Euan McColm: Scorn turns to sympathy at spectacle of ranting crusaders

Even Corbyn doesn’t deserve the boorish barracking he received in Dundee and Glasgow, writes Euan McColm.

Reverend Richard Cameron lays in to Jeremy Corbyn for the news cameras during the Labour leader's visit to Glasgow last week. Picture: Sky News

It’s the stuff the dreams for the editors of TV news programmes. It’s dramatic, liable to be shared widely on social media and, best of all, it’s so much less tedious than all that policy stuff.

I write, of course, of the moment when a campaigning politician is confronted by an angry member of the public and the cameras catch it all.

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There’s your unwitting candidate wandering through a shopping precinct, promising free this and extra that, when up pops a punter with a grievance. There then follows the spectacle of said punter berating the politician, who will either try to placate them (this never works and always makes the politician look bad) or skulk off, surrounded by advisers (this also makes the politician look bad).

Loath as I am to offer sympathy to any of the current crop trying to win election on 12 December, I grow weary of this particular pantomime. My irritation with those who ambush campaigning politicians now outweighs my disdain for those on the receiving end.

Throughout the past week, news bulletins have been littered with unfortunate collisions between candidates and voters and, damn them all to hell, those voters have started masking me feel sorry for those candidates.

My disdain for Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is deep and wide. He’s a crank with a history of associating with terrorists and anti-Semites but when a bloke stood up and began shouting the odds at him during an event in Dundee last week, he had my sympathy.

This furious bore got to his feet and, angrily jabbing his finger towards Corbyn, began ranting about the “will of the Scottish people”. The fellow went on to rant incoherently about democracy – he was a nationalist and Corbyn has ruled out the possibility of indyref2 next year should he become Prime Minister – and to loudly demand that those trying, gently from what I could see, to usher him out of the event get their hands off him.

Yes, the right to protest is a precious one and, no, I don’t for a minute suggest it should be restricted, but that doesn’t mean the rest of us should have to endure the tiresome spectacle of self-appointed champions of truth making a bloody scene about everything.

The man in the audience in Dundee added nothing but noise to the current campaign. We know that nationalists want another referendum next year and we know that Labour doesn’t.

The will of the Scottish people that he talked about remains, for now, for Scotland to remain part of the United Kingdom. This may well change but I’m not sure a heckler is going to do much to help that.

As if feeling sorry for Corbyn once wasn’t bad enough, I had also had to pity him a day earlier when he was confronted by a protester in Glasgow.

On this occasion, a Church of Scotland minister – Richard Cameron – turned up at an event and shouted that he had thought Corbyn would be wearing his “Islamic jihad scarf”. Who, Cameron demanded, would be then first terrorist invited to the House of Commons if Corbyn became prime minister?

I don’t seek to underplay the seriousness with which we should take the associations that make the prospect of a Corbyn premiership so unpalatable to many people, not least the vast majority of British Jews, but here was another example of a self-important man in love with the sound of his own voice. Cameron didn’t add to the discussion, he just made a racket.

Shortly after Cameron’s ambush of the Labour leader went viral, we were to learn a great deal more about what makes this man of the cloth tick. A series of tweets in which he expressed views that might be considered Islamophobic and homophobic were soon uncovered and before you could say boo to a canvasser, Cameron had been suspended by the Church.

Even those of the deepest faith, well practised in the art of forgiveness and determined to see the good in everyone, might have struggled not to relish this swift comeuppance.

I’m not, I should make clear, making the case that politicians should get a free ride when they’re out on the campaign trail. When, say, Prime Minister Boris Johnson visits a hospital with the cynical intention of making himself look good, then a patient or relative who has a legitimate complaint should let him have it. When Johnson went to Yorkshire last week to look as if he gave a damn about the floods that have devastated so many homes and businesses, he deserved all he got when locals took the opportunity to tell him what they thought of him.

My problem is not with people reacting to the grubby little wheezes of politicians but with the crusaders, those who go out of their way to disrupt and intimidate because they believe themselves to be righteous.

We talk a lot these days about the coarsening of the tone of political debate. Politicians from across the spectrum talk of the need to do better, to be more respectful, more considerate of the views of others.

This is all very noble but it’s a project doomed to fail while puffed up little men – and it is usually men – reckon they have the right to rant.

Interactions with the public can be fraught with difficulties for politicians. Think of former PM Gordon Brown, whose campaign was derailed in 2010 when he was caught describing Gillian Duffy, a woman he had just met, as a bigot.

Many reckoned, given Duffy had raised the matter of “Eastern Europeans flocking in”, that Brown might have had a point but, in the end, he felt compelled to humiliate himself by returning to her home to apologise profusely.

Brown had nobody but himself to blame for that mess. It was his decision to engage with her in the first place. He saw political mileage in doing so.

But those politicians who are ambushed by voters out to prove their righteousness have my sympathy.