Nobody should be allowed to get away with calling someone a bigot just because that person has asked what to them are perfectly legitimate questions about immigration.
And when Gordon Brown described 66-year-old widowed grandmother Gillian Duffy as “a sort of bigoted woman” after a brush on the campaign trail last week, it wasn’t just the prime minister who later had his head in his hands – most Labour supporters reacted with a similar sense of despair.
Here’s an excerpt from the infamous exchange at Rochdale, a working-class town in northwest England:
Duffy (who had stepped out to buy a loaf of bread but then ran into Brown): All these eastern Europeans what are coming in — where are they flocking from?
Brown: A million people have come from Europe, but a million British people have gone into Europe. You do know that there’s a lot of British people staying in Europe as well…
Duffy: And what are you going to do about students who are coming in then, all this that you have to pay [tuition fees]? You’ve scrapped that Gordon.
So who are “these eastern Europeans what are coming in?”
On the streets of London today, you don’t have to look very hard to find them. They are everywhere — receptionists, waiters, guards, cleaners, shop assistants working hard for not very high wages. Away from the high street, they are the electrician, gardener and plumber servicing homes.
Indeed, Britain is now home to some 1mn eastern European. No matter what Mrs Duffy says, under European Union rules, there is nothing that Britain or any other member-country can do to stop each other’s civilians from coming in and working.
But she did highlight legitimate questions about the provision of public services, overcrowding and joblessness in wealthy but recession-hit economies.
More than half of east European immigrants in Britain are from Poland — the sixth largest economy in Europe.
And, equipped with a sense of entrepreneurship not unlike that of Indians, they are changing the landscape right across multicultural Britain.
Earlier this year, the first Polish grocery shop opened on a high street close to my home. Niku’s Polski Sklep is probably named after store-owner Miklos’s son Nicholas.
An electrician by training, Miklos offers mainly eastern European shoppers products from ‘back home’ — ranging from milk (yes, milk – it tastes better, claims Miklos) to delicatessen, and sausages and other meats.
So what does Miklos make of Gillian Duffy? “The only problem is with a small number of people who do not have work and don’t pay taxes.”
The preferred destination of Poles is actually Germany, he said — then Scandinavian countries, and only then Britain.”
Whom will he vote for? “I won’t vote. To me politics is like black magic — I stay away. Politicians are the same everywhere.”
The store was getting busy on the May bank holiday. “We are here for good,” Miklos said as his wife Violetta handed out a Polish sausage to a shopper and Nicholas, 5, pressed his nose against the shop window.