Scenes From the British Election

Gordon Brown's Classic Kinsley Gaffe
Notes from different corners of the world.
April 28 2010 3:41 PM

Scenes From the British Election


LONDON—No one has ever improved on Michael Kinsley's definition of a gaffe, which is what happens when a politician accidentally tells the truth.

Gordon Brown's comments this morning, captured by a TV microphone that he didn't know he was wearing as he left a campaign appearance in the Northern town of Rochdale, conforms to Kinsley's rule. Pulling away in his gray Jaguar, the prime minister growled that his impromptu exchange with a retired widow named Gillian Duffy was a "disaster" and "ridiculous." When asked by an aide what went wrong, the prime minister responded, "Ach, she was just a sort of bigoted woman."

Jacob  Weisberg Jacob Weisberg

Jacob Weisberg is chairman and editor-in-chief of The Slate Group and author of The Bush Tragedy. Follow him on Twitter.


If you watch the video, Gillian Duffy certainly does sound xenophobic as she confronts Brown. "You can't say anything about the immigrants," she complains. "All these Eastern Europeans what are coming—where are they flocking from?" (Eastern Europe, I should think.) Brown's response—that in-migration to the United Kingdom has been more or less matched by out-migration—was perfectly reasonable.

The other truthful aspect of Brown's explosion was that his staff served him poorly in allowing the argument. Short on funds, the Labor Party is said to be doing minimal advance work for Brown's appearances. He was within his rights to tell them, in what he thought was a private conversation, that they "should never have put me with that woman." And not checking to make sure the candidate was microphone-free post-appearance proves Brown's point.

A codicil to Kinsley's Law is that a gaffe is most damaging when it supports a stereotype or confirms a pre-existing narrative. The "bigoted woman" episode, which has been running on an endless loop all day on British TV news, is likely to prove damaging because it does both.

It shows the stereotype to be true by revealing the private Brown playing entirely to type as a cranky, tired, and simply not very nice man who blows up at his staff. Being caught in some act of upper-class snobbery would not have the same impact, because that's David Cameron's cliché, not Brown's. And it supports the current press narrative of the campaign, which is of an unlovable and unpopular incumbent in free fall.

The point of campaigning is to win voters over to your side. Today, Gordon Brown showed his rare skill for doing the opposite.

Like Slate on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.


Justice Ginsburg’s Crucial Dissent in the Texas Voter ID Case

The Jarring Experience of Watching White Americans Speak Frankly About Race

How Facebook’s New Feature Could Come in Handy During a Disaster

The Most Ingenious Teaching Device Ever Invented

Sprawl, Decadence, and Environmental Ruin in Nevada

View From Chicago

You Should Be Able to Sell Your Kidney

Or at least trade it for something.

Space: The Next Generation

An All-Female Mission to Mars

As a NASA guinea pig, I verified that women would be cheaper to launch than men.

Terrorism, Immigration, and Ebola Are Combining Into a Supercluster of Anxiety

The Legal Loophole That Allows Microsoft to Seize Assets and Shut Down Companies

  News & Politics
Oct. 17 2014 4:21 PM Why the Poor Pay $1,400 for Old iPads #MuckReads: A weekly roundup of investigative reporting from ProPublica.
Business Insider
Oct. 19 2014 11:40 AM Pot-Infused Halloween Candy Is a Worry in Colorado
Oct. 17 2014 5:26 PM Judge Begrudgingly Strikes Down Wyoming’s Gay Marriage Ban
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 17 2014 1:54 PM Republican Midterm Debate Strategy: Be Pro-Life, But Not Anti-Abortion
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Oct. 17 2014 1:33 PM What Happened at Slate This Week?  Senior editor David Haglund shares what intrigued him at the magazine. 
Oct. 19 2014 4:33 PM Building Family Relationships in and out of Juvenile Detention Centers
Future Tense
Oct. 17 2014 6:05 PM There Is No Better Use For Drones Than Star Wars Reenactments
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Oct. 19 2014 7:30 AM Persistence Pays Off: The Smoking Trail of a Shooting Star
Sports Nut
Oct. 16 2014 2:03 PM Oh What a Relief It Is How the rise of the bullpen has changed baseball.