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20 June 2013

No, Nick Clegg didn’t say domestic violence was a “fleeting thing“

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

By Martha Gill

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…

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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.

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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.