Tribal reasoning is a powerful drug. People are more than capable of switching their policy positions to match their party of choice. They’re also much better at noticing when someone they don’t agree with does it. And in cheering on the “milkshaking” of populist right-wingers, too many progressives are falling into the trap.
Throwing things at politicians has a long history. John Prescott had an egg thrown at him and famously reacted by punching the thrower; we’ve been here before. But progressives have been fretting about eroding political norms for quite a while now, and rightly so. We were appalled by the labelling of judges as enemies of the people for giving a ruling that the Mail didn’t like. We condemned sticking MPs’ faces on the front page of the Telegraph and calling them mutineers. We bemoan the vicious intimidation of MPs like Anna Soubry and Jess Phillips (and we note that it’s highly gendered). We know a healthy political culture requires a recognition that how we do politics matters.
Throwing milkshake over Nigel Farage’s suit isn’t in the same class as a rape threat or a death threat – nowhere near. But still, there’s an inconsistency here. Many who normally decry intimidation seem to savour the thought of some Ukip or Brexit Party candidates not being able to campaign in public without liquid thrown in their direction. What will those people say when they next condemn the language of treason and get called out for cheering on low-level assault?
Some would just throw the charge of hypocrisy back in Farage’s face. They’d say a man who said Brexit was won “‘without a shot being fired”‘ days after the appalling murder of Jo Cox has no claim on our sympathies. But our sympathies are beside the point.
We can say violence is beyond the pale in a liberal democracy, or we can say some violence against some people is okay. If the latter, then someone has to decide how much and against whom. Who do you want to make that call for you? What if someone else makes it instead? And how do you feel about something slightly more serious than throwing a milkshake being the new “only slightly over the line”?
Well-meaning people cheering at the sight of Farage covered in milkshake isn’t harmless. It gives people far further to the right than Farage an excuse to paint themselves as persecuted. More than that, it’s a low-level breach of a core liberal democratic norm. The norm is supposed to be that if we don’t agree with people in democracies, we argue with them and we vote against them. The coarsening of our politics is a real problem, and throwing things at campaigners and candidates is a part of it.
Some might insist it’s easy to say that if you’re not visibly different. They’d argue that if I were a woman or person of colour I might feel differently. I obviously can’t speak to that. But while Britain isn’t America, when YouGov polled Americans on whether it was acceptable to punch a Nazi (some time after it befell the neo-Nazi Richard Spencer), that wasn’t what they found. They found that white Americans, African Americans and Latinos all agreed it wasn’t.
We have laws on incitement and hate speech. If we think they need to be tighter, or if we want more limits on who can stand for election, we can and should discuss that. Let’s enforce the limits with laws, in a police station or a court, not with fists, eggs or milkshakes – whatever we think of the target. And people who are rightly worried about eroding democratic norms shouldn’t play even a small role in eroding the norms themselves.
Douglas Dowell is a policy professional and has worked in parliament and the voluntary sector. He blogs at The Ambivalent Leftie.