Brendan O’Neill

Tommy Robinson and the double standards of political violence

Tommy Robinson and the double standards of political violence
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So it’s acceptable now to assault electoral candidates? That’s the pretty scary take-home message from the Tommy Robinson ‘milkshaking’ incidents. Journalists and even politicians have been going wild for the bloke in Warrington who threw his milkshake in Robinson’s face yesterday as he was out campaigning as an independent for the upcoming Euro elections. It’s the second time this week Robinson was milkshaked. It will no doubt become a trend. ‘Milkshake a fascist.’ Videos of the incidents have gone viral and even Tory MPs have cheered the strawberry-flavoured assaulters. Johnny Mercer said the attacks made him ‘#lovebritain’. He later apologised, perhaps realising it isn’t a good idea for a member of an increasingly unpopular party to green-light assaults on unpopular political figures. 

The celebration of these milkshakings is weird and worrying. It is surely a basic principle of democracy that individuals can campaign for office without fearing assault, whether it’s by Mugabe’s heavies in Zimbabwe, who frequently attacked electoral candidates, or by members of the public in England who have essentially been told by the media and even by Tory MPs that it is acceptable to attack a certain independent candidate. It doesn’t matter what you think of Robinson’s views — like the vast majority of people, I oppose them. The point is that democratic politics becomes compromised and degraded when violence against certain candidates is decreed to be acceptable. People now know they will go viral and win praise if they attack Robinson when he’s out campaigning. The media class has basically sanctioned the use of force against an electoral candidate.

My issue isn’t with the milkshaking itself. There will always be rough and angry protests against politicians. As Jeremy Corbyn and Emmanuel Macron have discovered recently, public figures always run the risk of getting an egg in the face. That’s life. No, the problem is with the transformation of the milkshaking of Tommy Robinson into a noble, wonderful act that all decent citizens should cheer and possibly seek to emulate. This turns a frustrated protest by one individual who didn’t like what Robinson was saying into a top-down licensing of violence against certain electoral candidates. I am struggling to remember the last time the chattering classes effectively said it is good and honourable to use force against an individual seeking public office.

The double standards here are gobsmacking. The man who threw an egg at Jeremy Corbyn was roundly condemned as a violent threat to democracy and was jailed for 28 days. Yet the man who threw a milkshake at Robinson is turned into a national hero. No doubt Corbynistas will say this is all fine because their dear leader is a good, decent politician, and therefore does not deserve to be assaulted, whereas Robinson is a foul, hard-right troublemaker and therefore does deserve to be assaulted. But of course this is entirely subjective. There are many people out there who think Corbyn is an anti-Semite and a threat to national security. They believe this as strongly as Corbynistas believe Tommy Robinson is the new Oswald Mosley. So should these people have the right to assault Corbyn? Why not?

This is the real danger here: people are strongly implying that physical violence against politicians is acceptable. MPs like Anna Soubry are viewed by some members of the public as traitors, as usurpers of democracy itself, even as ‘extremists’, given their stance on wanting to overturn the largest democratic act in UK history. Does that mean it is acceptable to assault Soubry? In my view, absolutely not. To do so would be an outrage. In a democracy you argue and debate and vote, you don’t use violence. But in the view of those cheering the assaulting of Tommy Robinson, violence is acceptable. It’s good in fact. Apparently, some political figures are so vile that they deserve physical punishment. I dread to think what impact this message will have on some angry members of the public who think Brexit-betraying Labour and Tory MPs have utterly screwed them over.

Look, you can’t have it both ways. You can’t claim that a handful of men shouting in Anna Soubry’s face outside Parliament is an outrage against the democratic process but the assaulting of electoral candidates is fine. And please don’t even try using the argument that ‘fascists’ have to be treated differently to all other political figures: if you really thought Robinson and his band of supporters were a fascist threat on a par with the Brownshirts, you would surely be doing rather more about it than throwing pink milkshakes. ‘We used force against the Nazis back in the 1930s’, say the people who support the milkshaking of Robinson, as if throwing a MaccyD’s beverage at one bloke in Warrington is comparable to millions of people putting their lives on the line to defeat Nazism. Grow up. If you’re pro violence against politicians, come out and say it — just don’t cry like babies next time Corbyn gets egg in his beard.