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.

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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.