Comment: In defence of throwing pies at politicians

It's not big and it's not clever, but throwing pies at the powerful is a valuable form of national therapy.

By Ian Dunt

Nick Clegg has joined an elite but ever-growing club: powerful men who have had a pie thrown at them. Well, sort of. As per current fashion, his assailant rejected a proper pie and instead filled an empty egg shell with blue paint, presumeably in reference to the deputy prime minister's alliance with the Conservatives.

It’s been a while since we've seen an honest-to-goodness pie. Peter Mandelson was hit by green custard while business secretary, a prank which was particularly enjoyable given the substance's association with the gunk on children's TV shows. Blair had purple powder thrown on him during PMQs. Rupert Murdoch was the most recent victim, although his attacker's eccentric use of a pie made of shaving foam was partly hindered by the media mogul's impressively violent wife.

Similar tactics are employed overseas of course, but there is a curious pleasantry and childish enthusiasm for British pranks which doesn't translate perfectly to other cultures. The wave of worldwide shoe-throwing attacks which followed Muntader al-Zaidi's iniative during a George Bush press conference had none of the humour of an honest-to-goodness pie. As a significant Arabic insult, it frankly took itself far too seriously. Seriousness is for protests and parliaments. Pies are for laughter and political well-being.

They are not big and they are not clever. In fact, they often have unfortunate consequences. The purple powder attack on Blair resulted in a glass screen cutting off the public gallery from MPs in the Commons. The inquiry established after the Murdoch incident could implement new restrictions to the public's right-of-access to select committees. It's also worth noting that, while largely harmless, these are still incidences of assault. Jonnie Marbles, Murdoch's assailant, earned a short stay in Wandsworth prison. The 22-year-old who attacked Clegg was arrested by police.

But regardless of their consequences, pranks play an important constitutional role in British political life. They are the great leveller, a ritual humiliation of the powerful, a shared joke the country enjoys at the expense of those who rule. Humour is the great bonding agent through which Britain wordlessly expresses its sense of national solidarity, so there is no higher form of political satire than the use of childish pranks to belittle the rich and influential.

A varied, and far less humorous, version of this principle is evidenced in the more traditional arms of accountability: news programming and parliamentary committees.

Most political journalists have a far higher view of the interviews Evan Davies conducts on the Today programme than the hate-fest Jeremy Paxman orchestrates on Newsnight a few hours later. They're absolutely right, in that Davies' structured forensic analysis reveals infinitely more than a Paxman interview, which is theatre with little actual content. But Paxman's function is not to reveal truth, but to humiliate and bully the powerful. It might seem superficial, and indeed it is, but also has symbolic, psychological and political value. It reminds politicians who is really in charge.

It is merely a serious variation on political comedy, whose rich tradition in the UK, from Spitting image to The Thick of It, offers a shared cathartic experience at the expense of the powerful. This is especially useful and important for a country which doesn't do revolutions or mass protest.

Select committees are capable of playing a similar role, although in an altogether more fusty and buttoned-up sort of way. The appearance of Murdoch was important in itself, as this all-powerful, shadowy media overlord was subject to scrutiny by MPs. Even where the nature of the questioning is poor – and it is nearly always poor from MPs on select committees – the event itself is politically important.

That much was obvious when Britain's bankers apologised in the wake of the financial crisis or during Barclay's boss Bob Diamond's interrogation before the Treasury committee. Attempts at forensic questioning could not sidestep Diamond's mastery of his subject. But Labour MP John Mann's question about why it was easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God visibly unsettled the American, who started loosening his collar and struggling for words. What matters is that he was brought low, that no matter how much money he made he had to come to parliament, sit down, and face the kind of aggressive, disrespectful questions which riches and power usually protect you from. The details of the questioning are secondary to its aesthetics.

Our problem is not that people throw pies, it's that they don’t throw pies at enough people. The subjects of attack are terribly predictable: leading politicians, usually with a significant personal profile, like Mandelson and Clegg. Occasionally, it's a famous non-politician like Murdoch, whose Bond-villain image has made him the personal hate-figure of millions of lefties worldwide.

This focus replicates the way our media works, where disproportionate attention is paid to Westminster and a handful of other colourful public figures, but where other key players get away scot free. Too many pranksters replicate the media's failure to hold police bosses and businessmen, among others, to account.

Bankers and chief executives, hedge fund mangers and speculators, go free, their enormous influence and power left unchecked and – just as importantly – unmocked. Mockery and humiliation don't just offer the country catharsis, they makes the powerful more humble and cautious about their actions, as they weigh up the chances of public degradation.

We need to spread our vitriol a little wider.

The opinions in's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.