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

Chuka Umunna: Why tolerance is not enough

Against the Trumpification of politics.

It’s still spring, yet 2016 already stands out as one of the ugliest years in modern British political history. It was fantastic to see Londoners choosing hope over fear in May, electing Sadiq Khan as our first Muslim mayor. But David Cameron, having shamelessly endorsed Zac Goldsmith’s dog-whistle campaign tactics, owes those young Muslims who have been put off politics by the slurs hurled at Khan an explanation. How does racial profiling and sectarian scaremongering fit into his One Nation vision for Britain?

Meanwhile, Boris Johnson, one of the best bets to succeed Cameron as our next prime minister, embarrassed Britain on the world stage with a racially charged allusion to Barack Obama’s Kenyan heritage. And my own party has been grappling with a swath of deeply disturbing revelations regarding the attitudes held by some on the left towards Israel and Jewish people. Sowing discord by stigmatising or scapegoating a single faith group or community is profoundly at odds with the British tradition of “tolerance”, but we can’t ignore that this year’s events are part of a rising trend of friction and factionalism.

Last year’s general election should have been a wake-up call. The political and cultural divides between people living in the north and south and urban and rural areas – as well as between working-class and metropolitan sensibilities – appear starker than ever. In May’s devolved elections, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish politics became yet more distinct – giving the impression of a kingdom coming apart at the seams. All the while, more and more voices in our national politics seek to pin the blame for the challenges facing our country on a single section of society, whether immigrants, Muslims or another group.

This trend stretches beyond our borders. From Ukip, the French Front National and Austria’s Freedom Party to Podemos in Spain and Italy’s Five Star Movement, new populist parties of the right and left are on the rise across Europe. In the United States, Bernie Sanders is tapping into the energy of Occupy Wall Street, while Donald Trump has emerged as the heir to the Tea Party: a poster boy for division and recrimination.

Trump’s rise should be a warning for us Brits. The New York Times commentator David Brooks has described his success as less indicative of the emergence of a new school of thought, or movement, and more of dissatisfaction with the status quo. Trump’s campaign has tapped into a complex cocktail of grievances, from the loss of manufacturing jobs in a globalised economy to rising inequality and raw anger felt by many white working-class Americans at demographic and cultural changes.

In the run-up to last year’s general election, as I travelled around the country, I was confronted time and time again with the reality that in the UK – just like in the US – people are afraid and angry because the world is changing in ways they fear are beyond their control. Where once they had believed that, if they worked hard, they would get ahead, too many Britons now feel that the system is rigged in favour of those born into opportunity and that those in power have abandoned them to a broken future. What it means to be British seems to have shifted around them, triggering a crisis of solidarity.

We are at a crossroads and may face nothing less than the Trumpification of British politics. In an uncertain and changing world, it is all too easy to imagine that our problems are caused by those who are different from us.

If we wish to follow the fine example set by Londoners on 5 May and choose unity and empathy over division and blame, we must accept that simply “tolerating” one another will no longer do. There is an accusation built into the very word: what you are doing is “other” or “wrong”. As Britain has become more diverse, we have come to know each other less. This makes it harder to understand how people from different walks of life feel about the big issues.

I am a Labour member because I believe, as it says on our membership cards, that, by the strength of our common endeavour, we achieve more together than we do alone. In order to develop the bonds of trust required for this to become a reality, and for our communities to flourish and our democracy to deliver for everyone, we must build a society in which people from all backgrounds actually get to know one another and lead interconnected lives. In this sense, “One Nation” – the land over which all parties seek purchase – should become more than a platitude. It should become a way of life.

Chuka Umunna is Labour MP for Streatham.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad