Angela Rayner called Conservative ministers a “scum” – and now they are turning it up

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is fell asleep thinking of Angela Rayner. (I think I even dreamed of her, but I would never burden you with it.) Several front pages had a photo of her at the labor conference smoking, which would be the most subversive about her, if she hadn’t called Boris Johnson “scum” at a meeting on the sidelines.

So many conversations ricocheted off his speech: is “scum” the authentic language of the British working class, or is it insulting to working class people? (A secondary question: I’d always say ‘scumbag’, which is much more flirty, but why? It’s just a sack full of scum. Speaking specifically of Johnson, on the other hand, I swear at that, you know, a real insult.)

Isn’t the prejudice against the Etonians, when you really deepen them, not as bad as racism and misogyny? (It was Spectator, and that’s the best argument against saying these things in public; if you ever find yourself weighing in your head the parameters of an argument with someone who thinks atonophobia is as bad as racism, it is a disaster a waste of time both for you and for the world.) How can Rayner call the Prime Minister racist or misogynist, Nick Robinson wanted to know the Phantom Chancellor , Rachel Reeves, on the radio Sunday morning, when he has an Asian Home Secretary and a female Foreign Minister? It was such a stupid question that it got me out of bed, but to be fair, there was someone at the door as well.

Why everyone in the Shadow Cabinet, down to the boss, finds it so incredibly difficult to say the obvious thing: Johnson can probably face the fact that Rayner doesn’t like him. If she said it to his real face, he probably could still cope. I know this because I met him once, in a bus shed in Flitwick, Bedfordshire, where he was promoting the new Routemaster. Another time we can talk about this bus, and if, in its vanity, nostalgia and enormous cost, it was a harbinger of things to come.

Johnson said to me, “Aren’t you the person who wrote all these horrible things about me? Childish cadence makes this sound invented, but this is really how it speaks, as hapless United Nations dignitaries recently discovered. I had, in fact, before the municipal election of 2008, written a horrible thing, detailing the many reasons why I, too, believe him to be racist, misogynist and homophobic. I had nothing concrete; it’s not like he has a criminal conviction for hate crime. I relied on all the racist, sexist and homophobic things he said. Anyway, I shrugged my shoulders and said, “Well, I don’t agree with you,” and he shrugged and walked away at a majestic pace. His farewell words were: “Beep beep. “

But we are not in adult politics, where it is quite expected and undesirable that people on opposite sides hate each other. We are in what the journalist and activist of disability Frances Ryan calls it “civic politics”, where you can cause people calculable and demonstrable suffering and hardship, on purpose (with a £ 20 universal credit cut, for example) or by accident (with incompetent decision-making) – but someone calls you ” scum “, they are those who destroy the very fabric of society.

It’s the same culture in which someone can stand on a global platform complaining that they’ve been canceled; in which the Brexiters, five years after their victory, still complain about the media left in place. The language of false injury and the ersatz victimization is constantly unfolding; no one 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 a real injury; it’s there to make empathy a moot point, so you can continue with the policy of not feeling it. So no, Rayner is not the problem. The word “scum” is not the problem. Smoking, however, Ang: I believe that’s actually bad enough for you.

Zoe Williams is a Guardian columnist


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