On political violence
At the weekend, whilst paying a visit to a mosque, Jeremy Corbyn was hit on the head with an egg. A man has been arrested; there were suggestions online that the egg may have still been within the alleged attacker’s fist at the point of impact.
This is entirely wrong. All of our elected representatives should be free to go about their business without fear of assault.
I did wonder whether that part of the left which has always shown a soft spot for a bit of political violence might find Sunday’s events a cause for introspection, an assessment as to whether they may need to rethink their stance on this. Rachel Riley, amongst others, was quick to note that online Corbynite mouthpiece Owen Jones had previously supported the egging of Nazis. Would Owen reconsider his position? Of course not. The doubling down came through loud and clear.
The video Owen is promoting here is the comedian Aamer Rahman talking about why we should punch Nazis, as white nationalist Richard Spencer famously was during an interview not so long ago. And it must be so easy to present yourself as having complete moral clarity when you say we ought to punch Nazis. Nazis are terrible, horrible people. Why wouldn’t you thump them? It’s all so straightforward! Well, it is if you’re incapable of completing the most rudimentary join-the-dots puzzle, anyway.
Maybe it’s best to ask another question. If we make punching Nazis a norm, who benefits, and who suffers?
Well, to start with, Nazis would benefit. Looking at the experience of the actual Nazis in the 1920s and 1930s, violence enacted by communists allowed Hitler to claim victimhood, and appear as only one aggressive grouping among many in the chaos of Weimar. In The Coming of the Third Reich, Richard Evans’ fantastic study of this period, the author notes that the population became so inured to political violence that even in 1933 many middle-class Germans believed the Nazis were acting with some justification. Moving to the present day, confronting Nazis with violence is giving them what they want; attention, publicity, and recruitment material. Nazis would love for the societal norm of non-violence to be broken down. It helps them.
But who suffers, if we normalise punching Nazis? Toytown revolutionaries will imagine suffering will be limited to The Baddies, but the likelihood is it will spread much further. First: can you be sure that every other person turning to political violence is as accurate and as discriminating at defining exactly who is or isn’t a Nazi as you are?
Second, once you establish a norm of punching Nazis, if you can convince yourself that a certain person is as bad as the Nazis, what’s to stop you punching that person too? In 2017, a 60 year old feminist was punched in the face using this exact political violence logical two-step.
Inevitably the scope for violence will rapidly widen beyond Nazis; and of course, it already has, from people right at the top of the Labour Party. John McDonnell, shadow chancellor, has form in this area; he has spoken of lynching Esther McVey, and wanting no Tory MP to be able to show their face in public without being directly challenged.
The protesters who left a coffin outside Sarah Wollaston’s constituency office, or the people who abused Laura Kuenssberg to the extent that she needed security at Labour conference, or the Jeremy Corbyn supporter who recently sent death threats to Angela Rayner; do we know why people might think that it’s fine to abuse and threaten anyone you have political disagreements with? John? Owen? Any idea at all?
So who will suffer, if you normalise political violence? Vulnerable people. Women. Minorities. Plenty of people who never wanted to be part of a street fight. Anyone promoting political violence has no idea where it could all end up, or who could end up getting hurt. This is an extremely dangerous precedent to set, often just to show off how woke you are. This is people playing with fire when they don’t even understand what heat is.
Finally, on Owen, you have to respect this particular piece of chutzpah.
To tweet accusing others of legitimising violence on the same day you tweet legitimising violence really is extraordinary dissonance. Give him his dues, the man is a pro.
In their book How Democracies Die, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt examine the ways modern established democracies may fail; not typically by a coup d’etat, but instead by democratic means, with elected leaders who subvert the system and the constitution. They offer a cautionary note; those opposed to this must resist the temptation to fight fire with fire by abandoning the liberal democratic principles they are battling to protect. Instead, what is important is a full and fundamental defence of the things we hold dear, and we must keep ourselves to those standards.
We are extremely fortunate to live in a society with, by any standard, low levels of violence. Those who are imperiling this need to be understood for who they are; dangerous illiberal populists who want to play revolution and care not for the consequences. They are wrong, and they must be resisted.