No, Nick Clegg didn't say domestic violence was a "fleeting thing"

Clegg's Lawson/Saatchi comments have been wilfully misinterpreted.

Nick Clegg took a meandering route in response to a question at his radio phone-in today and fell under the bus of internet outrage. And at the time of writing, he's still there.

During the phone-in he was asked what he'd have done were he a witness to the Nigella Lawson/Saatchi scene, after Saatchi was photographed holding his wife's throat, and this is what he said:

When you see a couple having an argument…most people, you know, just assume that the couple will resolve it themselves. If of course something descends into outright violence then that's something different.

I just don't know, there was this one photograph, I don't whether that was just a fleeting thing… or… I'm at a loss to be able to put myself in to that position without knowing exactly.

You're asking me to comment on photographs that everyone has seen in the papers, which as Nick Ferrari has said…

I don't know whether that was a fleeting moment so I'd rather not comment on a set of events that I wasn't…if you're asking me a more general question, if you're sitting next to people in a restaurant who start, particularly if someone is much stronger, let's say, not always, but let's say if a man is much stronger than the woman is physically threatening a woman, then I hope everyone's instincts would be…to try and protect the weaker person. To try and protect the person who might be hurt.

It's just I find trying to re-imagine how you might react to very specific events which still are not entirely clear – that's the bit I find... very difficult.

It's a good answer, because it's nuanced, balanced, and refuses to jump to conclusions. But it's a terrible answer for a politician, because it's nuanced, balanced, and refuses to jump to conclusions. Politics is not the place for people who want to feel out a situation verbally, showing their working - it's for those with the stomach and the nerve to trot out the blindingly obvious, again and again. You need to be able to say, blank eyed, "I completely condemn all forms of domestic violence" - when anyone mentions it, and repeat these small robotic tasks until the day's work is done, without getting a headache. This shows integrity. Of course, as Jonathan Franzen once pointed out, "Integrity's a neutral value. Hyenas have integrity, too. They're pure hyena".

Which brings us to Yvette Cooper's response. She understands how to be a politican, and immediately jumped on the bandwagon:

Nick Clegg revealed how little he understands violence against women this morning.

Far too often violence against women is dismissed as fleeting or unimportant. Too often public institutions don’t take it seriously enough. Domestic violence is still a hidden crime – and victims suffer or are ignored as a result.

Mr Saatchi has accepted a police caution for assault and the images from the restaurant are disturbing.

Ministers should show they are prepared to condemn this kind of violence against women and that they recognise the seriousness of domestic abuse. Nick Clegg completely failed to do that this morning.

Clegg didn't say the violence was fleeting. He said he didn't know whether the photo depicted a fleeting moment, or genuine evidence of violence. He pointed out that he was being asked to respond to a specific situation, rather than "more general question". He was not talking about domestic violence in general.

Note also the phrase "prepared to condemn", suggesting Clegg was being particuarly cowardly here. But politicians are always prepared to condemn things that are obviously bad. It is a fairly safe bet.

But I'm sure everyone knows this already. The machinations behind these sorts of mini-scandals have become so obvious, so boring, that they make me feel ill. Here's Clegg's follow-up statement.

I completely condemn all forms of domestic violence.

As I said on the radio, my instinct would always be to try and protect the weaker person, to try and protect the person who otherwise would be hurt.

But I was asked a very specific question about how I would have reacted to a specific incident which I did not see.

I said I did not know how I would have reacted to that specific incident because I do not know what happened.

The point I was making is that I don’t know what other people in the restaurant saw and I don’t want to make a judgement on their reaction.

 
Nick Clegg. Photograph: Getty Images

Martha Gill writes the weekly Irrational Animals column. You can follow her on Twitter here: @Martha_Gill.

Getty
Show Hide image

What is the EU customs union and will Brexit make us leave?

International trade secretary Liam Fox's job makes more sense if we leave the customs union. 

Brexiteers and Remoaners alike have spent the winter months talking of leaving the "customs union", and how this should be weighed up against the benefits of controlling immigration. But what does it actually mean, and how is it different from the EU single market?

Imagine a medieval town, with a busy marketplace where traders are buying and selling wares. Now imagine that the town is also protected by a city wall, with guards ready to slap charges on any outside traders who want to come in. That's how the customs union works.  

In essence, a customs union is an agreement between countries not to impose tariffs on imports from within the club, and at the same time impose common tariffs on goods coming in from outsiders. In other words, the countries decide to trade collectively with each other, and bargain collectively with everyone else. 

The EU isn't the only customs union, or even the first in Europe. In the 19th century, German-speaking states organised the Zollverein, or German Customs Union, which in turn paved the way for the unification of Germany. Other customs unions today include the Eurasian Economic Union of central Asian states and Russia. The EU also has a customs union with Turkey.

What is special about the EU customs union is the level of co-operation, with member states sharing commercial policies, and the size. So how would leaving it affect the UK post-Brexit?

The EU customs union in practice

The EU, acting on behalf of the UK and other member states, has negotiated trade deals with countries around the world which take years to complete. The EU is still mired in talks to try to pull off the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the US, and a similar EU-Japan trade deal. These two deals alone would cover a third of all EU trade.

The point of these deals is to make it easier for the EU's exporters to sell abroad, keep imports relatively cheap and at the same time protect the member states' own businesses and consumers as much as possible. 

The rules of the customs union require member states to let the EU negotiate on their behalf, rather than trying to cut their own deals. In theory, if the UK walks away from the customs union, we walk away from all these trade deals, but we also get a chance to strike our own. 

What are the UK's options?

The UK could perhaps come to an agreement with the EU where it continues to remain inside the customs union. But some analysts believe that door has already shut. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as Prime Minister was to appoint Liam Fox, the Brexiteer, as the secretary of state for international trade. Why would she appoint him, so the logic goes, if there were no international trade deals to talk about? And Fox can only do this if the UK is outside the customs union. 

(Conversely, former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg argues May will realise the customs union is too valuable and Fox will be gone within two years).

Fox has himself said the UK should leave the customs union but later seemed to backtrack, saying it is "important to have continuity in trade".

If the UK does leave the customs union, it will have the freedom to negotiate, but will it fare better or worse than the EU bloc?

On the one hand, the UK, as a single voice, can make speedy decisions, whereas the EU has a lengthy consultative process (the Belgian region of Wallonia recently blocked the entire EU-Canada trade deal). Incoming US President Donald Trump has already said he will try to come to a deal quickly

On the other, the UK economy is far smaller, and trade negotiators may discover they have far less leverage acting alone. 

Unintended consequences

There is also the question of the UK’s membership of the World Trade Organisation, which is currently governed by its membership of the customs union. According to the Institute for Government: “Many countries will want to be clear about the UK’s membership of the WTO before they open negotiations.”

And then there is the question of policing trade outside of the customs union. For example, if it was significantly cheaper to import goods from China into Ireland, a customs union member, than Northern Ireland, a smuggling network might emerge.

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.