It’s not Clarkson’s fault the #N30 strike was a damp squib
It was to be the biggest strike in a generation. People were openly and unabashedly comparing Wednesday’s day of action over public sector pensions to the general strike of 1926. It was to bring Britain to a standstill. Mark a turning point in the battle against the cuts instigated by the spawns of the evil Iron Lady. Become a talking point that would strike fear into the cold heart of Cameron and pave the way to bigger, more decisive action.
Except, erm, the very next morning it had been almost completely forgotten. It barely registered as a blip on BBC Radio 4’s flagship Today programme. Newspaper coverage was on the whole sympathetic, but slight. None of the predicted chaos came to pass. Prime minister Cameron could quite safely dismiss the strike as a ‘damp squib’ and provoke few comments except from the usual suspects. People shrugged and went back to work. Far from being a Great Event like the 1926 strike that people would draw inspiration from in 85 years time, it was barely discussed. As my colleague Brendan O’Neill had anticipated, it all felt more like a ‘loud and colourful PR stunt ultimately designed to disguise the fact that, in truth, trade unions are a sad shadow of their former selves’.
Just as the PR flames were beginning to dim, however, enter Jeremy Clarkson, the cartoonish presenter of Top Gear, who sped to the rescue with a particularly naff joke about the strikers being shot in front of their families. Of course, he didn’t actually mean it. In the context of the programme, BBC1’s The One Show, his remarks were actually more a dig at the BBC: he had in fact been praising the strikers (‘London today has just been empty. Everybody stayed at home, you can whizz about… it’s also like being back in the 70s. It makes me feel at home somehow.) but then said, as it was the Beeb, he had to provide ‘balance’, making his now notorious quip: ‘Frankly, I’d have them all shot. I would take them outside and execute them in front of their families. I mean, how dare they go on strike when they have these gilt-edged pensions that are going to be guaranteed while the rest of us have to work for a living?’
Did he mean it? Absolutely not. In fact when the presenter attempted to ascribe the views to him, he very clearly said: ‘They’re not. I’ve just given two views for you.’ But, no matter, his words acted as a claxon for the inevitable, ever-more-frequent, twitch hunt on Twitter with the Twitterati rallying (or, better, herding) their followers to go to the BBC’s website to complain. Very shortly after, prominent union reps were demanding for an apology. And it didn’t stop there. Some started to call for him to be sacked from the BBC. The union UNISON declared it was considering reporting Clarkson to the police. UNISON’s assistant general secretary Karen Jennings went further still claiming Clarkson’s comments were ‘almost like Gaddafi would have spoken about demonstrators. It’s an incitement to hatred and we are seeking legal advice.’
Sure, Clarkson is undoubtedly a fool. And his comment was a pretty low point even for him. But so what? If we chastised everyone on the BBC who wasn’t funny, there’d be hardly anyone left. But to say it’s hate speech? Akin to the comments of a murderous tyrant like Gaddafi? Surely even the most po-faced trade union rep couldn’t fail to see that it was a joke? To think Clarkson’s comments serious requires a sense of humour deficit comparable to the current economic one.
It’s mind-blowing how, within hours, the focus of the strikes had been narrowed down from ‘strikers against the evil right-wingers and the state’ to become ‘strikers against Jeremy Clarkson’. The uncomfortable reason for this is that, for all the claims that there was a sustained media campaign to shift public opinion against the strikes and that Cameron and Osborne had revealed themselves more than ever to be hard-line Thatcherites representative only of the ‘one per cent’, actually most public figures and media outlets fawned over the strikers or at least looked on them as quaint or harmless. Despite a few shrill columns from the Sun and the Daily Mail, there was widespread sympathy towards the strikers. And certainly none of the venomous bile there would have been in the past.
This humourless scraping of the barrel, pandering to an increasingly pervasive culture of offence-seeking, is in reality a desperate attempt to gain political traction, to create a political conflict notable by its complete absence on the strike yesterday. But such traction won’t be gained through shallow Clarkson-bashing any more than it will through a drab faux-battle over the percentage points of pensions. A channel for the anger felt by the public does indeed need to be found; and serious debate needs to be had about how to transform society to bring about a better future for all of us. From this week’s actions, however, it’s clear that the trade unions as they currently exist aren’t up to the job and should be encouraged to begin to pick up their pensions themselves.
The Independent Online is partnering with the Institute of Ideas’ Battle of Ideas festival to present a series of guest blogs from festival speakers on the key questions of our time.cuts, Jeremy Clarkson, pension, protest, public sector, strike
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