something? – who wrote in a newspaper column last year that Muslim women who wear a face-covering veil, or niqab, look like letter boxes or bank robbers.
Sayeeda Warsi, who was both chairman of the Conservative party and the first Muslim woman to sit in the Cabinet, has accused Theresa May of ‘burying her head in the sand’ over the issue. ‘She doesn’t listen, she fails to acknowledge when there is a problem.’
So is there more Islamophobia in the Conservative party than antisemitism in the Labour party? I have no idea, and I’m not sure it matters. There has certainly been much more publicity about Labour’s in-house bigots, but there is a fairly obvious explanation.
As Jonathan Freedland suggested in The Guardian, it’s probably because ‘people expect much less of the Tories than they do of an avowedly anti-racist party such as Labour … if the Tory party is riddled with bigotry towards a minority, it hardly comes as a surprise.’
What I find so deeply depressing about all this is that it shines such an unflattering light on politicians and political activists who claim to be in business to make the UK a better place. If they are harbouring racists and bigots – and failing to root them out – I dread to think what might lie in store.
Because if you think this is just a handful of pathetic bigots sounding off and doing no real harm, ponder these statistics.
According to the most recent figures from the Muslim monitoring group Tell Mama, there were 1,200 verified anti-Muslim attacks in Britain last year, an increase of more than twenty-five per cent over the previous year and the highest number since it began recording incidents.
And according to the Jewish security group the Community Security Trust, there were more than 1,650 antisemitic incidents over the same period, a sixteen per cent increase over the previous year.
There should be no tolerance for bigotry anywhere, whether in the constituency meeting rooms of our two main political parties or on the streets and online where thugs think they can attack minorities with impunity.
And Cabinet ministers should learn how to talk about people who look different, sound different, or worship differently, without being offensive. It really isn’t that hard.