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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.

Margaret Thatcher at the 1985 Conservative Party Conference. Photo: Getty

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.