“The real n****r in the woodpile.” This phrase was used by Anne Marie Morris, the Conservative MP for Newton Abbot, when describing the unforeseen danger of Britain’s departure from the EU without a deal. I heard it when I was 12 years old, as a schoolteacher of mine admonished one of my (white) classmates for his bad behaviour. The words left his mouth just as casually as they rolled from Morris’s tongue – the sign of ease and maybe even frequency of use.
As so often with incidents like this, what’s most interesting are the surrounding circumstances. When Morris said this, no one around her recoiled in audible shock. Perhaps, if we are giving them the benefit of the doubt, they were quietly horrified. Even if we do – and there is no reason why we should – that does not explain why Morris felt comfortable enough to use them in such a setting. It is also worth noting that she has sailed very close to similar waters before.
Her apology, such as it was, deserves close analysis. “The comment was totally unintentional,” she remarked later. “I apologise unreservedly for any offence caused.” These two sentences are remarkable for how much denial they manage to weave into so short a space.
First, there is the not-so-subtle distancing – “the comment”, as opposed to “my comment”, as if the words suddenly appeared from thin air and not from her own throat. Continuing this theme, Morris then apologises “for any offence caused” – using the passive tense, as if she is a spokesperson or CEO saying sorry on behalf of an errant colleague. Let’s look, too, at the deployment of the word “any” – it seems to reveal a quiet exasperation that anyone could be upset by her supposedly unwitting choice of words. We are also supposed to accept that this turn of phrase was “unintentional”, when all the indications are that she believed it was an excellent way to describe an irritant. All in all, Morris’ response can be said to have aggravated the problem.
Theresa May acted with commendable speed to cauterise the wound, withdrawing the whip from Morris. Yet this isn’t just about words, or – as the Prime Minister said – the importance of using “appropriate language”. It’s about the type of mindset this language reveals. It leads us to question how widespread it is.
After all, it has found favour with Conservative politicians before. As The Telegraph explained in July 2008, “the ‘n****r in the woodpile’ phrase originated in the American deep south in the mid-19th century and was used to describe fugitive slaves who hid in piles of firewood as they fled north to Canada. It was used in 20th century Britain as a metaphor to describe a hidden fact or problem.” On this particular occasion, the Conservative Lord Dixon-Smith uttered it in a parliamentary debate, apologising profusely once his error was pointed out.
There will doubtless be innumerable defences of Morris, which will not seek to defend her words directly but to downplay their impact. “That’s just what they said back then”, will come the refrain. “A slap on the wrist will sort this out, let’s have her say sorry and move on.” These arguments will surely come, and in doing so they will reveal the privilege of most of those who advance them. It is easy to be, to borrow Peter Mandelson’s term, “intensely relaxed” about a politician’s use of racist terms if you or your friends have never been personally and severely affected by them. These arguments will largely give little consideration to people who must work with or for politicians who make such remarks. They will patronise people of Morris’s generation who were immediately appalled upon hearing what she said. More importantly, these arguments will also miss the point.
The primary issue is not so much offence at Morris’s words – because, quite frankly, anyone who has witnessed the racially-charged nature of much of the UK’s contemporary political discourse has a very strong stomach by now. The main concern is how many people share her outdated mentality, and how closely involved they are in deciding Britain’s future.
Boris Johnson, for one, infamously referred to black children as piccaninnies, a term with its roots in America’s slavery-era South. Although he made his own round of apologies, he has scarcely distinguished himself as foreign secretary. In short, with Brexit looming and the country needing more than ever to secure lucrative trade deals with states that it formerly colonised, “n****r in the woodpile” is not a slogan that will buy Britain much goodwill with the rest of the world.
The Prime Minister, having been swift and decisive in addressing this issue, could now usefully reflect on why it took a story from a journalist, and not the discontent of her colleagues who heard Morris’s comments, to prompt the MP’s suspension. Her hope must be that the country sees Morris as someone whose ignorance is atypical of the party as a whole.
Unfortunately, however, she may find that such optimism is misplaced.