The second example comes from a speech made by female Conservative MP Ann Winterton in February 2004 at a dinner in Whitehall to discuss Anglo-Danish relations, which was hosted by the Danish shipping company Maersk. Before coming to the joke, a little background information is necessary. In May 2002 Winterton was dismissed as the shadow agriculture minister by the then Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith when she made a joke at a rugby club dinner in her constituency about a Pakistani being thrown out of the window of a moving train because Pakistanis are ‘ten-a-penny in my country’. In early February 2004, 20 immigrant Chinese cockle-pickers working without permits for extremely low wages were drowned in Morecambe Bay15. This occurred at a time of widespread media coverage, much of it sensationalist, about ‘illegal immigrants’. At almost the same time the new Conservative leader Michael Howard, in an effort to distance his party from the far right on such an important issue, made a hard-hitting speech against the British National Party, condemning their racist policies. It was in this charged context that a week after Howard’s speech Winterton made a joke in which a shark, bored with eating tuna, suggested to another that they should go ‘to Morecambe for a Chinese’. When this was reported in a national newspaper Howard dismissed her from the parliamentary party16.
The relations in the joke are quite marked. Winterton, as we have seen, has a history of racist joking, and just as she had previously told a joke in which Pakistanis were ‘ten-a-penny’, here her relations to the butt are also those of superior/inferior. In relation to her, Chinese people generally are ethnically, culturally, and linguistically distant, something ‘other’; these particular Chinese, moreover, had no legal status in the UK, their labour was reprehensibly exploited by gang masters, they had no representation, and in the scripts at work in the joke they are equated with food. In terms of the distribution of power, there is a great inequality between the teller and the butts, in the teller’s favour17. Even though she is an elected public figure with all the attendant responsibilities that such a position entails, and had even been warned by a fellow-Conservative MP not to make a joke that might cause offence, she chose to tell this joke to an audience gathered together to discuss international cooperation, containing, amongst others, MPs from opposing parties.
It is also necessary to note that the nature of the talk was not the give-and-take banter of a small group where meanings are collaboratively and extemporaneously constructed, as in the previous example, but was someone making a speech (a prepared monologue) to a captive audience. Responsibility is therefore easier to attribute. Further, although this was a ‘private’ dinner, it was not private in the sense of, say, having a dinner at home with family and friends, although it was private in that the general public and news media were excluded. Many of the people there were strangers to one another, and many were public figures. She must have been aware of these crucial factors and that an MP speaking at such an event could not be an entirely ‘private’ matter (though she did try to use the ‘private’ nature of the function as a defence). While the after-dinner speaking rights she enjoyed conferred upon her a certain licence, she once again overstepped the mark. Her joke was met with silence, and one Labour MP in the audience was so incensed that he reported it to the news media. In this case, then, there could be no question of hearer agreement as there was simply no appreciation. Nor, given her history and the speaking context, was there any possibility of her falling back on the ‘it was only a joke’ excuse.
The public/private issue is important here. Tragedies often give rise to jokes and this Morecambe Bay joke was already circulating in the public domain before Winterton told it. Although it is the racial element that is uppermost in this joke, it can also be seen as being in the tradition of disaster jokes. Sick joke cycles usually occur within local networks where such jokes are ideologically acceptable and tellers feel themselves to be on safe grounds. In the letters column of The Guardian newspaper (28.02.04) a number of correspondents commented that they had already heard the joke before this incident. One correspondent noted that her colleagues at work had told it but she expected politicians to show higher standards, while another thought that it was equally wrong for anyone to tell such jokes. Yet another thought such jokes exist in a separate ‘humour space’ where there is no such thing as a racist or sexist joke, a point strongly at odds with this discussion. While agreeing with the second correspondent that it is just as immoral (or at least amoral) for individuals to tell this joke in private networks, the significant difference of a politician telling the joke is that in the existing scheme of things her office endows her (rightly or wrongly) with a certain moral authority and, further, her words are empowered by the mass media, all of this giving greater weight to her utterances, which have a national audience. That is, the immediate social and political consequences are far greater than these jokes being told within private networks, though, of course, the existence of the latter is not without social significance. Telling a joke to what was, in effect, a public audience meant that Winterton stepped outside of an imagined safe network into, as it were, the world wide web of humour networks, and such a contentious joke was guaranteed to come up against opposition. Although in this country Winterton is far more powerful than the butts, at present in the UK there is a general acceptance of multiculturalism backed, if necessary, by laws against racial discrimination. These prevailing conditions were manifested in the warning she received before her speech, the silent reception of the joke, the leaking of it to the press, her dismissal by the party leader and the widespread condemnation of the utterance. These are the chief determinants in the assignment of this particular meaning to her joke. Other interpretations are available but they are not the ones which dominate.