Euan McColm: MPs need to let off steam too

Mayor of London Boris Johnson cracked when a cabbie gave him abuse. Picture: Getty
Mayor of London Boris Johnson cracked when a cabbie gave him abuse. Picture: Getty
Have your say

OUR much abused politicians have every right to swear at cabbies, writes Euan McColm

COMING from a man better known for the whimsical verbal soft-shoe shuffle, for informing us that table tennis was once known as “wiff-waff”, for dismissing talk of his infidelity as an “inverted pyramid of piffle”, it sounded rather inelegant.

Caught up in a late-night row with the driver of a black cab, the mayor of London was less PG Wodehouse and more Irvine Welsh. When the cabbie began shouting his displeasure at Boris Johnson, the Tory politician hollered back “why don’t you f*** off and die?” before adding “And not in that order”.

The pedant in me was a little annoyed by that afterthought: f***ing off then dying is the correct chronology for these two activities; to die first would make then f***ing off impossible. Though, I suppose, in an existential sense f***ing off does accompany the end of life.

But let us not allow me to become bogged down in this aspect of Johnson’s outburst which came during a row over his support for private hire cars, the prevalence of which in the capital has severely irked black cab drivers. Instead, let’s look at why Johnson’s outburst was a good thing.

There has been, in recent years, a change in the nature of the relationship between politicians and public. Yes, there has always been an element of healthy disrespect, of opposition activists heckling during speeches and grumpy men in pubs explaining that they all have their snouts in the trough, but haven’t things taken a darker turn?

Now, a great many of us appear to hold politicians in complete contempt. And almost as many again seem to think it quite acceptable to let them know this, up close and uncomfortably personally.

For much of this change in attitudes, we can probably lay the blame at the feet of politicians, or at least a decent number of them.

The Westminster expenses scandal of 2009, when we discovered the extent to which MPs from across the political spectrum were abusing their allowances quite understandably had an effect.

How could one feel anything but anger and disdain for a politician who thought it right and proper to have his moat cleaned at taxpayers’ expense?

But that terrible episode, which led to a number of politicians being jailed, is not the sole factor at play in the recalibration of our relationship with politicians; they have, through their own attempts to make us think better of them, assisted.

Think of the fairly recent vogue for politicians to reject pay rises (an act of self-denial that I find intensely irritating). One can easily understand the thinking behind the “principled” stance of an MP who says he or she doesn’t want the money: it’s a “we’re all in this together” declaration, a rejection of special privileges.

What this rejection of more money also achieves, however, is to imply that elected members are already overpaid. It’s an admission of guilt, a hand-wringing apology for privilege.

It’s little wonder so many of us respond with contempt. The rise of social media has further broken down any barriers between politicians and voters. Where once an angry punter had to get a bus to a community centre in order to shout at a politician, now he can tweet “You’re scum” from the comfort of his front room.

It does sometimes seem that there is a sense of entitlement from those who abuse MPs and MSPs in this way, as if their unpleasant remarks are all part and parcel of the “game”; if a politician is uncomfortable with being called a “f***ing ****”, then he shouldn’t have stood for election, should he? And anyway, I pay my taxes so that allows me to be as abusive as I like.

This shift in attitudes online has spilled over into the real world, most notably in recent years when it came to Scottish Labour’s general election campaign.

Now-departed leader Jim Murphy was trailed by SNP supporters who screamed abuse at him, and disrupted press conferences and speeches. Murphy was a valid target for this because he was, apparently, a “red Tory” and a “warmonger”.

He’s not actually either of these things, of course, but we’re allowed to scream in his face that he is because politics is a rough old game and what have you.

So let’s hear it for Boris Johnson, the politician who turned. When that London cabbie began shouting the odds at him on a busy street, late at night (and I don’t want to seem uptight, but isn’t the real issue that a taxi driver thinks that’s the sort of way to behave?) Johnson could have kept his head down and cycled on. He could have played his part in this interaction as politicians are expected to. He could have taken it.

Instead, Johnson behaved like many of us would and thought, no, I’m damned well not having this. His invitation to the taxi driver that he should “f*** off and die” wasn’t Wildean in its wit, but it was an entirely understandable reaction.

Politicians have spent far too long with stones in their shoes and hair shirts on their backs. We don’t (or we certainly shouldn’t) need them to continue to self-flagellate in order for us to treat them with a modicum of respect. No, I don’t expect a relationship based on cap-doffing obsequiousness, but I would very much like us to stop thinking it’s quite alright to subject politicians to nasty verbal ­attacks.

Politicians are not, despite the ease with which we might make the case, all stupid, grasping idiots. They are, for the most part, decent and hard-working and – like the rest of us – fighting their own private battles every moment of every day.

If we disagreed with someone we overheard in the pub, or while queueing for our brunch-time yum yum in Greggs, we wouldn’t dream of shouting them down, so why should we be allowed to do it to politicians without consequence?

When it comes to his late-night run-in, I’m on Boris Johnson’s side. And that cabbie can f*** off. «