'Inuit,' sneered the travellers' liaison officer with a condescending smirk. 'What was that?' I asked innocently. 'Inuit,' he repeated. 'The word Eskimo is racist. The correct term is Inuit.' I glanced down to see whether the fellow was wearing sandals, but no, he was clad in thoroughly sensible shoes. He was not even wearing a kaftan.
It is tempting to think of political correctness as an aberration of the 1980s. Certainly, the more fatuous examples of the genre belong to that era: the banning of Baa Baa Black Sheep from classrooms, the proliferation of silly androgynous job titles and the linguistic travesties of which 'personnel protection apparatus' for a manhole cover remains one of the classics.
But political correctness has not gone away. The self-appointed thought police of the 1980s are the directors and chief executives of the new millennium. The councillors of that golden age are now MPs and government advisers. Even the gloriously named headteacher Jane Hardman Brown, who once declined tickets for Romeo and Juliet on account of its unstinting heterosexuality, has done time as an Ofsted inspector.
If you are in any doubt about this, you only need to read one of the government's turgid consultation documents. These monuments to worthiness are stuffed full of ghastly neologisms and patronising euphemisms such as 'worklessness'. A decade ago we would have fallen about laughing at this feeble-minded verbiage. Now we just shrug and accept it.
What was formerly the preserve of the dungaree do-gooders has become establishment speak. The term 'worklessness' was not dreamed up by some municipal misfit in a now defunct central unit. It was presumably the invention of a senior civil servant or ministerial adviser.
Even the grand gestures of right-on behaviour have an institutional feel to them. A few months ago Tower Hamlets LBC introduced a policy of making smokers work an extra half an hour a day to compensate for the breaks they were forced to take because they were not allowed to smoke in the office.
Tower Hamlets is one of those councils that gives the impression of having swallowed the whole carton of carrot juice. This act of small-minded vindictiveness against the one minority you can still discriminate against with impunity is pretty much par for the course.
If this sort of stunt had been pulled back in the 1980s, the media would have had a field day. The perpetrators would have been ridiculed as the lunatic fringe, the sort who managed to get into the gene pool while the lifeguard was having his lunch break. But this piece of nanny-state gesture politics hardly caused a ripple on the surface of the cesspool. It is no longer seen as a flaky member whim but as a calculated management initiative.
It has the smell of the personnel sorority/fraternity about it and the imprint of the management team. Political correctness is no longer a circus act. It is part of the fabric of the new establishment.Inuit Nell would turn in her grave.