The Starmer mob moral panic

9 February 2022

12:01 AM

9 February 2022

12:01 AM

In the long history of British democracy, politicians have from time to time been heckled and abused by rowdy loons on their way to the House of Commons. It was Keir Starmer’s turn yesterday, again, as a gaggle of hooligans shouted unpleasant remarks at him. When these things happen, it’s seldom an edifying spectacle. But it is probably a price worth paying for having a parliament in the middle of London which MPs travel to in open streets – rather than shuttling in and out of some hyper-secure and dystopian administrative bubble.

What happened to Starmer yesterday is no worse than what anybody who has been with away fans to a football match in England will have experienced. But from the way the incident is being written up – and the way politicians are fulminating about it – you could be forgiven for thinking that something truly awful had happened.

In fact, it was just a minor crowd-control incident. Actually, crowd might be pushing it: aerial photos suggest no more than 20 people were there. ‘Traitor!’ they shouted at Starmer. ‘What happened to the working man, Mr Starmer? Why did you go after Julian Assange?’

You know the thing — the jumbled thoughts of the Covid radicalised. One of them flew an England flag; another wore a Canada cap, presumably in solidarity with the anti-lockdown truckers of Ottawa. Somebody threw a traffic cone and was duly arrested. But the ones doing the ‘jostling’ were mostly the police.

It is not pleasant. It’s ugly. But those suggesting that there is something fundamentally unBritish about such protests clearly haven’t been paying much attention to British society in the last 400 years or so. It is, I’m afraid, how some angry protesters express themselves, and some people are very angry after two years of lockdowns.

What is new is the hysterical reaction of the political class. Among the incoherent abuse hurled at Starmer (‘traitor’, ‘arrest him’, ‘don’t take the vaccine,’ ‘do you enjoy working for the new world order?’, ‘why did you go after Julian Assange’) someone shouted out ‘Jimmy Savile’ and someone else ‘protecting paedophiles’. These two remarks were used to trace the whole thing back to Boris Johnson, and make out as if the whole protest was inspired by a joke made at PMQs. Politicians, sensing an opportunity to bash the Prime Minister further over his now notorious jibe about Starmer and Savile, were all too quick to seize on these two heckles for maximum political effect.

Julian Smith, a Tory MP, suggested that the foundations of democracy have been shaken: ‘It is really important for our democracy and for his security that the false Savile slurs made against him are withdrawn in full,’ he said.

Tobias Ellwood, another Tory MP, tweeted: ‘We claim to be the Mother of all Parliaments. Let’s stop this drift towards a Trumpian style of politics from becoming the norm. We are better than this.’

Labour MP Chris Bryant squarely blamed the Prime Minister for the abuse Starmer had suffered. He said Johnson’s Savile remark was ‘an attempt to incite the mob. We know how this plays out when politicians go down this deeply cynical route because we’ve seen it in the United States of America. It’s exactly the same as Donald Trump’s playbook. It’s not the way we do politics in this country.’

Trump, Trump, Trump: the point of reference for all political disapproval. What used to be called ‘the paranoid style in American politics’ — a term invented by Richard Hofstadter — has become the Trumpian style in global politics. It’s now what the establishment says, down its nose, every time it is confronted by the great unwashed.

This idea – that democracy is falling apart because a politician is heckled – is a moral panic. It is Trumpian only in the way it calls to mind the deranged way in which America’s media and its politicians whip each other up into a frenzy — usually over Twitter — over almost any and every infraction of political ‘norms’. That, if anything, is the American import.

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