OK, those easily offended, look away now. Actually, if you were the easily offended type, you probably wouldn’t be reading this blog anyway, so no need for a BBC announcer-style warning. It may have been designated Phrase of the Day by the press, but ‘Nigger in the woodpile’ is not a phrase I’ve ever heard used by anyone, though as I don’t count any backbench Tory MPs amongst my friends, it’s no wonder it’s not one I’m familiar with. I suspect out in the blue-rinsed Shires it may well be the kind of expression that often accompanies a grouse-shoot or a fox-hunt, which means the majority of the population are not likely to use it; this isn’t necessarily due to any racist element, but more the fact that most people in this country aren’t ‘six-toed, born-to-rule pony-f***ers’ (as a character on ‘The Thick of It’ once eloquently put it).
Conservative MP for the mean streets of Newton Abbot in Devon, Anne Marie Morris was captured on tape using the phrase in a Brexit debate held at the East India Club: ‘Now we get to the real nigger in the woodpile, which, in two years what happens if there is no deal?’ Recorded by the Huffington Post, Ms Morris’s words hit the headlines and the floodgates of outrage opened. She may have issued an apology within an hour of them going viral, but the fact she nonchalantly used such a term in the first place says more about a particular mindset that still exists in some Tory circles. It’s the same mindset that was evident when Carol Thatcher was ousted from a regular TV spot for referring to someone as a ‘golliwog’.
Unlike, say, some rabid Britain First fanatic, what Anne Marie Morris said was said without malice, just an absolute lack of awareness that such a phrase would cause any offence to anyone. Even though Theresa May has ordered the Tory chief whip to suspend Mrs Morris, there are probably plenty of ladies and gentlemen on the golf courses of the Home Counties today who can’t understand what all the fuss is about. The reaction from Anne Marie Morris’s fellow Parliamentarians isn’t, as some may suggest, the OTT reaction of a metropolitan PC elite quick to take offence at the drop of a hat; I would imagine it stretches way beyond that as the nation is reminded once again how the other half not so much live as think.
To be fair to Theresa May, I don’t believe her response was the familiar knee-jerk one leading politicians often resort to, the kind provoked by the need to be seen to adhere to the social consensus. Rather, like many Tories to have sprung from a middle-class provincial background, she no doubt winces every time one of the gentry branch of the party utters some archaic expression that is probably still common parlance on the playing fields of Eton, the sort that instantly reveals how cocooned they remain from what is usually referred to as ‘the real world’. Tory Peer Lord Dixon-Smith also said ‘nigger in the woodpile’ during a Lords debate almost ten years ago, and David Cameron stood by him.
As soon as she took charge of the Conservative Party, one of Theresa May’s first tasks was to try to detoxify it of the privileged public schoolboy image it had acquired under Cameron and Osborne, for she knew all too well that it was a factor that alienated the electorate. The problem for the PM is that her party is dependent on that particular Tory element, and not just financially. Yes, she’ll gladly take their money, but she has no choice but to acknowledge their footslogging during an Election campaign because she knows they keep Toryism going, even if – like an embarrassing uncle with wandering hands when he’s had a drop too much at a wedding reception – she’d prefer it if they didn’t come out in the open and frighten the horses.
Yes, the ever-annoying Caroline Lucas was wearing her most simpering Harriet Harman face and stating the bleedin’ obvious as per on the telly, and a rash of MPs of all parties have roundly condemned what was said; but even if the usual suspects were queuing up to make their outrage public, most people outside of Parliament simply wouldn’t use such an antiquated and denigrated word anymore and would find the fact anyone would as representative of both their background and their detachment from the majority. Even as a kid in the 1970s, ‘nigger’ wasn’t heard as much in my neck of the woods as ‘nig-nog’, which was regularly aired on the likes of ‘Love Thy Neighbour’ and therefore exposed to the Plebs.
It’s true that, over the last two or three decades, ‘nigger’ has become a reclaimed word, but only in specific circles. A few years back, a white middle-class girl who referred to a black member of the ‘Big Brother’ household as ‘ma nigger’ simply because she wanted to appear ‘cool’ and ‘street’ was ejected in an instant; but the casual use of it amongst black youths has never sat comfortably on the shoulders of their parents, who had to endure it as an insult for most of their lives. Similarly, when ‘Queer’ was reclaimed by some younger gay men in the 90s, quite a few older ones weren’t exactly ecstatic about it.
Context counts; and in the context of a backbench Tory MP from a certain social demographic, a phrase like ‘nigger in the woodpile’ will be said unthinkingly and without a clue as to its ramifications beyond that demographic. I don’t necessarily believe using the phrase makes Anne Marie Morris a card-carrying racist; it just makes her look f***ing stupid.
© The Editor