Magazine article The Spectator

When to Draw the Line at Bullying a Politician like Shaun Woodward

Magazine article The Spectator

When to Draw the Line at Bullying a Politician like Shaun Woodward

Article excerpt


The return of the Commons after the election is the time to draw attention to the bullying of weak, sensitive or unpopular MPs. The problem is: how much to join in?

I would claim that in my writing about the Commons over the years, I have never been much of a bully. That may be an illusion on my part. But perhaps we should all be forgiven our more harmless illusions. For example, I have not joined in the bullying of the present Speaker. Admittedly, I have sometimes been on the edge of the gang surrounding him. Perhaps I should have come to his aid. I should have forced myself through the mob, and said something like, 'I say, Parris, you've scragged Martin enough. It's not his fault he speaks like that. It's on account of his people.' But such bravery is easier said than done. Parris is a good deal stronger than me. He climbs mountains, and things. `You stay out of this, Johnners,' I could imagine him replying. `Otherwise it might be time to scrag you.' The next thing I knew, I would have been on the receiving end of some metaphor in the Times.

My unwillingness to come to Speaker Martin's aid illustrates the well-meaning error behind all Department for Education campaigns to stamp out bullying. Most of us do not report bullies to the authorities because we know it would mean that we would soon be bullied for doing so. There is a wider difficulty. Bullying seems to be part of life. Many of us are, or have been, both bullied and bullies. In bullying, there is a pecking order dictated by strength. At school, I was bullied by the stronger boys, but I bullied boys weaker than I was. Many of the victims, succoured by the Department for Education or the local education authority, are probably themselves victimisers.

There is a wider difficulty still. Charles Lamb pointed to it in his list of popular fallacies. He thought it a popular fallacy that all bullies are cowards. To take the extreme case, Hitler was a bully. But he also won the Iron Cross. Common observation shows that plenty of the biggest bullies often take on one another. Would that it were not so. Would that most big bullies proved cowards under fire. But it was not so with Hitler. When we discover that it is indeed so, it is always pleasurable; as when Macaulay describes Judge Jeffreys's terror as the mob surged around his carriage after his fall. I hope that Macaulay was not just indulging in Whig propaganda.

Many of the bullied, perhaps even most, have been bullies in their time. For instance, I would argue that Mr Mandelson is now the victim of bullying. But he has been a bully in his day, and may be so again should his day return. It is now safe to bully him because he had to resign a second time, because there is as yet no sign of Mr Blair's giving him a big job, and because all agree that he damaged himself by making a petulant speech at his count on election night. We may expect some Labour MPs publicly to say things about him which they would not have dared say before any of those things happened. The bullies are about to hurl themselves safely at Mr Mandelson. I hope I shall not be in their number.

Then there is the extremely difficult case of Mr Shaun Woodward. Was it bullying for us to go on and on about that butler, and about how he lives high on the hog at his heiress wife's expense? I have given much thought to this question. My answer is: no. …

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