Let's call a bigot a bigot

Some people need offending.

Things have reached a slightly ludicrous situation when a gay rights group can be patronised for labelling as "bigots" those individuals who have gone most out of their way not only to prevent gay rights becoming a reality but also to viciously insult and ostracise the entire homosexual community.

Nelson Jones tells Stonewall to “grow up” and calls its Bigot Of The Year award “offensive and out of date”. To whom could the award be construed as offensive? The bigots it describes? That is unfortunate but something with which they will have to live. They will continue having to live with it if they insist on calling gay marriage “a grotesque subversion of a universally accepted human right” or, in pathetic attempts to attract sympathy, comparing their objection to gay marriage to the persecution of the Jews in Nazi Germany. If they cease to make such crass and ignorant statements they may find themselves not being described as bigots. Nick Griffin is probably offended when people call him a racist; he's still a racist.

Nelson Jones is also mistaken when he describes as “abuse” what Stonewall are doing through their Bigot Of The Year award. It seems immediately apparent that – much like the New Humanist's Bad Faith awards – Stonewall are with an ironic smile and a sense of humour highlighting the people who have done most to retard the gay rights situation. If you want a glimpse into what abuse is, read Martin Robbins' Guardian article "Gay marriage "Nazis" and the disgrace of Lord Carey". In staging its award Stonewall are fighting against a society that has been intolerant of homosexuals for thousands of years, and they are doing so with great dignity and wit. They are also, I'm happy to see, yet to apologise for the award despite hysterical outcries from clerical spokespeople.

Let's look at the word 'bigot' and see whether or not it can be accurately applied in this instance. A bigot is someone who “regards or treats the members of a group … with hatred and intolerance”. He has attempted to raise £100,000 in order to oppose same-sex marriage and compared it to slavery: if 'bigot' doesn't accurately encapsulate Stonewall's victor, Cardinal Keith O'Brien, I don't know who else it could. Nelson Jones seems perfectly happy to describe as a bigot a Chief Constable from over 25 years ago – and rightly so – but why is he afraid of being consistent in this case? A large reason is of course the religious element of the condemnation. If we were to take religion out of the equation, thereby confining to the closet the kid gloves with which it is handled, O'Brien would not be receiving the same level of support and excuse-making. Given that he is in a position of religious authority, many – including, it seems, Nelson Jones – wish to turn down the volume on criticism of O'Brien and interpret his statements in a peculiarly neutral light. This does not advance the gay rights position and encases O'Brien in the cushions in which he has been cocooned for 74 years.

A spokesman for the Catholic Church said that Stonewall “promoted terms like "bigot" and "homophobe" relentlessly in order to intimidate and vilify anyone who dares oppose their agenda”. Given that Stonewall's agenda is the battle to secure equal rights for gay people, I don't think that they can be criticised for responding passionately and with wonderful irony towards the very people keenest to see gay rights suppressed and gay behaviour demonised. If you want a discussion on language, note here its slithery usage – anyone who "dares" oppose the laudable agenda of a group representing a persecuted minority. A homophobe is someone who fears or hates homosexuals; if the word cannot be used in instances like these, when can it possibly be used? Try being told for thousands of years that loving a member of the same sex means that you are an "abomination" and should be killed, and see if "bigot" or "homophobe" are the strongest terms that spring to your lips.

Religious figures like Keith O'Brien cannot expect to be ignored for expressing hateful and outdated opinions. He is perfectly entitled to speak his mind concerning the legal recognition of the love shared between two members of the same sex; and he is perfectly entitled to be called a bigot if what emanates from his mind is extremely bigoted.

Stonewall's award may be offensive but it offends all of the people who most urgently need offending.

A flag at a gay pride festival. Photograph: Getty Images
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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.