Magazine article The Spectator

How Far Can You Go?

Magazine article The Spectator

How Far Can You Go?

Article excerpt

Some of Ann Winterton's best friends, no doubt, are Pakistanis. And others, even more certainly, are good, solid, white Cheshire Conservatives appalled at Iain Duncan Smith's decision to sack her for cracking a joke about throwing Pakistanis out of train windows at the end of an otherwise unremarkable after-dinner speech at Congleton rugby club. You can almost hear them in their blazers now, brass buttons twinkling, froth of Boddingtons on their moustaches: `Political correctness gone mad, you know.... What's it all coming to, when you can't even make a little joke about darkies in a private club?'

Few of us could honestly say that we have never allowed ourselves to smirk at jokes which, if taken out of context and properly analysed, are outrageous. Yet there is something rather tiresome about the parrot cry `It's political correctness gone mad'. The phrase is becoming overused to the point at which it is reduced to a brainless protest against anything with which one happens to disagree - from the imposition of speed humps in the High Street to the BBC removing One Man and His Dog from its schedules. It is not as if the `political correctness gone mad' brigade are exactly above taking unreasonable offence themselves. Defending his wife this week, Nicholas Winterton spoke of `over-reaction'. Yet was it not he who, in a Commons speech in 1996, used the word 'obscenity' to describe the suggestion that MPs' car-- mileage allowance be cut from 74.1 pence a mile to a mere 47.2 pence a mile?

The question of liberty does not come into the case of the Congleton One. Unlike the poor Essex baker questioned by police last year after he installed a sign in his shop reading `none of that French rubbish in here', nobody is trying to prosecute Mrs Winterton. The police are not busily interviewing Congleton's prop forwards in the hope of finding one who was sober enough last Saturday to give a witness statement. Nevertheless, Mrs Winterton's behaviour is eccentric in somebody whose job involves selling Conservative policies to the very people who were the butt of her joke. The owners of the Taste of India restaurant in Congleton, who sponsor Congleton rugby club, could be forgiven if they feel like ringing up the local Labour party to offer help with canvassing. Electric-blanket salesmen shouldn't expect to get away with making jokes at the expense of the elderly and infirm; Gerald Ratner didn't get away with joking about crap earrings and prawn sandwiches; so why should Ann Winterton expect to get away with insulting an important part of her party's target electorate? …

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