In about 1987, when I was a student at Edinburgh University, one of our lecturers was speaking about some aspect of the history of the Reformation in 16th century Germany. During the course of his lecture, he referred to one of the reformers as “the nigger in the woodpile.” He then paused, realised that it probably wasn’t the wisest expression to use, said something apologetic, and moved on. It was a mildly amusing moment, but nobody batted an eyelid, or said anything about it afterwards. We knew that it was an colloquial expression, and we knew what he meant.
Even in the 1980s, one didn’t say the word “nigger” in polite company. Indeed, as a child in the mid-1960s it was made clear by my parents that it was a word that we didn’t use. For a politician to use the expression in 2017 strikes me as remarkably inept.
But, according to the BBC, that is exactly what Conservative MP Anne Marie Morris did.
“Ms Morris was discussing the impact of Brexit on the UK’s financial services industry at an event organised by the Politeia think tank, which was attended by other MPs. Suggesting that just 7% of financial services would be affected by Brexit, she reportedly said: “Now I am sure there will be many people who will challenge that but my response and my request is look at the detail – it isn’t all doom and gloom.” She went on: “Now we get to the real nigger in the woodpile, which is in two years what happens if there is no deal.”
And, as the BBC headline put it, “MP Anne Marie Morris suspended for racist remark.”
What is interesting about this is that she was not actually speaking about race at all, and I would guess that the subject of race didn’t actually enter her mind when she used the expression. To put it another way, she did not say anything racist, and to describe her words as a “racist remark” seems to be stretching the truth to breaking point – at least according to my understanding of the phrase. It would be much more accurate to say that she was suspended for using an offensive word.
Which brings us to the reaction.
“Announcing the suspension, Theresa May said she was “shocked” by the “completely unacceptable” language. “I immediately asked the chief whip to suspend the party whip,” she said in a statement. “Language like this has absolutely no place in politics or in today’s society.””
Well, there you go. An MP can be suspended for using bad language in a public meeting. Personally, I think this is silly beyond belief, and a sign that the country, or at least the Prime Minister, has gone raving mad.
However, more to the point, I think what ought to be said is that it looks to me like the crime of Anne Marie Morris is remarkably like the crime of Tim Farron – at least, if it is true (as most people seem to believe) that Farron resigned because of views he held on same-sex relationships. That crime is offending people of a certain group.
Hence, former MP David Laws wrote:
But as a gay man, I do not wish to be “tolerated”. I wish to be respected for who I am. And I want a party leader whose respect for human equality comes before outdated and frankly offensive religious views.
Laws was speaking about how he felt – and the use of the word “offensive” tells us that he was offended by certain views that he understood Tim Farron to hold. David Laws was offended not because Tim Farron had offended him personally, but because Tim Farron’s view about a certain group – a group that had suffered because of “prejudice” (a word that Laws used 6 times in his short piece) – were offensive.
And that is exactly the same the same as the crime of Anne Marie Morris. She said something that was offensive, and because it concerned a group that has suffered because of prejudice, she had to be suspended.
I think that it is worth noting that David Laws managed to use the word “outdated” to refer to traditional Christian teaching four times in his piece. The point is that the times are changing. Forty years ago, Farron’s views would not have caused him any political problems, and Morris’s choice of words would not have gotten her suspended.
And, perhaps more to the point, just as it seems pretty clear that Farron holds no hostility at all towards people based on their sexual preferences, there is also not a shred of evidence that Morris holds any hostility to people based on their race.
What should we think?
Three quick comments:
1. When Farron resigned, he said “To be a leader, particularly of a progressive liberal party in 2017 and to live as a committed Christian and to hold faithfully to the Bible’s teaching has felt impossible for me.” The reaction of Theresa May indicates suggests that the Conservative Party are also a “progressive liberal party” in 2017 – or at least, Theresa May thinks they should be.
2. In one of my articles about the resignation of Tim Farron I wrote
“. . . nobody went after Tim Farron because he was a Christian. They went after him because he was suspected of not being an orthodox believer in the tenets of political correctness. And in a “progressive liberal party in 2017” there will be no room for those who transgress that orthodoxy.
I think that what happened to Anne Marie Morris illustrates that perfectly.
3. I dare say Tim Farron would not like to be compared to Anne Marie Morris, and might argue that his crime was completely different. I also suspect that a lot of Christians in Britain will not appreciate me saying this.
But we need to face up the fact that increasingly, holding to the teaching of the Bible on certain matters is likely to make Christians, to use the Prime Minister’s words, “completely unacceptable” to many people, and mean that we may be seen as having “absolutely no place in politics or in today’s society.”
It seems to me that Christians, more than ever before, need to be as wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Particularly when we are in the midst of politicians.