Angela Rayner called Tory ministers ‘scum’ – and now they’re weaponising it | Zoe Williams

I went to sleep thinking about Angela Rayner. (I think I even dreamed about her, but I would never burden you with that.) Multiple front pages had a picture of her at Labour conference smoking, which would be the most subversive thing about her, were it not for her calling Boris Johnson “scum” at a fringe meeting.

So many conversations have ricocheted off her speech: is “scum” the authentic language of the British working class, or is that insulting to working-class people? (A side question: I would always say “scumbag”, which is much more affectionate, but why? It is merely a bag full of scum. Talking specifically about Johnson, on the other hand, I would be much more likely to reach for a swear word.)

Isn’t prejudice against Etonians, when you really drill into it, as bad as racism and misogyny? (That was from the Spectator, and is the single best argument against saying these things in public. If you ever find yourself even scoping in your head the parameters of an argument with someone who thinks Etonophobia is as bad as racism, that is a catastrophic waste of both your own and the world’s time.) How can Rayner call the prime minister racist or misogynistic, Nick Robinson wanted to know of the shadow chancellor, Rachel Reeves, on the radio on Sunday morning, when he has an Asian home secretary and a female foreign secretary? It was a question so dumb that it got me out of bed, though to be fair, there was also someone at the door.

Why is everyone else in the shadow cabinet, right up to the leader, finding it so incredibly hard to say the obvious thing: Johnson can probably cope with the fact that Rayner doesn’t like him. If she said it to his actual face, he could probably still cope. I know this because I met him once, in a bus hangar in Flitwick, Bedfordshire, where he was promoting the new Routemaster. Some other time, we can talk about that bus, and whether, in its vanity, drummed-up nostalgia and huge cost, it was a harbinger of things to come.

Johnson said to me: “Aren’t you the person who wrote all those horrible things about me?” The childish cadence is making this sound invented, but that is genuinely how he speaks, as the luckless dignitaries of the United Nations recently discovered. I had, indeed, before the 2008 mayoral election, written a horrible thing, detailing the many reasons why I, too, believe him to be racist, misogynistic and homophobic. I didn’t have anything concrete; it’s not as if he has a criminal conviction for hate crime. I was just going by all the racist, sexist and homophobic things he had said. Anyway, I shrugged, and said: “Well, I disagree with you,” and he shrugged back, and drove off at a stately pace. His parting words were: “Beep beep.”

But we’re not in the politics of adults, where it is entirely expected and un-newsworthy for people on opposing sides to dislike one another. We’re in what the journalist and disability campaigner Frances Ryan calls “civility politics”, where you can cause people calculable and demonstrable pain and hardship, deliberately (with a £20 universal credit cut, for instance) or by accident (with incompetent decision-making) – but if someone calls you “scum”, they’re the ones destroying the very fabric of society.

It’s the same culture in which someone can stand on a global platform while complaining they have been cancelled; in which Brexiters, five years after their victory, are still whining about the remainiac media. The language of fake hurt and ersatz victimhood is ceaselessly deployed; nobody really swallows it, but it’s not there to be swallowed. It’s there to undermine the idea that there could ever be a real victim, or genuine hurt; it’s there to make empathy a moot point, so you can get on with the politics of not feeling any. So no, Rayner is not the problem. The word “scum” is not the problem. The smoking, though, Ang: I believe it is actually quite bad for you.

Zoe Williams is a Guardian columnist


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