I've often thought the liberal elitists should be sent to live on a council estate to see how they like it

I have had yet another notification that I have been reported to the Press Complaints Commission for something written for Another Magazine. This is an occupational hazard for a newspaper columnist, who is paid to provoke. What I do worry about, though, is the increasing intolerance of some of my readers. In the piece in question I was not doing anything unacceptable, such as inciting racial hatred, encouraging the commission of crime, lying, violating anyone's privacy or infringing the rights of minors: I was merely commenting that, in my opinion, public funds should not be spent for the benefit of a group of people (white, middle-class people like me, for the most part) I regarded as completely undeserving. The whinge that resulted centred heavily on the "fact" that I had caused "distress". I innocently think my readers would have more right to feel cheated if I hadn't.

I'm afraid that causing offence (for that is what the complainants meant when they said "distress") is pretty high on the list of what we are supposed to do. This is not least because offence is usually given when some troublesome sod like me states a truth that polite opinion knows full well to be true, but which most people feel they ought not to mention. The determination of some journalists not to cause offence amounts to a voluntary surrender to censorship.

I often wonder why people who hate to have their opinions contradicted read the newspapers at all; but then I reflect that the reason why they do, and the reason why vituperative columnists are so valuable to newspapers that want a healthy circulation, is that readers find it deeply boring to read what appeases them. They love, secretly, the challenge of reading assaults on their most deeply held views, which allow them the exhibitionism of getting on their high horse. I see no reason to disappoint them.

We have, though, reached a point where almost any statement made by any so-called opinion-former (whether journalist or politician) provokes some small standing army of the self-righteous to seek to restrict further what can and cannot be said. Just look at the kicking Jack Straw got the other day for pointing out that most travellers are not gypsies or Romanies but simply drop-outs who quite happily make the lives of ordinary, decent people a misery. Where we live, the diddicoys - as we call them in the eastern counties - cannot be the victims of racial hatred, because most of them are the same race as most of us. That is why the name "gypsies", denoting eastern European or Levantine origins, is so wrong and why we invented a different one. They are disliked for the very reasons Straw identified.

What people should also see is that Straw, unlike most of his colleagues, is actually standing up for the poor and vulnerable who are the victims of such crimes and who are supposed to be Labour's people. I have often thought that the liberal elitists, living in their burglar-alarmed apartments in middle-class ghettoes, who pick on Straw should be sent to live for a couple of months on a council estate, on the incomes that the inhabitants of those places seek to survive on . . . and see how they like it.

Precisely because we need politicians who understand how bloody awful life is for most people, I tried to persuade Darcus Howe the other day to run for the London mayoralty. As I don't live in London, any interference by me in the matter is an intrusion into private grief; and I do feel that the contest that the capital - well, no, the nation - deserves is Archer vs Livingstone. I do reckon, though, that if London's ethnic minority communities are to be represented in the fight, we need a proper bloke like Howe to do it. Here is a man who knows not just how to give offence but when to do it: his strictures in last week's NS on gang rape as a crime of choice among certain blacks were unanswerable.

For the moment, black London seems likely to have only Trevor Phillips as its standard-bearer. Phillips may be a great advertisement for how black people can prosper in Britain, but with his affluence and his privately educated children he seems about as black as I am. Maybe he and Howe should stand in a primary, with open-air hustings on a Saturday morning in Brixton. Anyone who could win that would have no trouble running London.

It seems, by definition, to be that you can offend only people who are in some way disadvantaged: but this is the worst liberal hypocrisy. There are such things, in the democracy we are supposed to live in, as the rights of majorities. Yet we see it as a joke when John Prescott says there are "too many toffs" around. So what does he propose to do about it? What logical conclusion are we to draw from this remark? Mass deportations of toffs? Concentration camps? Exterminations? And what is a toff? Does having one toff grandparent out of four - what the Nazis called Grossmutter nicht in Ordnung - make you a toff, even if you live on a council estate? Are the Blairs, with their alleged joint income of £400,000 a year, their smart education, their membership of the Inns of Court and their grace-and-favour pad in Whitehall, toffs? Supposing Prescott had said there were too many homosexuals, blacks or Jews around? We wouldn't have thought that so funny, would we? We would immediately have suspected he was some sort of crazed Nazi who had slipped through the net at Nuremberg.

Happily, our failure to get upset about Prescott's expressions of murderous class hatred is a measure of the health of our society: there are still quite a lot of us who don't take offence that easily, and we all know Prescott's a prat.

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 30 August 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Gordon Brown, the great feminist