As a general rule, for a “political” blogger, I don’t really write that much about what politicians say or do. I usually find it’s simplest to just start off assuming that whoever’s in power is going to try and screw us over, and then move on to the more interesting question of what we’re going to do about it without worrying too much about the details.
But every now and again, one of them says something that sticks in my head, and seems to demand further comment and exploration. Nick Clegg’s “why not invite the tea lady?” jab at David Cameron about the number of parties invited to electoral debates might seem like a fairly harmless joke about a pretty boring, irrelevant question, and it’s certainly a very long way down the list of bad things Clegg has said and done in his life, but I think it’s worth examining the joke to see how it works, and the assumptions that lie behind it.
“Having expressed this truly moving and touching dewy-eyed compassion for the fate of the Greens, David Cameron has said he is now equally worried about the fate of the DUP [Democratic Unionist party]. I suspect next week he will be worried about the fate of the Monster Raving Loony party and after that, when they are in, possibly the tea lady – why is she not in the debate as well?” What’s he really saying here, when you think about it, can be rephrased as “AHAHAHAHA IMAGINE A TEA LADY BEING INVITED TO A DEBATE WOULDN’T THAT BE FUNNY AHAHAHAHA IMAGINE AN ORDINARY PERSON HAVING OPINIONS ABOUT IMPORTANT STUFF HAHAHAHAHAHA THINK ABOUT IT, IMAGINE A WOMAN WHO WORKS FOR A LIVING, SOMEONE NOT LIKE US, HAVING VIEWS AND IDEAS AND BEING ABLE TO VOICE THEM IN PUBLIC AND HAVING HER IDEAS LISTENED TO AND TAKEN SERIOUSLY AHAHAHAHAAHAHAHA ISN’T THAT HILARIOUS?”
In the same way that, when you call someone a poof or a fag, you might be insulting the person you’re talking to, but it only works as an insult because of the underlying assumption that being gay is shameful, Clegg here is ridiculing Cameron by raising the image of him inviting a tea lady to a debate, but the ridicule only works if you share the assumption that it’s inherently funny for working-class people to talk about serious things. If you start off from the perspective that ordinary people are perfectly capable of discussing the issues that affect us and coming to sensible decisions about those issues, then Clegg’s punchline starts to become unimaginable. But then, if you start off from the perspective that ordinary people are perfectly capable of discussing the issues that affect us and coming to sensible decisions about those issues, then Clegg’s entire career and social position starts to become unimaginable.
By the way, it’s less revealing than his tea lady joke, but it’s still notable that, on the same occasion, he accused Cameron of “avoiding something which I think is a simple old-fashioned principle – if you have been in power, if you have run things you should be held to account”. Think about that for a second. Think about being the Deputy Prime Minister of this country for nearly five years. Then think about saying “if you have been in power, if you have run things you should be held to account” as a criticism of someone else. Think about how hard it would be to be the Deputy Prime Minister for almost five years, and then say “if you have been in power you should be held to account” as a criticism of someone else without dropping dead on the spot from the sheer hypocrisy of your statement, the staggering levels of self-delusion it must take to be Nick Clegg and to say something like that. Of course we all lie to ourselves at times, that’s unavoidable, but I think it’s far healthier to avoid ever getting yourself into a position where you need that level of total dishonesty in your relationship with reality in order to function. You could almost feel sorry for these people sometimes. Almost.