Friday, March 09, 2007

In Defence of Patrick Mercer

There seems to be much more heat and light on this issue which is a shame. The Times wrote this article about an interview with Patrick, which then led to his resignation from the front bench. Unfortunately I don't seem to be able to find a complete transcript of the interview which is a shame, because I suspect putting the remarks in context would help.

In many ways his remarks left David Cameron with little option, but it seems some people are getting very hot under the collar about some the following remark:
"I came across a lot of ethnic minority soldiers who were idle and useless, but who used racism as cover for their misdemeanours."
He then went on with an example. Pickled Politics reports it thus (See here):

For a start he said: "I came across a lot of ethnic minority soldiers who were idle and useless, but who used racism as cover for their misdemeanours." Well isn’t that nice? He might as well have used Ron Atkinson’s famous last words and said ‘they were lazy thick niggers’ because that’s what he is implying. Not only are ethnic minority officers in the Army lazy but they also use their race as cover! The cheek! No racial stereotyping of course.

So the question is what did Patrick Mercer mean, and was he saying a lot of ethnic minority soldiers are lazy and useless? I don't think so.

Hermes Trismegistus on puts it like this:
Do you know the difference between a restrictive and non-restrictive relative clause in grammar? Suppose Mercer had used the following formation (note the comma before ‘who’):

I came across a lot of ethnic minority soldiers, who were idle and useless.

In this case he would be saying that he came across a lot of ethnic minority soldiers and - as a further point of fact - they were idle and useless. This is the non-restrictive formation.

In fact he was using a restrictive relative clause (signified by the absence of a comma before the ‘who’). This means he was talking about a particular sub-set of the ethnic minority soldiers he had met: namely those who were idle and useless. He then goes on to say of this sub-set that its members used racism as cover for their misdemeanours and so on. I think confusion accounts for the different interpretations of his statement we’re getting in the media. Who said punctuation isn’t important?
Or to put it another way he could well have been saying that whilst he ran into 100,000 ethnic minority soldiers (exaggeration for emphasis), of the 4 who were lazy and useless (the other 99,996 being excellent soldiers) 3 made accusations of racism when challenged over their behavior.

The problem with the turn of phrase used is not that it is wrong or racist (depending on where the comma is for example) but that it is very open to misinterpretation. Patrick has paid the price for that. Let us not however accuse him of racism because there is no evidence to support that.

There have been some glowing reports from his subordinates as well, for example the Daily Mail has this.


Timothy said...

The point Benedict is the context. The context is the formation of a union for soldiers in the British Army from the Commonwealth, who allege they are being badly treated. As a result Mercer is asked about racism in the Army. His response is twofold:

1 - Soldiers who allege people are being racist to them do so as an excuse to cover up their laziness.

2 - Racism does happen in the army but so what? Live with it.

Obviously the army is the sort of environment where dissent is not tolerated - orders have to be followed. However, if this comes at the price of victimising whistleblowers you create a dangerous culture of silence that can lead to very serious incidents of abuse as have occured in Army barracks recently.

Benedict White said...

Timothy, That is the context of the interview, not the subcontext of the questions asked or indeed the previous questions and answers.

I am currently on the phone to a Lib Dem who is no racist and he seems to be agreeing with me!

ChrisD said...

There appears to be no doubt that Patrick Mercer was a good soldier and leader of men and women!
When he left the army back in 1999, nearly ten years ago, he then moved into the vastly different Political world and appeared to take to it very well, this is not surprising in some ways, as the organisational and people skills he learned whilst in service would have helped him to get things done.

However being a politician is a vastly different "game" you need to think more on the actions and reactions of your words rather than your deeds.
He is guilty not of being a racist, but, of not being a good Politician and this is why David Cameron has rightly sacked him from the Front Bench. I am sure he will continue being an effective MP.

Benedict White said...

ChrisD, It guts me to say that I agree with you 100%.

It seems to me he allowed himself to be quoted in the worst way.

We don't have the full transcript, so I can't comment on the exact meaning of the offending comments.

Anonymous said...

Benedict - the people who say Mercer didn't do anything wrong, 'he was only speaking the truth' are also probably too thick and stuck in the past to realise that Gerald Ratner wasn't being too clever when he made his famous speech about his jewellery being 'crap'.

There is a reason people in PR get paid so much for 'telling the truth' to the public in a palatable form..

Benedict White said...

Anonymous, I agree, to a greater or lesser extent with what you say and yes that is why PR people get paid the money.

My defense is of his character not his job. I stand by my assertion that I suspect the full transcript will show him in a better light.