Margaret Thatcher at the 1985 Conservative Party Conference. Photo: Getty
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Laurie Penny on David Cameron: political correctness gone mad

The left has no monopoly on political correctness. Just try being rude about Margaret Thatcher. Right now, the list of things we’re not allowed to say about the rich and powerful is getting longer - and not just for professional writers.

If the prime minister says it, it can’t be political correctness gone mad. In recent weeks, David Cameron has publicly criticised a number of writers for what they have said about eminent members of the establishment.

First, he stepped in to denounce Hilary Mantel’s comments about the Duchess of Cambridge as “completely misguided and completely wrong”. Then, on 27 February, he took the time at Prime Minister’s Questions to demand that John O’Farrell, Labour’s candidate for the Eastleigh by-election, be condemned by his party for a single line in his memoir, published many years ago. The line pertained to a momentary sense of regret that Margaret Thatcher had not been killed in the Brighton bombing of 1984. If this is the new standard for heresy, surely the whole of Lancashire will soon descend into a flaming, red pit of torment? Then again, the Conservative front bench probably believes that this has already happened.

Whoever appointed Cameron as the arbiter of public morality has clearly never heard the rumours about what went on behind closed (dining-room) doors at the Bullingdon Club in the PM’s Oxford days. This new school of right-wing political correctness seems to require authorisation from the very top.

A process is emerging for the ritual immolation-by-tabloid of heretics to the Conservative mindset: first, the right-wing press digs up a wildly out-of-context quote implying that a writer has said something shocking about a national treasure. Then, the PM steps in to put the official seal of disapproval on the offending party. No hack with enough reading comprehension to handle either a political memoir or a London Review of Books essay could fail to notice that Mantel’s and O’Farrell’s quotes were, at worst, a little bit rude. In both cases, the misreading was done deliberately and with malice. The left, contrary to popular wisdom, does not have a monopoly on censoriousness.

The term “political correctness” is commonly used to reframe racist or reactionary ideas as somehow rebellious. It is used to silence the anger of people who complain about injustice and hate speech by recasting them as bloodless censors. When I’m accused of political correctness, it’s almost always by somebody who is frantically hanging on to their deep-seated prejudices about people who look, live or sound slightly different to them.

Reactionaries and conservatives practise precisely the kind of political correctness of which they accuse the left – but they call it “decency” and “morality”. Which is a rather PC way of referring to shutting down dissent.

We are informed that freedom of speech, if it means anything, is the right to be offensive. The question is whether or not, in these paranoid, sphincter-clenching times, it means anything else. From the weird, late-night back alleys of the internet to the pages of daily papers with millions of readers, freedom of speech has become synonymous with “freedom to attack the vulnerable” – and that’s about it. In Britain, where we have such repressive libel laws that multinational firms cross oceans to engage our lawyers to silence their critics, the only people it’s profitable to attack are those with no means of fighting back.

That means the poor. It means the disabled. It means immigrants and single parents. By a stroke of wild coincidence, these are exactly the people who are most likely to be made destitute by this government’s misguided austerity clampdown.

The right to offend the poor has never really been disputed. The right to offend wealthy, important people and to commit acts of cultural iconoclasm, however, is in serious danger at this point in history; that it is one of the main ways I make my rent money isn’t my only reason for being worried.

Suppose that someone – not me – were to opine that the Queen and Margaret Thatcher are national treasures only in the sense that they are ancient, expensive and will soon be buried. I don’t want to live in a country where such a sentiment is an occasion for national hysteria.

Right now, the list of things we’re not allowed to say about the rich is getting longer and not just for professional writers. At times, it seems that the right to protest itself is under attack.

Alfie Meadows and Zak King, two students who took part in the demonstrations against tuition fee hikes in 2010, are facing years in prison on charges of violent disorder, despite serious questions about the evidence in the case. Environmental activists who took on the multinational EDF Energy are being sued for £5m for trespassing on the West Burton power station by staging an action there. “This punitive measure would have devastating consequences for anyone who wished to take a stand against injustice and corruption or speak out for what is right,” says the Green MP, Caroline Lucas.

A chill wind of cultural conservatism is blowing across Britain and censorship is at its heart. A fence of taboos is being constructed around those in this society who least deserve our deference and that fence is alive with the electricity of public outrage. The royal family, the aristocracy and members of the political establishment skulk behind a perimeter of privilege where they don’t have to answer any difficult questions.

Outrage comes easily to us. Outrage is safe. You can express it in as little as 140 characters; it fits neatly into the line and a half of a tabloid headline; and there’s little risk involved.

Real anger, however, the expression of hurt and horror at how much crueller and harder everyday life is becoming for so many people, anger at those responsible, comes at a cost. As Britain swings to the right, we have to decide, individually and as a society, if the consequences of dissent are a cost we’re willing to pay.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 11 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The audacity of popes

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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.