As if the Conservative Party needed more bad publicity after the lacklustre response to the Grenfell Tower tragedy, the DUP deal and the intense pressure regarding public sector pay, Anne Marie Morris, a Tory backbencher was recorded using a racially offensive term on Monday at a conference of Eurosceptics in Central London. The MP for Newton Abbot used the phrase ‘n***** in a woodpile’ to describe the prospect of leaving the EU with no deal.
The apparent offhand nature of this comment has caused a great deal of controversy as it highlights that Morris did not consider such a comment inappropriate. Even if her utterance of this phrase was accidental it suggests that Morris subconsciously considers its usage acceptable in everyday conversation. Similarly, John Redwood MP and Bill Cash MP have both faced criticism for not challenging Morris at the time.
“Theresa May simply cannot get a break”
For people unfamiliar with this saying, including myself, it originated in the United States and was frequently used in the nineteenth and early twentieth century before greatly declining in use. The term had a primary association with slavery, especially the plight of fugitive slaves. It is unsurprising, therefore, that the casual use of this archaic term has provoked such criticism.
It seems that Theresa May simply cannot get a break. This situation is made worse for the Tories upon consideration of the momentum (with a small ‘m’) that Jeremy Corbyn is currently riding. For many within the broad coalition of Labour voters that came out on 8th June, this provides more evidence that the Tories are out of touch and worthy of contempt.
Despite apologising, Morris was suspended from the Conservative whip and rightly so in my opinion. Naturally, such language has no place in modern politics, or society as a whole, and perpetrators should face appropriate action. However, to what degree should this punishment extend? Should Morris be forced to resign, triggering a by-election? Or is there the possibility that she may be allowed to return to the party within a few months?
“There exists a precedent in British politics for leniency in such cases”
Previous instances of racial insensitivity have provoked this sort of light-handed response. In 2008, David Cameron stood by Lord Dixon Smith, the then Conservative Local Government spokesperson in the House of Lords, who used the same phrase in a speech addressing the House. The Labour MP for Bradford West, Naz Shah, was suspended from the party by Jeremy Corbyn in 2016 for showing support for Anti-Semitic comments. However, she was reinstated three months later. Thus, there exists a precedent in British politics for leniency in such cases.
Some have offered a defence of Morris by arguing that we must consider that people of an older generation were born and raised during a time when phrases such as this were more acceptable. Clearly, however, the phrase and the word are relics of a bygone era and their utterance by anyone of any generation in 2017 is simply unacceptable.
Upon consideration of Morris’ mistake, the apparent division between older and younger generations is highlighted. Yet, there is a contradiction in that the frequent usage of ‘n*****’ in popular culture, notably music, belittles the negative connotations of the word. Within hip-hop, grime and rap, it is normal to hear regular use of ‘n*****’, albeit in a context far away from the Westminster bubble. Indeed, grime music appears to be on the rise amongst the youth of Britain and, ironically, ‘Grime4Corbyn’ played a role in the success of Labour at the election.
“It baffles me that Morris would use the word so nonchalantly”
Is it acceptable in some cases to make use of the word and do people of certain backgrounds have more of a right to use it than others? These are complex questions that I do not have the answer to. Nevertheless, it is never a word that I would think (consciously or subconsciously) to use and it baffles me that Anne Marie Morris would use it so nonchalantly in a completely unrelated context. Accusations of racism seem to be a problem that affects the Tories more than any other party and they are haunted by this stigma. It is ironic that it was Theresa May that first labelled the Tories as the ‘nasty party’ back in 2002, given that it is her government that is now perceived that way by so many.
At a time when the government desperately needs a period of stability, some time to recoup from their election disappointment, a successful start to the Brexit talks and a re-engagement with the public on their strongest issues, the Tories are constantly and repeatedly being crippled by a series of untimely events. This is a stage where they need to broaden their support base to reach out to those under 45 whilst redirecting the conversation onto their record in government. The actions of Anne Marie Morris seem to have made this uphill battle that much harder.