Q&A: Dominic Sandbrook

The historian discusses his essay on the return of the politics of the mob

In your article this week, you seem to imply that the modern mob is online rather than on the streets. What is the effect of this?

Clearly the new technology lends a sense of immediacy: a columnist writes something on a newspaper one moment, and the next moment thousands of people are besieging Twitter. And it gives people the impression (not always correctly, I think) that their voice matters and is as useful and well-informed as anybody else's. That's both a good and a bad thing: people feel empowered, but at the same time there's clearly been an erosion of respect for eminence, expertise, distinction and so on -- things that we often associate with class and deference, but that should (in the case of, say, a trained doctor) be seen as worthwhile.

Despite the outrage over bankers' bonuses, the so-called "summer of rage" did not materialise. Why do you think this was?

I always thought the expectations of a summer of rage were ridiculous. With the exception of the far left, there's no evidence that the majority of the population have lost faith in the capitalist system. To have a summer of rage -- indeed to have any kind of demonstration at all -- you need thousands of people to give up either a working day or a weekend to come to London and march for an identifiable goal. That simply didn't exist in this case. No doubt many people are angry about the credit crunch but I suspect the fury at the bonus culture is largely media-driven: I've never heard people outside the media even discussing it, and my guess is that deep down many people simply think, "Nice work if you can get it, you bastards", rather than being suffused with the spirit of revolution. And of course most people are sensible enough to realise that recessions happen. There'll be another one soon enough: that's the free market for you. It's only the arrogance of long prosperity that provoked the media to react so hysterically.

Was Harriet Harman right to use the phrase "the court of public opinion" in reference to Sir Fred Goodwin's pension?

It's a good question. What if the court of public opinion decided that Harriet's pension was too big (and like all MPs' pensions, it's very generous indeed)? Who decides who sits in the court of public opinion? Is it merely the people who write for the papers, or the people who have time to post online? What about all those people who don't have the time or ability to do either? What if the court of public opinion decided that we ought to hang Ian Huntley, or to kick out immigrants? But that's the problem with appealing to populism; once you uncork the genie, it becomes very difficult to stuff it back in the bottle.

Where does peaceful protest fit in with your vision of the mob - for instance the 1m people who marched against the Iraq war?

Well, let's be honest about it: there's a very, very thin dividing line between peaceful protest and the mob. After all, your peaceful demonstration might be my anarchic mob. The poll tax riots in 1990 are remembered now for mob violence, but of course it might so easily have gone the other way. But I think two key elements are, first, the presence of violence, whether directed against individuals or buildings; and second, the sense of a scapegoat. When you have both those things -- as in, say, the Gordon riots, or indeed in a pogrom or a racist riot -- then you should be worried.

You compare Jack Straw and Nick Griffin, and Charlie Brooker and the Daily Mail. Can playing to the mob be used for positive ends?

That's the six million dollar question, isn't it? Obviously there's always an element of populism in any political arena, from classical Romans courting the plebeians to Gordon Brown pretending that he cares about Susan Boyle. It's arguably more pronounced now because we live in a much more aggressively populist, individualistic society: the days when Anthony Crosland could cultivate a kind of langorous intellectual indifference to the prejudices of his Grimsby constituents are long gone. But harnessing that kind of populist indignation certainly can pay dividends. A classic example might be Franklin D Roosevelt in 1936, when he whipped up popular outrage against "organised money" and "the forces of selfishness and lust for power" to secure his second term. But Roosevelt was a brilliant politician operating in a much more deferential age; he was able to stir people up but then gently to pull them back into the system. It's much harder to do that now.

How does the mob in Britain compare to other countries? Has the rise of the internet made national distinctions irrelevant?

Of course national differences matter! Who in France or Holland gives a damn about Russell Brand or Jonathan Ross, or about Jan Moir's column? And as regards the mob, I think it's important to remember that we still live in a pretty decorous, orderly society, in which extra-parliamentary protest is the exception rather than the rule. We're much less likely to march on London than the French are on Paris, and thankfully we don't have quite the same culture-war mentality that afflicts so many Americans of both left and right. Of course many people would make the case that we're too decorous and deferential, that we ought to take to the streets more often, that we ought to have even less respect for politicians. That's fair enough, but it's not my position. To my mind, history is littered with the casualties of popular resentment and the dangers of mass uprisings. I'm with William Golding on this: better the stuffy formalities of the conch and the assembly than the bloodthirsty thrill of the hunt.