In 1966 the American director and producer Joseph Strick was commissioned by the BBC to make a film about a British phenomenon that was new to him: political heckling. Introducing the film, he says “I was amazed by the heckling, I’d never experienced anything like it. People standing up in the audience and shouting at the leader of the opposition, shouting at the Prime Minister, and what’s more being answered by them. Dialogues developing between them… We don’t have anything like that in the United States.”
The film is wonderful; nothing more than 45 minutes of politicians addressing crowds in halls, theatres and on the streets, all of whom are interrupted by members of the public shouting from the floor. The responses of politicians vary; some shoot back quick retorts, or address them in good faith, while others lecture and insult them. But none of them have the deer-in-the-headlights terror that politicians today often display when they come face-to-face with a pissed off public.
Yesterday Dominic Cummings, the senior political adviser for the British Prime Minister, and one of the most powerful men in the country, found himself heckled by his own neighbours as he scurried down the street. Cummings is the centre of a political scandal, having been caught breaking his own strict lockdown guidelines while much of the UK remains unable to visit sick loved ones, attend family funerals or be with their nearest or dearest. The cabinet, and much of the press, has supported him, claiming that any loving parent would break the law in the interest of their children — a bold position to take, considering how many have abided by the law, and implicitly suggesting that those who maintained quarantine and watched relatives die over video-call simply didn’t love them enough. It’s unsurprising that the majority of the public seem to want him to resign for this act of hypocrisy, and for the insulting response. One neighbour leant from his window to shout at Cummings “Because of the lockdown, some of them couldn’t go to other people’s funerals. Ey?... What have you got to say to that?”
He had nothing to say to that. This heckling, many commentators suggest, is the behaviour of a mob. “Something deeply repulsive about taking pleasure in mob behaviour - those who eulogise this and those who took part in this ‘street justice’ have departed from all standards of common decency - it is vile” wrote Phillip Blond, the think-tank director who provided much of the ideological ammunition for Cameron’s ‘Big Society’. Mail on Sunday commentator Dan Hodges wrote “Having seen those vultures who claim to be Cummings ‘neighbours’ taunting him in the street I see I was right to be concerned. We’ve completely lost our way. There's a section of the 'liberal' Left who get off on being vicious behind a veneer of morality.”
Heckling is not mob behaviour, and it’s not about humiliating a political figure. It’s about holding them to account — all the more important when there is no other democratic mechanism for doing so, as in Cummings’ case. The imbalance between heckler and speaker already gives the politician the upper hand, and there’s no reason they can’t answer the damn question and make capital from it. So much is clear from Strick’s film; as he says in his introduction, “it’s an extremely democratic confrontation between audience and speaker, no matter who he is.” Politicians often get support from the audience; while some heckles get cheers, other hecklers are booed out of the auditorium. When an Empire Loyalist heckles Harold Wilson about the regime in Rhodesia, Wilson refers to him as “Rudyard Kipling over there”, inducing a wave of laughter from the audience. Heckles are democratic challenges, and once upon a time, an accepted and useful part of political discourse. So why are hecklers so feared by the political establishment today that they’re compared, as Blond did, to the terror of lynching?
A combination of factors is behind this transformation of what is seen as acceptable public discourse. In Strick’s film it’s obvious that there’s clear water between the platforms and ideologies of the political parties. Following the destruction of the trade union movement, Thatcher’s economic and cultural restructuring of the country, and the rise of New Labour in response, those differences shrank. Instead a managerialism crept into the political system; you weren’t so much voting for two differing visions of how to shape a country, but for who was the best manager of a country whose shape was already fixed. As such, professionalism was the name of the game, and a party’s public image was key to winning the trust of the electorate. The window of political possibilities shrank, and largely stayed from way until well after the financial crisis of 2008 showed that, in fact, the “economic common sense” policies that shaped politics for almost twenty years were deeply loaded political questions.
Still, the rot had already set in. The troika of the spin doctor, the professional politician and the SpAd (special adviser) became the forces that shaped the political landscape. For the spin doctor, the heckler was poison, always waiting to catch a politician off-guard and humiliate them if they didn’t know the answer, or to show them up as unpopular, even within their own party. In 2005, at the Labour Party conference, Foreign Secretary Jack Straw was delivering a speech where he claimed "We are in Iraq for one reason only: to help the elected Iraqi government build a secure, democratic and stable nation", to which a member of the audience, Walter Wolfgang, heckled back “nonsense!” I suppose we will have to wait for history to judge who was right, but Wolfgang was physically dragged out of the conference hall and held under anti-terror legislation. Wolfgang was a veteran peace campaigner, and a member of the Labour Party since before Straw would walk, and his rough ejection from the hall led to outrage and an apology, but the implication was clear. Heckling was not democracy, but criminality.
The professionalisation of the political class has also produced a fear of the public. In 1979, MPs whose occupation prior to their election was listed as “Politician” made up only 3.4% of Parliament. There were as many former miners as there were professional politicians — an effect of a functioning trade union movement. These life experiences, as well as a campaigning culture that necessitated frequent, unmediated public appearances before live audiences, gave politicians some rhetorical tools to answer their public critics. By 2015, the professional politician made up nearly 20% of Parliament, more than any other profession, with former manual workers comprising only 3% of MPs: a stark indictment of the so-called Age of Meritocracy. Huge numbers of MPs have been on the pipeline to Parliament since they were teenagers, through student politics or researcher positions. No wonder the sight of a rowdy constituent sends them straight for their chauffeured car.
The rise of the SpAd, like the focus group, has also served to distance politicians from the public. Removed from the cut-and-thrust of public hustings, cowering in fear of the heckler, the job of producing policy doesn’t emerge from listening to the needs of constituents so much as the arcane arts of thinktanks and SpAds. One reason Johnson seems so reticent in firing Cummings is his inability to develop or enact policy without his big-brained genius, his éminence grise. Cummings seems to have the magic touch as a disrupter, precisely because many of his methods bypass the established three decades practice of using marketing practices such as focus groups to establish political positions. For all his supposed Churchillian qualities, it’s difficult to imagine a Johnson administration functioning without the man who has been the architect of the current political situation.
It’s unsurprising Cummings is attracting the ire of, quite literally, the man and woman on the street, however. The hypocrisy of his actions are bound to offend many suffering under a lockdown they nonetheless abide by in the name of the common good. One neighbour called after Cummings “My mum’s terrified. My dad’s had three shoulder operations… Stanmore (Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital) have left him without his shoulder, and she won’t even let him walk in the garden… she won’t even entertain me in the garden with a tent. As a single parent I’ve had no childcare since the beginning of this whole mess, not that I can afford to pay for childcare. Hypocrite!” These are experiences that seldom find voice in press conferences. Britain’s press system is seriously flawed, skewed by a handful of big owners and a click-driven economic model. The journalistic lobby system, combined with the unconscionable growth of the seriously anti-democratic culture of figures like Cummings briefing and leaking to leading political editors off the record, has fatally compromised the ability of journalists to adequately hold power to account. The BBC’s own Political Editor frequently leaks attack lines from “sources” close to power, while the government itself drags its feet on communicating its own policies with the public itself. Such a nest of Machiavellian intrigue might be exciting for those who get to play, but it’s corrosive to public trust, to journalism, and, in a time of a pandemic crisis, to public health. Why is a neighbour of Cummings, hanging from his window, able to offer a stronger interrogation of the anoracked Richelieu than the country’s main political editors? And why is the response of much of the commentariat, such as Hodges or Blonde, to close ranks in defence of Cummings with contemptuous comparisons to “lynching”?
It is this political system, and not the potty-mouthed public, that is genuinely toxic. Nobody deserves abuse, but shouting your question is not abuse. Often, shouting your insult is not even abuse. Cummings is a hypocrite, and it does no harm to hear it said. Even Ted Heath knew the value of it, responding in The Hecklers “if they’d like to heckle decently, then let them stay.” Demands for a “return to civility” in politics are not just ahistorical, as Strick’s film demonstrates, but antidemocratic. The voices such demands silence are those most in need of being heard, and the demand itself is an intentional attempt to keep politics restricted to channels which can be controlled. A party that drives a van to the poorest areas of the capital, demanding immigrants “GO HOME OR FACE ARREST” has no recourse to the defence of dignified speech. Attempts to control the tone of discourse are attempts to professionalise it, to keep the grit of public experience out of the vaseline that keeps political life lubricated, that keeps wealth and influence circulating within the halls of power. If you’re not a politician or a SpAd, then the heckler is you. Britain needs more hecklers, and more politicians brave enough to heckle back.
‘utopian drivel’ is a weekly essay series by Huw Lemmey. Please feel free to share and forward today’s newsletter with anyone who might be interested. For those just visiting, I send out a newsletter/podcast a week to paying subscribers — for less than $5 a month — and one a month for free subscribers. You can subscribe here, and, if you like it, please hit the like button. It helps other people find my newsletter.