To think that politics had moved on from the days of Enoch Powell and his ‘Rivers of Blood’ address in 1968 would be to, at least on the surface, appear oblivious to the Conservative party and their long history of racist outbursts. In 2008, David Cameron faced surmounting pressure to suspend Lord Dixon-Smith, a Tory peer who described the government housing legislation at the time as “the nigger in the woodpile”. The fact that he was the Tory minister for communities and local government only brought with it more condemnation of his remarks. Now we fast-forward nine years and we are again made privy to how at ease members of the government are with rehearsing this racist rhetoric as Anne Marie Morris, MP for Newton Abbot in addressing concerns over whether the inability to reach a finalised trade agreement with the EU spelled out the UK’s downfall, stated “Now I’m sure there will be many people who’ll challenge that, but my response and my request is look at the detail, it isn’t all doom and gloom. Now we get to the real nigger in the woodpile which is, in two years, what if there is no deal?”
Miss Morris has since been suspended, amounting to nothing more than a poor attempt at damage control and has profusely apologised. This is merely a last ditch attempt to close the proverbial stable door after the horse has bolted. Or should we see her statement instead as a ‘gift horse’ – a chance to address Britain’s sordid involvement with the Atlantic slave trade, imperialism and colonialism? The response from the press and politicians alike, all in a bewildered state of shock at even a hint that the Tory party might house racist politicians is ironic considering the badly run EU referendum campaign which hinged itself on immigration as the remedy to Britain’s social ills as well as Adolf Hitler suddenly trending on the tongues of politicians like Boris Johnson, as if Hitler is a great reference point for how to run a campaign without racist undertones.
The term “nigger in the woodpile” as with most divisive terms that carry negative connotations, over time lend themselves to revision and as such, has come to describe something that is concealed and hidden from plain sight, and yet this by definition attempts to gloss over and conceal its true meaning. As unintentional as Morris suggests her remarks were, there were other colloquialisms that would have undoubtedly driven home her message while avoiding unnecessary controversy. The term refers to the smuggling and concealment of runaway slaves via the Underground Railroad throughout the 1800s at the height of slavery. The desperate struggle for freedom from the bondage imposed by slave-owners resulted in slaves hiding in stacks of pulpwood on board carriages as their only viable escape route.
Will the government impose the same standard in rooting out hate speech when it exists within the confines of their own party. With so much of the recent Grenfell Tower tragedy casting an overshadow on the wide chasm that exists between the ruling elite and ethnic minorities, it is difficult to imagine the mere suspension of Anne Marie Morris as an adequate bridge to build trust when our history and culture becomes a platform for political puns and public ridicule.