Brendan O’Neill

If it’s not ok to hound Sienna Miller and Steve Coogan, why is it ok to hound Nigel Farage?

If it's not ok to hound Sienna Miller and Steve Coogan, why is it ok to hound Nigel Farage?
Text settings

Faragephobia reached dizzy new heights on Sunday afternoon, when a bunch of thespians and circus freaks invaded Nigel Farage’s local pub and hounded him and his family out. Behaving with grating and probably knowing irony like small-minded Little Englanders, though dolled up as punkish outsiders, the protesters were basically saying to Nige: ‘Your sort aren’t welcome here — you're barred!’ And so was a public figure humiliated while doing that utterly non-public thing of lunching with his wife and young daughters — turfed out of his own local hangout by people who don’t like his policies on immigration, the NHS, and other stuff.

But this was more that Faragephobia, more than another instance of the chattering and cultural classes fantasising out loud about Ukip being the biggest threat to Britain since the Luftwaffe. The ramshackle protest also represented the serious crossing of a line. It exposed the extent to which the personal has become political, the way political debate is increasingly decamping from that old plane of policies and substance into the sphere of personality, character, identity, private life. That radical protesters think it’s legit to visit their political angst upon a political leader  during his downtime, in that once jealously guarded zone of the Sunday afternoon pub moment, speaks volumes about the corrosion of the line between public and private.

The double standards of the Farage-hounders and their sympathisers in the media are gobsmacking. It has been revealed that the alleged leader of the so-called ‘Cabaret of Diversity’ that ruined the Farage family’s lunch is one Dan Glass, formerly of Plane Stupid, the stupid and superbly snobbish anti-flying campaign group, and a Guardian Youth Climate Leader. Glass is also an occasional columnist for the Guardian. A more regular columnist for that paper, Suzanne Moore, yesterday had a good old chortle at Farage’s expense, mocking him by saying: ‘Poor Nigel Farage. What is this country coming to when he cannot have a quiet drink and Sunday lunch en famille?’

The Guardian, lest we forget, is the paper that wept for about five years over the fact that Sienna Miller was once photographed by a gang of paps and Steve Coogan’s bins were rifled through by hacks on the hunt for some saucy personal info. In fact, so disturbed was the Guardian by these invasions of people’s private lives by News of the World journalists that it set in motion a censorious, judge-led process that has seen 350 years of press freedom being nearly consigned to the dustbin of history and scores of tabloid journalists being arrested in dawn raids and left in legal limbo as the great and good decide whether to punish them or let them go. Yet now, Guardian-connected campaigners and columnists lead or laugh at a protest at a family’s private lunch, the transformation of a man’s attempt to relax in a pub into a ridiculous political spectacle. It seems that for the Guardian, a person’s right to privacy is dependent upon whether he’s a nice, right-on, Hacked Off celeb like Coogan — one of Us — or a horrid, EU-opposing, boozing-and-smoking bad guy like Farage: one of Them.

Even where some in the liberal media have raised concerns about 'pubgate', it’s been on the basis that Farage might benefit from the growing backlash against the lunch-ruining protesters. So although Moore insists that the protest ‘looked harmlessly theatrical’, she does concede that ‘it may backfire’ because ‘increasingly Farage plays the victim, and this allows him to’. But the problem here is not that Farage might make mileage out of his ruined lunch — it’s the leaking of politics into private life, our growing inability to distinguish public man from private man.

The Culture Wars of the past couple of decades have relentlessly politicised every aspect of people’s private existences, so that politics is less and less about the big, objective stuff — like the economy, industry, war — and instead concerns itself with what we eat, how we parent, who we sleep with, how we speak to our partners. ‘The politics of behaviour' as Labour openly, and tyrannically, calls it. The macro politics of how to organise society is being elbowed aside by the micro-politics of how to police people’s behaviour, habits, even their beliefs and thoughts. And pubgate represents the rise of a new kind of activism befitting this blurring of the line between public activity and private life, so that now a politician can be punished in a quiet pub for something he said in the public sphere. There’s a strong whiff of political cowardice in this protest: incapable of challenging Farage or his ideas in the grown-up, democratic sphere of public debate, these radicals opt instead to hound him and his family in one of their private zones.

Instead of laughing at Farage’s ruined lunch, or worrying that he’ll make gains from it, we should focus on repairing the historic, Enlightened dividing line between public and private, between politics and the individual. Otherwise, where will it end? Dave and Sam being hounded on their holidays by British activists who hate Tory policies? A rowdy protest against Ed Miliband and his kids at their local swimming pool? A mass invasion of one of the posh restaurants favoured by Alan Rusbridger by campaigners angry about the damage he’s done to press freedom?