Liam Byrne was joking. Let it go

I don't know Mr. Byrne, but I doubt his now infamous missive was left out of malice

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The now infamous note, shown by ITV
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Steve Tierney
On 25 June 2013 10:29

"I'm afriad there is no money": When Liam Byrne left his now-infamous note, do you think he did so with a heart full of malice? Was the intention to rub his successor's nose in the grim reality of the situation that had been bequeathed?

I don't know Mr. Byrne, but I doubt that was the spirit of the missive. Rather, I expect it was a moment of brief camaraderie. This gentleman, who had been in one of the most difficult offices in government, took a moment to share the reality of the situation with whoever was about to face the same daunting task. He chose to do so humorously.

Those of us on the other side of the political divide have made hay with his note. It's been rubbed in Labour's face over and over again and has popped up once more this week with David Laws brandishing the "original document" as though he holds in his hands some ancient religious artifact. The Ark Of The Covenant this is not.

Of course we are abusing the message, but nobody seems to care very much. It's become a tool, to be wheeled out any time Labour makes an economic claim we don't like very much. I think we are missing two fairly key elements to the argument which should colour the way we view it.

The first is that clearly, however we feel about Labour's destruction of our economy (and I bow to no man in my own vilification of this), the left-wing of national politics does not see its record in the same way. To claim, therefore, that what Liam Byrne meant by his note was some admission of failure is dishonest. He is more likely to have been poking a little fun at our own arguments, while simultaneously trying to share his frustrations with the role with somebody who would face the same trials, albeit from a different party to his own.

The second, and for me the more important proviso, is that this was clearly a joke. Now you can say it was a joke made in bad taste, or that it was unprofessional as I've heard many do. You could even go red in the face claiming that what Labour did is no laughing matter. The parade of angry folk is lined up on every side of the ideological line about one thing or another. 

But, as Brits, this is what we do. Dark humour – "gallows" humour as it is sometimes called – is our thing; the ability to find a wry line with which to make the best of a bad situation. At its best this sort of ability to use humour to connect with one another allows people who might otherwise agree on nothing at all to find some common ground. We trample on that at our peril. Is it really progress if future governments issue ‘Don't make any jokes, ever’ instructions to ministers for fear of creating a rod with which they can be beaten for several years?

Would Labour have done the same if a Conservative had left the note? Probably. But that doesn't make it the right thing to do.

It is easy to score points when a leading member of the opposition leaves a note saying: "I'm afraid there is no money". But there are only so many cheap points to be scored before the holier-than-thou routine gets old and people start to wonder quite when we got so impersonal and cold that we can't even leave a witty note for the next person to occupy our chair without it being turned into a moral crusade.

Steve Tierney is a Conservative Councillor in Cambridgshire

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