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West Lancs Council Chief Executive and the ‘fuelling of community tension’

01.07.09 | Comment?

(Longish post alert – 2,700 words.  Click here for word version)

 Last night I finally got round to having a look at the pre-Christmas ‘The View from The Top’, the weekly column written by the District Council’s Chief Executive, and published in the Ormskirk and Skelmersdale Advertiser.

Hereit is.  Please just take a minute to read it, then pick yourself of the floor and return to the screen for a bit of researched (well, alright, quickly googled) comment…..

I read the piece. I read it again, and I read it a third time, because I was having trouble believing my eyes.

 Let’s just start with some facts.

I read the phrase:

In Scotland, the First Minister has spoken out about a hospital which had banned the distribution of a Christmas CD over concerns that it could cause offence to non-Christians. The Labour minister said that this was ‘political correctness’ gone mad’.

‘That’s most odd’, thought I. ‘ Surely our Chief Executive, most proud of his Scottishness, and being a Senior Officer to boot, knows that The First Minister in Scotland is not from the Labour Party, but from the Scottish National Party.  Surely, this is a poor choice for his required ‘political balance’, so that he can then go on and praise David Cameron for his wisdom in saying ‘the idea that anybody could be offended by the phrase ‘Merry Christmas’ is just insulting ‘tosh”’. 

And anyway, I didn’t remember this story about Christmas CDs in a Scottish hospital, so I got on with a bit of  googling.  It turns out that it was a Labour First Minister after all who’d said it – five years ago in 2003

Well, nothing like being up with the latest news, eh?  But look at the the Chief Exec’s wording again.  He uses the past perfect (‘has spoken out’) rather than ‘spoke out’ (once upon a time) and the intention to make it look like recent news is quite clear.

The hospital story is worthy of comment on itself.  Look at the BBC article linked to above, and it’s perfectly clear that it was, even then, total rubbish.  The journalist resorts to the phrase: (the First Minister) ‘spoke after it was reported that a hospital had banned the distribution of a Christmas CD’ (my emphasis) – meaning that there’s no primary evidence that it had. 

Further the hospital spokesman in the article gives a quite reasonable explanation for not distributing throughout the wards a CD which, we should note, was being used to raise funds (i.e. asking for contributions at the bedside?). 

‘A spokesman said that the hospital had not ‘banned the distribution of the CD’. He said there was ‘no question of trying to de-christianise Christmas’. ‘It was felt that the appropriate way to distribute the CDs was to make them available after the carol service to anyone who wanted a copy,’ the spokesman said.’

So let’s just recap.  The Chief Executive of West Lancashire District Council is using a five-year old story from another country – a story totally lacking in substance – and passing it off, along with a Sun campaign (dating from 2006) and a Cameron statement (April 2008) as a recent and relevant event to back up his key assertion made at the start of the piece:

‘The Council always wants to promote equality of opportunity and this is a view which few people would argue against – but when the equality agenda veers towards political correctness, then I think we have a problem.’

Notwithstanding the appalling standard of English – how is  promotion of equal opportunity a ‘view’? – it’s pretty clear what he’s up to here, and lets not be coy about it. 

He’s having a go at the Left.  He’s having a go at people like me who actually believe that political correctness – another way of saying that is ‘being correct politically’ – is something to be proud of, because it’s about an awareness of the importance of language in maintaining and heightening ideological control of the masses.  He’s falling back on thirty years of the (very effective) discursive articulation of ‘political correctness’ and the ‘loonie left’ (see below how a Labour MP-who-should-know-better has bought into this), and he’s doing so without any substantive fact to back up his assertions.

But amazingly enough, using his supposedly ‘neutral’ position of power to attack me and my ilk  (i.e. anyone who thinks it’s a good thing to promote, through appropriate use of language, tolerance, diversity and equality) is only half of what he achieves in this small piece.  Let’s take the next key paragraph:

‘Indeed, fair play to Trevor Phillips, Chair of the Equality Commission, when he says: “It’s time (for the PC brigade) to stop being daft about Christmas, it’s fine to celebrate and fine for Christ to be the star of the show’.

 See what he’s doing here?  First, the use of the mildly patronising ‘fair play to’ insinuates that we should be grateful that Trevor Phillips got it right this time, because he’s usually wrong and because the Equality and Human Rights Commission (to give it its proper title) is not really something that has the same value as what the Chief Executive himself has to say on this matter.  All very subtle, but it’s there.

