Footage of a UK government minister, Mark Field, forcibly removing a Greenpeace activist from a City of London banqueting hall on Thursday night is not only extremely damaging to Mr Field, it has a detrimental effect more widely: on his party, his parliamentary colleagues and politics itself.
The spectacle of a figure of Mr Field’s seniority behaving in such a gratuitously aggressive manner, at an important national occasion, has the potential to reverberate far and wide. What could have possessed a minister – especially one who has talked about helping women feel safe “so they can speak freely and be part of the change we all want” – to grab a female protester, shove her against a pillar, then grasp her by the back of the neck and push her from the room?
The degree of force used was shocking. Such misjudgments are all the more grave at a time when standards and norms of conduct are known to be imperilled – and civility in the public square seems increasingly to have been replaced by rancour. All politicians have a responsibility to promote high standards in public life. It is right that Mr Field has been suspended from his ministerial role, and apologised. That so many people, including senior Conservative MPs, have rushed to his defence, gives cause for alarm. This is especially so at the end of a week that also saw the homelessness minister, Heather Wheeler, forced to apologise, for describing rough sleepers in her South Derbyshire constituency in pejorative terms as “old tinkers”.
Politeness and civility are virtuous. This is not to argue for obsequious questioning or unquestioning respect for authority. The three years since the UK’s Brexit referendum have revealed and deepened profound divisions of culture and opinion. The rise in hate crime, effects of austerity and climate emergency all provoke rightly angry responses. But beliefs can be strongly expressed without aggression.
Three years ago the MP Jo Cox was murdered, and any MP could be forgiven a jumpy initial reaction when taken by surprise by a member of the public. Mr Field’s recent actions went far beyond that, and such considerations make them appear all the more reckless. By modelling the use of violence in a situation where there was no physical threat, he may well have helped to lower the bar for the use of force.
Whatever the outcome of the police and party investigations, Mr Field should now consider whether his future lies in public life. Meanwhile, it would be good if Paul Crowther’s sentencing for a common assault on Nigel Farage earlier this week drew a line under the recent spate of milkshake-throwing incidents. While this might seem a lighthearted way to make a serious point, the principle of non-violent dissent is too valuable to turn into spilt milk.
The week has been dominated by a Conservative leadership contest that has compounded a national mood of disengagement and frustration. Confidence in our institutions is being tested to its limits. At such a time, it is more important than ever to respect people’s democratic right to use their voices. Mr Field’s decision to overpower an activist, rather than listen to her, reflects badly on him. Even more worrying is what it says about the state Britain is in.