Victoria Ayling screen grab
Victoria Ayling, in an unflattering screen grab unapologetically taken from the Mail’s website

Following The Mail on Sunday’s exposé of Victoria Ayling I should confess that I was a key advisor to her.

I’ll qualify that by adding that I was a key advisor in the same way as (I suspect) she is a ‘key Farage ally’ and a ‘high-profile’ UKIP politician: in other words, not at all except in the eyes of journalists wanting to make a story bigger than it is.

My non-position only lasted a few minutes when she called me about the Great Grimsby constituency after she was selected to see if I could offer any advice as the candidate-before-last. It was mildly flattering, although unnecessary, and I spent a while outlining my analysis of the constituency’s politics1. I’d like to think she paid attention to my diagnosis, and that it made a difference to the result. But putting the phone down I couldn’t help feeling it had been a nice courtesy, not a serious call.

I didn’t find myself thinking, “wow, that Victoria Ayling is a horrible racist” because the conversation didn’t cover anything to do with race. Even now I don’t know if she is a horrible racist. Having watched the video I’m inclined to think her comments were racist, but I’m not naïve enough to take at face value excerpts from a video edited by either the newspaper or her (seemingly embittered) ex-husband.

So the story is that someone who once stood for Parliament and is now a councillor is possibly, or even probably, a racist. Not good, but surely not worth the front page of a national paper.

As someone who once stood in Great Grimsby and is still a councillor I’m very comfortable with my place in the foothills of politics. I don’t expect to make the front page of even our local rag, let alone a national, because I recognise my lowly position in public life and public interest. I may be at the pinnacle–if looking down the precipice–of my political career, but it’s not that high up. The failed MP and local councillor combo is not front page, it’s footnote at best.2

But that ramble through the foothills of political careers brings me to my main point. The problem here is the sensationalising of such issues. The Mail on Sunday have taken a bit of video of a non-entity provided by an ex-husband motivated by, I assume, a mix of spite and financial gain, and published it. Ironically this is a from a newspaper stable that sensationalises everything. They bring daily cures or causes of cancer. Column inches demonising anyone who might dare to be vaguely foreign. Then put it all on website adorned with such banal fluff that it’s a Herculean effort not to feel your IQ dropping whenever you glance at it.

In fact the awful truth is that, as reading the comments on the Victoria Ayling article reveals, her alleged views are far too common and the political party makes no difference, especially once you are out of metropolitan areas. It isn’t just UKIP supporters, but also Conservative, Labour and Lib Dem supporters, sympathisers, activists and candidates sharing these views (nor is just those involved in politics, they are a small proportion of the population, and merely reflect it). Part of the reason they share these views is that papers like The Mail and Mail on Sunday give them all the ammunition they need.

A quick Google search reveals that in recent weeks Mail newspapers have been concerned about race riots, the £3.7 billion a year cost of immigrants, the loss of working class jobs to–you guessed–immigrants and the failure of the government to meet immigration targets. It doesn’t take a genius to work out the conclusions some will reach from this barrage of coverage. It does not excuse racism, but it certainly doesn’t help reduce it.

Plenty of other people have made the point before, though it is always worth repeating. The point that is less often made is that racism isn’t, generally, a political stance. People support political parties through a rational choice, for some that choice is more analytical than others, but it’s an informed choice based on principles or economics. Racism isn’t a rational choice, it’s driven by hatred, or by fear, or by ignorance. Instead of attaching political labels when such accusations are made, we may as well attach other information: “‘Send them all back home’ demands Sky subscriber” or maybe “EDF Energy customer demands stricter limits on benefits for immigrants.”

It means that we can’t have a proper debate on immigration, its advantages and disadvantages, because the risk of accusations of racism is too great; even typing this I’ve been wondering if I’m leaving myself open to criticism. That so many other media sources have rushed to cover the Victoria Ayling story means the problem continues. Rather than creating an environment which can host proper debate that might result in a more educated and enlightened society , the media’s break from immigration sensationalism to hunt for a racist non-entity means that the insidious grumbling racism that exists in homes, workplaces and pubs up and down the country will thrive for just a little bit longer yet.

  1. Being young and arrogant in 2001 and I didn’t bother calling the 1992 candidate. I paid the price for this, when, late one night at a subsequent party conference, the relevant candidate button-holed me–possibly tired from the late night and emotional from the sleight–to offer a lengthy, but hopefully therapeutic, exposition of my failings.  ↩
  2. But I’m happy with that, I like footnotes.  ↩

There is something about an end-of-life Government that draws attention to the flaws. There’s nothing you can do about it, it’s not as if they were never there, but somehow your attention is just drawn to them. Governments, it seems, never die with dignity.

And the latest indignity is Baroness Scotland. An error that once would have been in the headlines for a day or two now takes on a much larger significance. Her survival is not so much about what she did, or didn’t, do when hiring her housekeeper, but about the strength of the Prime Minister. And it couldn’t have come at a worse time with the Labour Party conference next week focusing attention on the Prime Minister and his leadership – it has become yet another bit of tittle tattle to focus attention on the failings of his administration.

I confess I’m finding it hard to feel that Baroness Scotland has committed a major sin. I have never asked anyone working in my home for proof that they are entitled to work in this country. It is a hallmark of modern Britain – and Europe – that workers are frequently from other countries.

The argument that, as the government’s senior legal officer and one of the ministers who piloted the relevant legislation through Parliament Scotland should have known better is a powerful one, to be sure. But I’m not sure that is really the killer blow. Frankly, she’s made a mistake. A mistake she shouldn’t have made, and one with which a lot of people will have no sympathy (there are few people who can afford to hire housekeepers, illegally or not), but a fairly simple mistake in not keeping copies of the relevant paperwork.

No, the killer blow for her will be whether Gordon Brown can keep her in the face of criticism from other parties and, potentially, his own backbenches. I’m sure there are plenty of other MPs who have made similar arrangements and will be busy making photocopies of the relevant documents over the next few days, but this doesn’t change the simple fact that this is an issue opposition parties can push to make life uncomfortable.

And for them it’s a win-win situation. Whether Baroness Scotland stays of goes is fairly irrelevant. If they get her scalp they have shown the Prime Minister’s weakness. Even if they don’t it becomes part of the steady drip-drip of the dying administration.

Thinking back to Major’s last administration, how many of the people involved in the sleaze and scandals can you remember. Most would remember David Mellor, although ironically for the Chelsea shirt he never actually wore with Antonia de Sancha. Then there’s Neil Hamilton, who most would probably get because of his subsequent (and rather undignified) career as a ‘celebrity’. Jonathon Aitken has possibly faded into obscurity with the general public. And I’d bet names like Graham Riddick or David Tredinnick would be met with blank stares from most members of the general public.

What people do remember is the feeling. A feeling that the Conservatives were sleazy (even though it was only a handful of MPs from a much larger Parliamentary party) and were no longer fit for government. They were tired and it was time for change.

And that’s the feeling that you can’t help but get from Brown’s administration. In a few weeks most will have forgotten who Baroness Scotland is… but that feeling that it’s time for a change will be just that little bit stronger because of her.