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18 January 2023

Why you can’t cancel Jeremy Clarkson

The presenter embodies a deathless English conservatism.

By Charlie Peters

Jeremy Clarkson’s world is crashing all around him. What began with a crude joke about Meghan Markle in his Sun column a few weeks ago has developed into a delirious media storm. 

Clarkson made the same joke about Markle four years ago, albeit from the opposite position. Yet social attitudes have shifted since then, and “abusing a woman of colour” is no longer acceptable, as one critic put it. The TV presenter could lose a lucrative contract with Amazon, and his apology has been rejected by Markle. A statement made by the Duke and Duchess of Sussex accused Clarkson of spreading hate, conspiracy theories and misogyny. 

Clarkson has spent his entire career attracting and enduring rage for his controversial comments and jokes. In a 2008 segment on Top Gear, he said, while driving a lorry, “This is a hard job and I’m not just saying this to win favour with lorry drivers: change gear; change gear; change gear; check your mirrors; murder a prostitute.” Ofcom rejected complaints against him in that instance because of its context in an exaggerated joke. Three years later Clarkson apologised after saying that he’d have 31,000 striking public sector workers “shot… in front of their families”.

But this is the first time he has truly caved. While some have suggested that Clarkson’s lengthy Instagram apology was motivated by the fear that he would never work in television again, I suspect that the likely cause was his own daughter Emily lambasting his Sun column. Public criticism always cuts harder when it comes from those you love.

It may be the case that Clarkson really is done this time. A textbook cancellation. But it is unlikely that he will truly disappear. 

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Clarkson is not like other individuals that have been forced into cultural exile in recent years. He is not a political aide, a fledgling singer-songwriter or an angry author who hasn’t been read for decades. Clarkson represents a peculiarly English vibe that is near-impossible to express, but is probably best summarised as “just blokes being blokes”. Some might term it “toxic masculinity”; others would more accurately refer to it as the distillation of centuries of harmless humour, bawdiness and pub culture. It’s folk libertarianism, and it’s probably as old as Chaucer.

Clarkson and his vibe will continue to exist because he does not need electoral votes and approval from the press to sustain an energy that millions across the country feel an association with. It represents the unique bond of male friendships, which are often based on mutual mockery and loving, jokey denigration.

You could call it “Top Gear conservatism”, and it is shared by millions of people – predominantly, but not always, men – who don’t download the correct ideological software every time a new version is uploaded by the press or the universities. These are people who only really care about politics when politicians tell them to stop doing the normal things that they want to be free to do.

“Top Gear conservatism” is just as embattled as Clarkson himself. It perceives many threats: councils implementing low-traffic neighbourhoods, the car industry pushing self-driving motors, and an increasingly censorious ambient culture, which warns, for instance, that bringing cake to work is akin to passive smoking.

But the Clarkson archetype will never truly disappear. Because while Clarkson’s enemies might finally have his career, they’ll never succeed in preventing people from being like him. The flame of insensitive joviality will burn on.

[See also: No, JK Rowling isn’t being erased by a book-binder]

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