Less subtle is the fact that he deliberately misquotes Trevor Phillips, as well as taking this sentence utterly out of context

Trevor Phillips DID NOT use the words ‘PC brigade’, in or out of brackets.  Indeed, lots of people would be utterly shocked if he did.  The term ‘PC brigade’ comes directly from the Daily Telegraph article about David Cameron that I’ve already referred to above.  To misquote him like this, and suggest that he attacked people like me (I am a proud member of said brigade) is an astonishing liberty to take.

It’s well worth looking at what Trevor Phillips did actually say:

‘A lot of these stories about Christmas are the usual silly season stuff. But I can’t help feeling there’s sometimes an underlying agenda to use this great holiday to fuel community tension.  

That’s why I asked leaders in different religious communities to join me in saying: It’s time to stop being daft about Christmas. It’s fine to celebrate and it’s fine for Christ to be the star of the show.’

What Trevor Phillips is ACTUALLY saying, then, is the diametric opposite of what the Chief Executive is interpreting him, misquote and all, as saying.  Phillips is in fact attacking precisely the kind of baseless nonsense that the Chief Executive is peddling here; Phillips is suggesting that people like the Chief Executive are themselves fuelling ‘community tension’ in keeping with their own ‘underlying agenda’.

Suddenly, this agenda is becoming clear.  Beneath the linguisitic veneer of ‘commonsense’ (yes, he actually uses the phrase), our Chief Executive is seeking to set forth an image of little West Lancashire as a place where the majority must surely think like him, because it’s commonsense to do so, but where there are dangerous forces lurking in the shadows who will come and steal your Christmas if you’re not very, very careful.  And if you tolerate that, there’ll be other stuff they’ll be up to – promoting homosexual perversions in your schools, teaching Hamas studies, and all kinds of intolerable nonsense.

In this ‘reds under the bed’ universe, it doesn’t matter that the Chief Executive is simply making up the current ‘dangers'; it doesn’t matter that no-one in West Lancashire has EVER suggested that Christmas messages or symbols be changed in any way; your Chief Executive, and the great Conserative establishment he serves so ably, is here to protect you (from people like me) as long as you give them your backing for their moral crusade for decency and commonsense.  If that means inventing an ‘enemy within’ for a while, just in case, so be it – it’s all in the just cause of rooting out the lefties.

Well, I’m afraid I AM the enemy on this one, and I don’t buy the Chief Executive’s crap. 

Nor I think will some other notable people, so let’s look at how many different people he and his Conservative masters now owe an apology to:

1) The people of West Lancashire for wasting their Council Tax money spending the Chief Executive’s highly-paid time writing this rightwing drivel;

2) The Ormskirk and Skelmersdale Advertiser for abusing the space they have given to the Chief Executive and damaging their reputation as a purveyor of accurate information.  This is not the first time this has happened in recent months, and I would hope that if an apology and a promise to mend ways is not forthcoming, the editor of the paper will have enough professional pride to remove the ‘View From the Top’ column;

3) The Labour Party generally, for pretending to provide equal comment from Labour and the Conservatives to back his spurious argument, but in fact using a five-year old, irrelevant source in the context of a total non-story;

4) A hospital in Edinburgh for raking over the coals of a story which never had any substance in the first place;

5) Trevor Phillips and the Equality and Human Rights Commission for misquoting, and for taking what is misquoted out of context anyway;

6) The whole of the population that prides itself on values of tolerance and respect for others, and does not deserve this ‘community tension’ fuelling crap;

 Wow! That’s a list Mayor Johnson would be proud of – he’d better get typing;

But let’s get serious for a moment here.  Why, you might ask if you’ve got this far with me, should I want to give really quite a detailed account of a short piece in a local paper that few people will have read all the way through, fewer taken much no notice of, and which will pretty certainly not lead to any spiralling-out-of-control of community tensions, in sleepy old West Lancashire, of the type to which Trevor Phillips alludes.

Firstly, there is the issue of what might happen if The Chief Executive continues to get away with what is, in West Lancashire, just nonsense, but in other settings might not be just nonsense. 

The Chief Executive is quite young, and quite ambitious, and I’m sure he has a desire at some point to take on what will be seen in his professional circles as a bigger job than he has with a lower tier District Council in a two-tier Council set-up.  Certainly, his penchant for self-publicity attests to this ambition.

 He might, then, end up being a Council Chief Officer for a multi-ethnic area which has, by dint of the rightwing forces of division he’s now trying out for size, some of these community tensions already. 

