IMAGINE going to work and being assaulted in front of scores of witnesses then being expected to make a joke of it. You wouldn’t like that one little bit, would you?
Imagine then, as you were nursing your wounds at home, your assailant appeared on the teatime news to explain why he’d targeted you. “I done him,” he’d say, “because I think he’s crap.” You’d be livid, I’m sure. And when this blockheaded justification was used as the catalyst for a wider discussion on whether you actually are crap or not, you might lose control completely. I wouldn’t blame you.
Fortunately, it’s a ludicrous notion. The law prevents you turning up, as a shopkeeper rolls up the shutters, and throwing a pot of Dulux magnolia in his face because you don’t like the range of crisps he sells. If you don’t like his crisps, you must buy yours elsewhere and keep the peace.
If you’re a politician, though, these rules don’t apply. If voters don’t like your crisps, brace yourself.
When Labour leader Ed Miliband was assaulted in a London market last week, there was no attempt to arrest his attacker. Dean Porter was interviewed by journalists rather than police. The 38-year-old’s motivation – “they don’t care about the poor… they should stop giving favouritism to the banks” – was pub-bore nonsense, politics at its most infantile. But that didn’t stop it making the bulletins. A lout with nothing to say was given a platform to opine on the quality of Miliband’s political skills and personal motivations simply because he’d attacked him.
Miliband satisfied the real but entirely unreasonable public expectation that politicians take this sort of thing in their strides by tweeting: “Thanks to all at East St Market for the warm welcome today. Can recommend it for the easy availability of eggs.” Yes, I know, I hadn’t mentioned the eggs. It was just an egging, wasn’t it? That’s not an assault. It’s part of the game.
It may be part of the game, but it shouldn’t be. We shouldn’t change the definition of a crime because the victim’s a politician, however deliciously tempting that might sometimes seem.
When John Prescott reacted by punching Craig Evans, a protester who struck him with an egg weeks before the 2001 General Election, panic swept the Labour campaign. The deputy prime minister had just smacked a voter (though not a Labour one) and that might not go down well. Spinners were worried about how the story would play out. Within a few hours, a sense of perspective had been located. If anyone deserved a punch in the face, it was Craig Evans. His attack on Prescott wasn’t principled. It wasn’t in the tradition of the right to protest. It was cowardly and thuggish.
In 2009, when Peter Mandelson had green liquid thrown in his face by environmental activist Leila Deen (later cautioned by police), Prescott posted a video online in which he demanded these incidents be treated more seriously.
When the liquid struck him, said Prescott, Mandelson had no way of knowing whether it was acid. Recalling his punch-up with Evans, Prescott said he had no idea what had hit him. On feeling warm liquid running down his neck, his first thought was that it might be blood, that he’d been cut.
Prescott wanted to know why Mandelson’s assailant was allowed to walk off, unchallenged. It was a very good question.
There’s a cheap argument that this sort of thing is woven into the fabric of politics, that these attacks are an acceptable part of its theatre. But Prescott was right: these must often be terrifying experiences for politicians.
Nor is there a shred of evidence to support the argument that chucking paint over an MP highlights a particular issue. When did you ever see a news report after one of these attacks that segued straight into an in-depth exposé of the “scandal” being highlighted? The answer is never because that never happens.
Surely the only thing we can say with certainty is that these attacks give the perpetrators their moment in the spotlight.
Sometimes it’s a gap-year idealist, sometimes it’s a bloke who’s had enough and ain’t gonna take it no more. Always, it’s someone who we would never want to meet for a pint. We pay no heed to the issues they claim to be addressing because they’re the sort of people who throw eggs at politicians.
Porter’s explanation for his actions was barely coherent. For all he added to the discourse, he might as well have seized his 15 minutes of fame by dropping his jeans behind Kay Burley on Sky News.
The Metropolitan Police were quick to announce that they would be taking no action following the incident. It emerged that Miliband preferred to let things pass without a fuss. (It strikes me, like an egg in the face, that Miliband would probably have seen his ratings rise if he’d been able to deliver a Prescott-style retaliation. In those circumstances, a little fuss would have been fine.)
The Labour leader’s desire that police didn’t act is understandable. He has enough on his plate trying to improve his party’s position in the polls without getting bogged down in a prosecution.
But shouldn’t that be a decision for the police, themselves? The crime was witnessed by dozens and caught on camera, the perpetrator bumbled his way through a self-justifying confession in front of television cameras. That’s what they call bang to rights.
Politicians might well have connived to do everything possible to win the contempt of voters, but we can’t expect them to put up with attacks after which, were we the victims, we would demand the instant delivery of justice.
Miliband may well be pursuing an agenda with which others disagree but that doesn’t give anyone the right to assault him.
That, whether it was “just” by chucking eggs or not, is what Dean Porter did. «