Last Thursday Godfrey Bloom spoke at the Oxford Union. The chamber was rammed with students eager for an outburst from the beleaguered MEP. Some sat on the floor, sure that they would get a show.
But debating the motion 'This house believes post-war UK has seen too much immigration,' Bloom disappointed everyone. He spoke well and argued his case forthrightly. It's a case that many Britons agree with.
His views on immigration were understandable and surprisingly moderate. This was no Tommy Robinson standing before us - Bloom conceded time and again that immigration was key and indeed good for Britain - just a man concerned about the rate.
His main gripe was with unfettered EU immigration, resenting the travel of what he sees as unskilled workers towards Britain. He would reorganise the immigration system to favour those who brought high-level skills to the UK labour market, skills we wouldn't otherwise have. He argued Britain was full, that the housing crisis demonstrates this. It's hard to disagree - top estimates suggest Britain will need to build 300,000 new houses a year for the next five years to meet demand.
Then, without warning, this reasonable man stood in some sort of salute and mocked a disabled contributor to the debate with the question: "Are you Richard III?'"
It was a bizarre intervention.
Later in the evening he heckled a female speaker, ending his interruption with "Don't believe everything you read in the tabloids, sweetheart."
Suddenly Bloom was returned to pariah status. Now we understood why this man is derided as a 'misogynist dinosaur'. In the minds of everyone in the hall the argument was won, Bloom represented a previous era of sexism, jibes and bullying. Few could justifiably side with Bloom and the motion was overwhelmingly defeated, bringing cheers in the bar afterwards.
A couple of days later someone tweeted to ask, "But how can any sane, reasonable person say what he said in the first place?" It's this that is troubling. How can Bloom switch so quickly between tolerable politician to prehistoric bully? Surely a man intelligent enough to reasonably argue his case in front of 300 people realises that standing and insulting his opponents will do his cause no good at all?
Bloom disagrees. In a piece for the Oxford Tab (the paper I edit), Bloom insisted he wouldn't apologise, arguing: "I appeared on Have I Got News for You, and was compared to the old, bald cartoon character in the Wonga advert. Did I take offence? Of course not." His point being that double standards exist in the media, that he is fair game whilst a 20-year old boy is not.
He goes on to refute the claim that he compared the student to Richard III because of his disability, rather pointing to the 'resemblance' between their two facial appearances. The boy in question certainly does have the hairstyle of the King, and probably the nose for it too. There's definitely a resemblance.
Unfortunately for Bloom, however, later in the piece he claims he is a "fully paid up member of the Richard III society." This means he must have been aware of Richard III's physical condition, just like he must have been aware of the physical condition of the student standing three yards away from him.
But it didn't occur to him that this may be a problem. He wrongly assumes that we should accept his word that he didn't make the disability connection in his head. Just like we should accept that when he called a group of women "sluts" last year he meant it in reference to cleaning.
We shouldn't. We have political correctness because marginality remains a problem in our society. We have to hold our politicians to the highest standards of accountability because if we don't there is always the danger that discrimination will creep back into our kitchens, living rooms and even legislation.
This starts with language. Many see it as "PC gone mad", saying that people shouldn't get offended so easily. But we attempt to cut out words like "gay" for bad, "coloured" for black and "sluts" for women because they do cause tangible harm other than offence. They sneak into the places that governments find it hard to reach: The home, the social. In doing so they slow progress. We should support, not deride, those on our margins. Would Cameron's gay marriage bill (the one that caused the floods...) have faced more opposition if "that's so gay" hadn't been cut from the mainstream media and deemed unacceptable, probably.
Yes, this is unfortunate for Bloom, he genuinely may not have realised. But that doesn't matter. He should have realised how it could be interpreted, how dangerous it is for a public politician to jibe at someone with a disability. He may have thought it was fair game. Fair game would have been to tackle what the student was saying.Suggest a correction