Gove’s mock Scouse accent tells you what the Tories really think of Liverpool

By David Osland

I didn’t have Michael Gove down as a Harry Enfield fan. But the “calm down” catch-phrase the cabinet minister rendered in a cringeworthy fake Scouse accent on breakfast television last week proves the point.

You wouldn’t even have got the gag unless you recognised the homage to The Scousers, three impoverished Liverpudlian comic characters who featured in the veteran funny man’s skits some 30 years ago.

This isn’t the first time a senior politician has invoked Enfield. Labour leader Neil Kinnock referenced another of his creations, the obnoxious Thatcherite Cockney plasterer Loadsamoney, in a speech in 1988.

Loadsamoney ostentatiously taunted the poor with fistfuls of bank notes, presumably the proceeds of cash-in-hand work, as he bragged how much he had paid for his latest purchases.

But the dig was aimed at society as a whole, at least as those of us who accepted that there was such a thing as society understood it. The expression ‘Loadsamoney mentality’ even became an accepted shorthand description of Thatcherism.

Enfield is probably some sort of lefty. Nobody who has seen his eviscerating sketches featuring imaginary Conservative politician Tory Boy can be in much doubt where his sympathies lie.

And yes, sending up social class – which has made Enfield a nice living for a long, long time – has always been a central element of British satire. But the politics of openly mocking working class people is at best ambiguous and open-ended.

It’s always open to right wing appropriation, and the central conceit behind The Scousers always struck me as more about pissing down than punching up. That was clearly on display in Gove’s telly slot.

The whole interview was curious, his head bobbing up and down in an uncontrollable manner that inevitably generated widespread Twitter speculation as to what could have reduced him to such a condition at a rather ungodly hour.

Gove’s long-standing and deep-seated distaste for northerners is apparent from recordings of student speeches that came to light last year, in which the apprentice Tory Boy of the Loadsamoney era dismissed them as “dirty and toothless”.

Here he was again, riffing on the stereotype of Liverpudlians as thick thieving bastards in shell suits. This wasn’t ‘banter’, this was class contempt.

But to be fair, many Liverpudlians have as little love for Gove and his party as he has for them.

The city remains a Labour stronghold, and God knows we need strongholds right now. The last election saw Merseyside constituencies return 14 Labour MPs from 15 seats, including a number of socialists.

The animosity towards the Tories dates back at least to the L8 Uprising, as locals call the Toxteth riots of 1981, and the subsequent rise of a Militant Tendency-dominated council.

To its credit, Derek Hatton and his cohort actually took on the government over local authority cuts, whatever one thinks of the tactics they adopted to do so, or Degsy’s subsequent career in property development.

Thirty years later, it emerged that Chancellor Geoffrey Howe at that time discussed the idea of “managed decline” for Liverpool in private correspondence with Thatcher, even then describing the topic as too toxic for public mention.

Let that sink in. The city’s population at that time was over a million, and the Tories were ready just to write it off. Decline is indeed what happened: the population has fallen by over 10% since, and is only now projected to start rising once more.

Meanwhile, poverty remains endemic. More than one in three of the 900,000 or so residents are classed as income-deprived, and more than one child in four is classed as poor.

In 2008, a report from Tory think tank Policy Exchange described Liverpool as “failing”, and that its inhabitants should be encouraged to move to London, Oxford or Cambridge.

If the galaxy brains had any bright ideas about how those making the move could meet the cost of living in three cities with some of the most extortionate housing costs in Britain, I don’t recall it.

Yet another news story this week has been Liverpool’s FA Cup victory, lifting the trophy for the first time in 16 years following a penalty shoot-out, which puts them in line for the quadruple.

Sports stories normally stay on the back page. But the game furnished both the Sunday Express and the Mail on Sunday their front page leads, after Liverpool fans booed both the national anthem and whichever of the princes it was in attendance.

This was a leftist political gesture from fans with a reputation for leftism, and speaks to the sheer extent of their disaffection from the ruling class. Old Marxists like me love to see it.

It is an entirely understandable reaction from people who have to put up with opposing fans singing Feed the Scousers to the tune of Feed the World, again a jibe at poverty built on the same kind of caricature deployed by Michael Gove.

Gove’s latest job is that of levelling up secretary. His attitude to a city his party has spent the last four decades levelling down is the clearest possible evidence that he will fail in the task.

David Osland is a member of Hackney North & Stoke Newington CLP and a long-time left wing journalist and author. Follow him on Twitter at @David__Osland

Image: Harry Enfield’s Scousers. Source: Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

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