If you stand up to a bully, they are very likely to hit you

Bullying is in the news a lot these days. Two recent examples:

  1. A few weeks ago, Labour MPs who voted for the bombing of Syria complained that constituency party members had threatened to deselect them, that they had received abusive messages and that they were being bullied.
  2. There is an appalling allegation of Conservative Party complicity in a regime of bullying in Road Trip 2015 by 38-year old Mark Clarke, which may or may not have driven 21-year old Elliot Johnson to take his own life.

I have wondered if these situations in our two main political parties really are sub-types of a unitary phenomenon of bullying. The more I think about it, the less convinced I am that it is useful to think about serious misuses of power as bullying. “Bully” is unequivocally an insult. It locates the problem in a model of behaviour taken from school days. In contrast, the current political cases are complicated questions of power and the potential for it to be abused. Which is not to say that school bullying is a trivial matter. Far from it. I just think that it’s a different thing.

Nostalgia for grammar schools has obscured the realities of these institutions. Their reputation as engines of social mobility has become grossly exaggerated, and they could be surprisingly rough. I attended an inner London grammar school that had a three hundred year history and some grandiose ceremonies. When I started, in 1967, the school was only just recovering from the shock of absorption into the state sector under the Education Act twenty years earlier. There were still inkwells, some teachers wore gowns, and they had only just stopped using obscure terminology, such as Thirds, Shell and Remove. Despite this, by 1970 a shockingly high proportion of my contemporaries were skinheads. They were sharply dressed, violent at football matches and antagonistic to greasers (cf mods and rockers).

One day, a skinhead with a reputation as a bully was careless enough to hit a smaller greaser with a well-connected older brother. As a consequence, a few days later, a large gang of young men in leather jackets besieged the school. They demanded that the offending skinhead come out ‘for a chat’. The deputy headmaster locked the gates and called the police. The ensuing court case made the national press. Gang members were convicted of possession of bicycle chains, knives, razors and a sword. Amongst us pupils there was general satisfaction at the bully’s discomfort, although in retrospect his comeupance was out of proportion to his crimes. He left school shortly thereafter. This kind of karmic justice is extremely rare, and mainly happens in the movies.

I do not think I was a bully myself, but I doubt if anyone ever thinks they are. I saw one boy systematically destroyed by bullying. He was not especially likeable, and much of his torment was sadistically humorous. By the time I was 15, I no longer thought it was funny and I was bothered by what was happening to him. One day, I got my mother to stop our car to offer him a lift. He ran away screaming “leave me alone”. He too left school prematurely. Childhood bullying can be a terrible thing. It is associated with adult mental health problems, and that is hardly surprising. It is difficult to eradicate but it is right that it is no longer tolerated. Social media are vectors for bullying. It is hard to know whether this simply makes bullying more visible to adults or whether it has made things worse.

At school, I would not be intimidated. This was not due to courage. It was a survival strategy. I decided at a young age that whilst people could frighten me, I would not allow them to change how I behaved. So I faced people down. This meant that I was hit occasionally. I never felt bullied, and in this, I was very lucky. It is not that I think that people who are bullied have brought it on themselves or that they could prevent it simply by changing their responses. It underlines that bullying is an interactive phenomenon.

To me, the current bullying scandals in our major political parties show that intimidation and misuse of power in adults have to be understood in a different way. I am sure that Labour MPs who voted for the bombing of Syria and then received abusive messages or threats of de-selection were distressed. I am not defending abuse. Abuse is wrong and, in any case, it is counter-productive.

On the other hand, the threat of de-selection is an occupational hazard when an MP votes against the views of the majority of their constituency party members. It is arguably a simple matter of accountability. But even if de-selection threats are out of order, the sight of MPs donning the mantle of victimhood is unedifying. MPs belong to a privileged elite and they made a decision about waging war that is likely to cost civilian lives. Feelings were bound to run high. The MPs’ experience had no parallel with my schoolfellow, tormented until he had lost all trust in other people. In objectively powerful adults, the allegation that you are the victim of bullying becomes a weapon. The victim strategy is a temptation for all sorts of people. In everyday life, it seems to be increasingly exploited by the unscrupulous.

British politicians have dreaded the mob back to the Peterloo massacre and beyond. It is not acceptable to nullify opinion contrary to the establishment view simply by labelling it bullying. The popular voice can be tainted by the actions of a small number of people whose anger makes them behave unacceptably badly, but that voice remains authentic. Victimhood is a reasonable model when thirty heavily armed greasers turn up at school for a chat with you. It only serves to obscure the issues when the bullying is said to flow uphill on a power gradient. When the powerful complain of victimisation, the voices of the weak, and those who are actually victimised, are drowned out.

The Eton and Oxford background of our present Government makes them seem like characters from the Nigel Molesworth books (Click here if this allusion means nothing to you). According to the Molesworth model of politics, Cameron and Co. run a bullying regime. They bully welfare claimants, trade unionists and migrants. They smoke cigarettes and dabble in stimulants behind the bicycle sheds with their tough friends from the media and big business, laughing at the oiks and taunting them in Latin. Who can be surprised that these political bullies are blind to personal bullying?

Media coverage has portrayed Mark Clarke as a classic bully. A purge has followed and Grant Shapps has had to resign. Others may follow. In the Molesworth model, the big bullies are always with us, but when the smaller bullies have been expelled, life in the junior echelons of the Conservative Party becomes more civilised. In reality, this is not how things work.

The UK Government is pursuing a systematic campaign to destroy the welfare state. Their propaganda has it that the vulnerable are a tiny number of the deserving embedded in an ocean of those who cannot be bothered to get out of bed in the morning. Private profit is intrinsically good and collectivism is intrinsically wrong. No longer concerned about the spread of communism, the political representatives of the wealthy are free to impoverish large sections of the population. This is not bullying. This is the long cherished dream of a neo-liberal utopia where organised labour has been abolished and the hidden hand of the market can run free. If the allegations against Mark Clarke are true, he is not the product of a bullying culture. He is the product of a political culture that only values the bottom line. This drives a desire for electoral success at any cost. If foot soldiers are hounded to death in the process, this is simply collateral damage. Less like bullying, more like war.