UK Politics

Defend George Osborne

When Ken Livingstone offended a Jewish London Evening Standard reporter earlier this year, David T, of the popular political blog Harry’s Place, wrote a post titled “Defend Ken Livingstone”. Rod Liddle agreed, writing an article in the Times where he said that “It’s all gone a bit far, this persecution of people for saying things”.

Despite these Herculean efforts the persecution of people for saying things somehow continues. According to today’s Times, the French writer and academic Robert Redeker has been forced into hiding for saying things, in this case for saying that Mohammed was “a merciless warlord, a looter, a mass murderer of Jews and a polygamist”. I’m not sufficiently informed about these characters from previous millennia to say whether this is accurate or not; obviously though, one should be able to say this without being threatened with death.

Tory Shadow Chancellor George Osborne hasn’t been threatened with death, yet, so far as I know, but he has come under fire for saying a Thing. In this case, the thing he said was “We’re not getting into Gordon Brown yet”. It’s not enormously contentious, but it seems to have caused quite a bit of offence. It was in response to a question by Times journalist Mary Ann Sieghart, who’d asked him about his relationship with his three brothers. She writes:

“What did they tease you about?” I asked, thinking the answer might be revealing. He hesitated for a moment. “Should I tell you this?” he wondered. “They used to call me ‘Knowledge’ because I knew every fact there was to know about dinosaurs and planets and things like that.” You instantly know the type. Facts, facts, acts; the sort of boy who pores over Wisden and learns every cricketing statistic off by heart. “Faintly autistic?” I asked, with a laugh. After all, men tend to be farther along the autistic spectrum than women, and obsession with facts is one of the first indicators. But I didn’t mean it at all seriously. Nor did Mr Osborne intend his reply to be taken seriously. He laughed, too, and said: “We’re not getting into Gordon Brown, yet.”

Evil beyond belief, you’ll no doubt be thinking. Genocidal, hideous and as disgraceful an utterance as it’s possible to make. Well perhaps not, but the
Times says that Osborne’s remark “drew criticism from the National Autistic Society, whose director said that referring to autism as a means of conveying criticism of someone’s personal skills risked stigmatising the 535,000 people in Britain on the autistic spectrum”. Carol Evans, a director of the society, said: “Any pejorative use of terms relating to autism can cause deep distress and hurt to people affected by the condition. We as a charity are keen to raise awareness in order that these terms are not used lightly by commentators. To use such terms as a criticism of someone’s social skills only perpetuates the confusion that surrounds the condition”.

Mediocre novelist Nick Hornby also condemned Mr Osborne, saying “George Osborne doesn’t seem to have noticed that most people over the age of 8 no longer use serious and distressing disabilities as a way of taunting people. Osborne claims that when he was younger, he was nicknamed Knowledge — I’m not sure anyone will be calling him Knowledge again for quite a while.”

I can’t help noticing here that it wasn’t actually George Osborne who used the word “autistic”, it was Mary Ann Sieghart. Now I quite like Mary Ann Sieghart; although I can’t find it on Google, I’m fairly sure she’s been complimentary about Harry’s Place in the past, and I’m a real sucker for that (although Richard Littlejohn or Garry Bushell needn’t try giving it a go). But what George Osborne actually said was so clearly innocuous, and so clearly harmless, that I think he can be forgiven, or ignored. Of course, I say “George Osborne”; from now on I’m going to call him “Knowledge”.