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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It's time for Jeremy Corbyn's supporters to take on the unions

The union support for expanding Heathrow reflects a certain conservatism. 

The government’s announcement that it will go ahead with a third runway at Heathrow seems to have unlocked an array of demons. It has also created some unlikely alliances. Zac Goldsmith, the pro-Brexit mayoral candidate whose campaign was widely condemned as racist, is seeking to re-invent himself as an environmental champion, campaigning alongside fellow Heathrow MP John McDonnell. And the Richmond byelection which he is triggering could yet become a test case for Labour’s progressive alliance enthusiasts.

But perhaps the most significant position is that of the major unions. To the shock of many less seasoned activists on the left, Unite, the largest trade union in the UK and a consistent supporter of Corbyn’s leadership, has loudly called on the government to “be bold and build” the new runway, even now urging it to accelerate the process. Far from being a revelation, Unite’s position on Heathrow is longstanding – and it points to the lasting power and influence of an establishment trade unionism.

In August, the TUC co-ordinated a joint statement from five unions, urging the government to go ahead with the third runway. Like the rest of the unions’ lobbying efforts, it was coordinated with other pro-expansion stakeholders like the CBI, and it could just as easily have been authored by the business lobby. Heathrow expansion will, it says, “deliver at least £147bn to UK GDP and 70,000 new jobs”. “Trade unions and their members”, said Frances O’Grady, “stand ready to work to help the government successfully deliver this next major national infrastructure project”.

The logic that drives unions to support projects like Heathrow expansion – and which drives the GMB union to support fracking and Trident renewal – is grounded in a model of trade unionism which focuses not on transforming the workplace, but on the narrowly-defined interests of workers – job creation, economic growth and a larger share of the pie. It views the trade union movement not as merely antagonistic to employers, but as a responsible lobbying partner for business and industry, and as a means of mediating workers’ demands in a way that is steady and acceptable to the state and the economic system. This model, and the politics that accompanied it, is why, historically, trade unions were a conservative influence on Labour’s internal politics.

Nothing could be more at odds with the political, environmental and economic realities of the 21st century. It is not in the interests of workers or ordinary people to live on a planet which is slowly becoming uninhabitable. To avoid catastrophic global warming, we need to leave the vast majority of fossil fuels in the ground – that probably means shrinking the aviation industry, not expanding Heathrow’s passenger capacity by 70 per cent. All of this is implicitly recognised by Jeremy Corbyn’s environmental and industrial strategy, which aims to create a million new jobs and build a million new homes while switching to renewables and democratising the energy industry.

The gap between Corbyn’s policies and the policies of many major trade unions tells us something deeper about the challenges facing the left. If Corbynism is an unfinished revolution in the Labour Party machine, it is one which has barely started in the wider labour movement.

The gradual leftward shift in many unions’ political allegiances has broadened the alliance around Corbyn and given him strength in numbers and resources, but it is often as much about internal union politics as it is a deep conviction for what Corbyn represents. Unison general secretary Dave Prentis did back Corbyn’s re-election following a ballot of members, but is hardly a left-winger, and the union’s votes on Labour’s NEC are not safely aligned to the left.

The political radicalisation of the unions has been matched, if anything, by a decline in coordinated industrial action. The national strategy that fuelled the anti-austerity movement in 2011 and 2012 is only a memory. The democratic and organising culture in many unions, too, remains bureaucratic and opaque. Trade unions have played a key role in Corbyn’s coalition, but without a significant shift in their internal culture and a shift away from their role as respectable partners of industry, they could easily scupper the project as well. 

The expansion of Heathrow airport is a step backwards for the future of the planet and the interests of ordinary people – and yet, if it happens at all, it will have been made possible by the concerted efforts of key trade unions. This is not an aberration but a reminder that, despite their rhetorical flourishes in support of Corbyn, Britain’s trade unions are also in need of change. Any project that aims to transform the Labour party and wider society must also aim to transform the whole of the labour movement – from the shop floor to the corridors of power.