Imagine how such an article, in a higher profile paper than the one he’s writing in now, might play out. It’s really not a very big step from the kind of stuff he’s written to an implicit support for people within such ‘tense communities’ to be saying ‘Well, the Asians really are against us, and they really do want Christmas abolished, and only the BNP can save us now!  That’s what the Chief Executive said, isn’t it?’

So, yes, the Chief Executive does need to be pulled aside by his political masters and told to cool it.  And no, I don’t expect that to happen, just as I don’t expect the apologies to flow just yet.

The second reason for my level of detail here is that, while this blog post is primarily locally aimed, I think there’s a wider issue about how the left reacts to the ‘PC debate’ that will continue to rage.   In setting out this ideological critique of the discourse used, I share the view of Phil BC at A Very Public Sociologist, when he argues (quoting Terry Eagleton) that the crtiique of ‘tat’ (and what could be more ‘tat’ than what I’ve reviewed here), is important for ‘teasing out the ideologies curled up tightly’.  That is, teasing out the ideological undepinnings of what the Chief Executive has to say is to provide a worked-up example of how at a wider scale the reactionary forces that he represents and serves do their dirty work of oppression through division of, in Marxist terms, the working class.

But having teased out the ideological underpinnings, we must do something about them and challenge them as best we can. Specifically in the context of the ‘PC debate’, this is why Tom Harris MP (from the right of the Labour Party) is so abjectly wrong when he says:

‘Now, I know I’ve been accused in the past of pandering to the whole Daily Mail/ ‘it’s political correctness gone mad’ thing, but there’s a very good reason why this kind of half-witted nonsense should be opposed.In the 1980s, the right-wing press had a field day with the antics of left-wing councils allegedly banning the words blackboards, black coffee and  man’ in manhole covers, etc. In fact, a lot of it was made up, but the damage was done and Labour paid a heavy electoral price, particularly when our candidates were drawn from the alleged ‘loony left’ section of the party.Yet today, it’s almost as if Labour (and other) councils are looking at their archived press cuttings from the ’80s and saying: ‘Hmm, that’s a good idea – why didn’t we think of that before?’

What Tom is really saying here is that, for the sake of some votes which may well not come Labour’s way anyway, we should pander to those made of the same ideological stuff as the West Lancashire Chief Executive; that we should be prepared if necessary to give up the very real gains that ‘loony left’ Councils made in the 1980s in terms of now generally accepted (even by our Chief Executive) notions and practices of equality of opportunity – something which simply didn’t exist as a term in 1970s local government, let alone in employment practice etc..

I think not, Tom.

 And, obversely, it is why Dave Osler was quite right to unpick the recently adopted word ‘chav’ and then to argue that:

‘the left should devote its efforts not towards inculcating new linguistic taboos but instead take up the real issues raised by the persistence of ingrained poverty in places like Glasgow East’ (Tom Harris’s city, as it happens)’

although I also argued that arguing about the ideological dimensions of language (as I have done here) is a an important factor in assessing the issues around continuing inequality and poverty.

So that is myself talked out on this, but I still need to consider what further action I should take as a blog post is, however long, insufficient in itself, whether or not it is picked up by the local press  Views on next actions are welcome, but I’d be particulalry interested in a view from anyone with a legal mind as to whether the Chief Executive, in setting forth his views in this way, might actually be in contravention of the Human Right Act 1998, which imposes upon public authorities the duty to act with ‘demonstrable respect for equality and human rights’

I think the answer is probably that he is not acted outside of the law, though I’d be interested in a view before moving on to whether I should simply lodge my view with the Equality and Human Right Commission about how their Chair has been so misrepresented.

Finally, I should add my now usual caveat.  While this post has necessarily attacked what the Chief Executive chose to write, it is not a personal attack on someone whom I still regard – some might say against a growing body of evidence – as a decent public servant and a capable officer.  It is his misfortune that he has had to serve a politically obnoxious regime, and while I sometimes think he appears a little too enthusiastic to do their bidding, even to engage in some of their more devious work (as here), I am still charitable enough to see that this it is by force of circumstance that he is, in the now usual Freirian terms, the oppressor.  And, in keeping with this, this post does what it can to help him out of the mess he’s in.  To quote Paulo again:

‘As the oppressed, fighting to be human, take away the oppressor’s power to dominate and suppress, they restore to the oppressors the humanity they had lost in the exercise of oppression’ (Paulo Freire, 1972, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, p.32).

 I trust he’s suitably grateful.



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