Quite aside from the bushfires, which have dominated the front pages of all UK papers — well apart from the Daily Star, which is running a video vixens competition — Australia has been much in the British mind of late, with Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson’s remark about Gordon Brown being a “one-eyed Scottish idiot” to a Sydney press conference, with subsequent uproar over here. Two days later he’d issued an apology for the comment on the PM’s disability (he lost an eye as a child) … though “nothing will make me take back the idiot”, he remarked.

Clarkson, the northern boy who went to the exclusive Repton school, is the faux-letarian beloved of middle class kids pretending to be working class everywhere. Normally, he’d stick to his guns, secure in the knowledge that he’s too wildly popular for the BBC to discipline. So why did he go down like a vegan nymphomaniac, to put it in Clarkson-speak?

The comments on Brown came a day after Carol Thatcher, daughter of the Iron Lady, and an all-purpose, no-content celebrity, remarked in a conversation in a BBC green room that black French tennis player Jo-Wilfried Tsonga was a “golliwog”. After fellow presenter, comedienne Jo Brand complained about the comments, the quaintly-titled Controller of BBC1 considered the incident and decided to remove Thatcher from the One Show, the piss-poor early evening show she “reports” for, following Thatcher’s refusal to apologise for the remarks.

Predictable uproar followed, with right wing death beasts the Dailies Telegraph and Mail deploying keyboard shift-F1 (“political correctness gone mad”) and the conservatoriat decrying someone being punished for a “private conservation”. At worst it “it contravened good manners” Simon Heffer wrote, before castigating the BBC for “a persecution … worthy of Goebbels …” in the style of “Cuba or North Korea” to suck up to their audience of “young, mindless, Leftist, urban, amoral, drug-abusing, value-free people”.

In subsequent days, this protest became somewhat muted, with the realisation that the green room (a TV hospitality/pre show room) had been filled with show guests, and that Thatcher’s remark had been a repeated bebop riff on the theme of black people as “golliwogs … half golliwog … half frog-golliwog” etc etc. It also became clear that the outrage of middle England at the Beeb was rather less than vociferous.

It’s worth asking why this is. Partly it’s a widespread dislike for Carol Thatcher, a morose and cloddish presenter whose continued career is something of a mystery, based laergely on the lingering elan of her surname. Another factor was the ongoing GFC, liable to hit the financial-services heavy UK just about worse than anywhere, and concentrating British minds away from the culture wars.

But mainly it’s because there has been a slight but decisive shift in the spectrum of what middle England finds acceptable, due to the election of Barack Obama. Tsonga, half-French, half-Congolese, is, like Obama, a symbol of a changing world, of the slow rise of meritocracy over white-skin privilege. Most people feel good about that, even those who don’t support Obama’s policies. Thatcher’s remarks were an expression of the profound anxiety at this state of affairs felt by someone who has nothing but skin (and name) privilege, and a lot of people don’t really want to be tagged with that attitude.

Clarkson, a tad brainier than Thatcher, saw the way things were running, and that his remarks would seem less like brave laddishness, and more like the public school braying that they are, and quit the field.

The whole issue has provoked a series of breast-beating about “Orwellian Britain” etc etc – but the truth is that the same would have happened in the US, even on FOX News, though no-one would have been titled a “Controller”.

But one more recent incident does give a taste of the way things work here, with the furore over a Foreign Office Middle East expert who, watching a report on the Gaza massacre on TV in the FO gym, launched into a tirade about “f-cking Israel” and “f-cking Jews”, and refused to desist when challenged. Was he thumped for this vile tirade? Sacked? No, he’s been arrested and charged with “incitement to racial hatred: on the presumption that fellow gym rats would be moved by his endorphin-rush spinout to go torch something.

Now that wouldn’t happen in the states. Though given the subject matter, somehow I don’t think it will get the usual condemnation from the shift-F1 crowd.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey