Of lynch-mobs and witch-hunts

How powerful people see opposition.

The Justice Secretary Ken Clarke has dismissed those scrutinizing his colleagues Jeremy Hunt and Baroness Warsi as a “lynch-mob”.   Not long ago, a well-known tabloid journalist attacked those investigating newsroom excesses as conducting a “witch-hunt”.

Of course, what is going on is nothing like a lynch-mob or a witch-hunt.  

Really, it is not.  

There are no terrified vulnerable people being persued down country lanes by vigilantes or hooligans with cruel violence on their mind.  There are no ropes thrown over branches nor any stakes placed on bonfires.   There is no bloodshed.    

Indeed, such stale but extreme language tells you a great deal about the mentalities of  those who employ it.  So unused are certain people of not getting their own way - either individually  or as a class - that they can think only in terms of mobs and witch-hunters when the prospect is raised of any genuine but unwanted accountability.  

So, as usual, the most revealing thing about a powerful man or woman is how they view those who can check them.  

For them, the sound of awkward questions being asked is the noise of breaking glass.

One should not be surprised by their responses.  

Yes, politicians from time to time may lose office; but the greater number of those who exercise actual power - civil servants, judges, police officers, and media proprietors and editors  - will be quite untouched by mere elections.  

They are settled in and do not like the “instability” of being confronted and challenged.  

For a citizen to even directly tell a Permanent Secretary, a High Court judge, a Chief Constable, or the owner of a tabloid, that they may be wrong and culpable and should answer questions is almost unthinkable as any practical matter.  

Such things do not happen, and there are various means in place to stop such impudence from occurring. 

As we observe the Queen’s diamond jubilee, it is clear that the United Kingdom has fashioned a polity where many individuals who exercise power never are really challenged.  

 
Tory politicians: off to the gallows? Photo: Getty Images

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and author of the Jack of Kent blog.

His legal journalism has included popularising the Simon Singh libel case and discrediting the Julian Assange myths about his extradition case.  His uncovering of the Nightjack email hack by the Times was described as "masterly analysis" by Lord Justice Leveson.

David is also a solicitor and was successful in the "Twitterjoketrial" appeal at the High Court.

(Nothing on this blog constitutes legal advice.)

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Four times Owen Smith has made sexist comments

The Labour MP for Pontypridd and Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour leadership rival has been accused of misogynist remarks. Again.

2016

Wanting to “smash” Theresa May “back on her heels”

During a speech at a campaign event, Owen Smith blithely deployed some aggressive imagery about attacking the new Prime Minister. In doing so, he included the tired sexist trope beloved of the right wing press about Theresa May’s shoes – her “kitten heels” have long been a fascination of certain tabloids:

“I’ll be honest with you, it pained me that we didn’t have the strength and the power and the vitality to smash her back on her heels and argue that these our values, these are our people, this is our language that they are seeking to steal.”

When called out on his comments by Sky’s Sophy Ridge, Smith doubled down:

“They love a bit of rhetoric, don’t they? We need a bit more robust rhetoric in our politics, I’m very much in favour of that. You’ll be getting that from me, and I absolutely stand by those comments. It’s rhetoric, of course. I don’t literally want to smash Theresa May back, just to be clear. I’m not advocating violence in any way, shape or form.”

Your mole dug around to see whether this is a common phrase, but all it could find was “set back on one’s heels”, which simply means to be shocked by something. Nothing to do with “smashing”, and anyway, Smith, or somebody on his team, should be aware that invoking May’s “heels” is lazy sexism at best, and calling on your party to “smash” a woman (particularly when you’ve been in trouble for comments about violence against women before – see below) is more than casual misogyny.

Arguing that misogyny in Labour didn’t exist before Jeremy Corbyn

Smith recently told BBC News that the party’s nastier side only appeared nine months ago:

“I think Jeremy should take a little more responsibility for what’s going on in the Labour party. After all, we didn’t have this sort of abuse and intolerance, misogyny, antisemitism in the Labour party before Jeremy Corbyn became the leader.”

Luckily for Smith, he had never experienced misogyny in his party until the moment it became politically useful to him… Or perhaps, not being the prime target, he simply wasn’t paying enough attention before then?

2015

Telling Leanne Wood she was only invited on TV because of her “gender”

Before a general election TV debate for ITV Wales last year, Smith was caught on camera telling the Plaid Cymru leader that she only appeared on Question Time because she is a woman:

Wood: “Have you ever done Question Time, Owen?”

Smith: “Nope, they keep putting you on instead.”

Wood: “I think with party balance there’d be other people they’d be putting on instead of you, wouldn’t they, rather than me?”

Smith: “I think it helps. I think your gender helps as well.”

Wood: “Yeah.”

2010

Comparing the Lib Dems’ experience of coalition to domestic violence

In a tasteless analogy, Smith wrote this for WalesHome in the first year of the Tory/Lib Dem coalition:

“The Lib Dem dowry of a maybe-referendum on AV [the alternative vote system] will seem neither adequate reward nor sufficient defence when the Tories confess their taste for domestic violence on our schools, hospitals and welfare provision.

“Surely, the Liberals will file for divorce as soon as the bruises start to show through the make-up?”

But never fear! He did eventually issue a non-apology for his offensive comments, with the classic use of “if”:

“I apologise if anyone has been offended by the metaphorical reference in this article, which I will now be editing. The reference was in a phrase describing today's Tory and Liberal cuts to domestic spending on schools and welfare as metaphorical ‘domestic violence’.”

***

A one-off sexist gaffe is bad enough in a wannabe future Labour leader. But your mole sniffs a worrying pattern in this list that suggests Smith doesn’t have a huge amount of respect for women, when it comes to political rhetoric at least. And it won’t do him any electoral favours either – it makes his condemnation of Corbynite nastiness ring rather hollow.

I'm a mole, innit.