The ugly attack on Iain Duncan Smith by five protestors at the Tory conference in Manchester has been widely seen as another illustration of how dangerously embittered British politics has become. We now live, it is often said, in a world of deepening friction, hate and intolerance. Angela Rayner’s now notorious rant about Tory ‘scum’ was also seen as a prime example of the spread of ‘cancel culture’, or the way Twitter rage has ruined civilised debate. Ditto the alarming story of Labour’s MP for Canterbury, who refused to attend her own party’s conference in Brighton last week after she received a number of threats.
It’s all very unpleasant. Amid concerns about worsening discord and extremism, however, a sense of historical perspective is needed. Foul abuse and aggressive partisanship are nothing new in British politics; nor were senior politicians treated with any greater reverence in the past. Indeed, incidents like Rayner’s outburst and the assault on Sir Iain have the capacity to shock because our political scene today is generally so peaceable, certainly more so than in the late 18th century when the mob played a prominent role in urban life.
During the Gordon Riots of 1780, the prime minister Lord North was besieged by an angry crowd in Downing Street and had to be rescued by the military. Greater public order in the Victorian age did not eliminate violent political turmoil, especially at election times. During the 1859 campaign, for instance, 30,000 Tory supporters swarmed through the city of Nottingham and began to ransack the local Liberal party headquarters before the arrival of the cavalry. Commenting on the 1865 Rochdale by-election, the radical statesman John Bright described it as ‘a hotly-fought affair. The town was excited all week by much fighting and drinking.’
Three years later, during the nationwide contest that brought William Gladstone to power, there was fierce rioting in Blackburn, where, according to one witness, ‘all along the pavements streams of blood were flowing.’
In Angela Rayner’s constituency of Ashton-under-Lyne, the 1868 election saw fighting rage for months between the rival camps; in Bristol, Liberal agents were reported to have organised flying columns of 200 to 300 men armed with truncheons to drive away Tory voters from the polling stations.
Sometimes the attacks could be repellent rather than violent. Unionist Minister Lord Winterton recalled how, during a set of hustings in Dundee, he was left smelling ‘like an amateur sewage farm’ after a bucketful of excrement was dumped on him from the gallery above. ‘Thus perish all Tories,’ the culprit had declared as he emptied the receptacle. That makes Angela Rayner seem downright civilised in comparison.
Joseph Chamberlain was hit in the face by a herring at a rally in Sheffield during the 1874 General Election, described by the journalist J.L.Garvin as ‘savage and disorderly.’ In 1892, Gladstone was hospitalised by a flying gingerbread biscuit which injured one of his eyes. His sight never properly recovered.
Winston Churchill was also the target of anger. In Belfast in 1912, during the Home Rule crisis, the car driving him and his wife Clementine to a rally was set upon by a loyalist mob who threw rotten fish and ‘Queen’s Island confetti’, local slang for the rivet heads used in ship-building. More than three decades later, in the 1945 General Election, Churchill was speaking at an outdoor event when a youth threw a lighted firecracker right at his face. Churchill, who was uninjured, was remarkably magnanimous towards the miscreant, writing a generous letter of support to his father.
Clement Attlee, speaking at St Andrews University in April 1947, was showered by pepper released from a box which had been installed directly above the platform by a group of students. Luckily for the Labour prime minister, the release mechanism, operated by a single 80 feet length of string, was faulty so some of the box’s contents remained inside. If the device had worked properly, reported the Daily Mail, ‘every spot of pepper would have fallen on Mr Attlee.’
On the 1970 campaign trail, Labour prime minister Harold Wilson was hit by a raw egg thrown by a member of the Young Conservatives. John Prescott in 2001 was also hit by an egg delivered from point-blank range by agricultural worker Craig Evans. Prescott responded with a powerful left hook.
Roy Jenkins, by contrast, reacted with magisterial calmness when a flour bomb was thrown at him during a public meeting in 1975 by a member of the National Front. Ted Heath endured two such assaults as prime minister, the first in 1970 when he was covered with paint on the steps of Downing Street by a Labour supporter; and the second in 1972, when he was splattered with ink as he made his way into the Palais d’Egmont to sign the Treaty of Accession that formally ratified Britain’s membership of the EEC. Strangely, the ink wielder, 31-year-old psychologist Karen Cooper, was not protesting about the loss of Britain’s national sovereignty but about the more parochial issue of Covent Garden’s redevelopment.
It should be said that the murder of Jo Cox in 2016 gives an added, tragic dimension to the current debate about the decline of civility in politics. But even this harrowing case is not unique. The catalogue of British political assassinations stretches back to the fatal shooting of Spencer Perceval in 1812, and includes other figures like Tory MPs, Ian Gow, Sir Anthony Berry and Airey Neave, all victims of Irish Republicanism.
Other politicians have been lucky to escape with their lives, such as Newham Labour MP Stephen Timms, stabbed in 2010 by an Islamist radical, or Liberal Democrat Nigel, now Lord, Jones, the target of a frenzied samurai sword attack in 2000 which left his assistant and local councillor Andrew Pennington dead.
But in all these cases, democracy carried on, as it will today. Whatever the doom-mongers say, British politics is not broken.
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