We live in an age of rude politicians. In the US, Donald Trump has periodically monopolised the headlines since 2015 with his rude and obnoxious behaviour, often showcased via Twitter or at international summits, where he has pushed presidents out of his way and left his counterparts visibly exasperated. His behaviour seems to be incurring an etiquette backlash against his administration: in June 2018, his press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, was publicly asked to leave a restaurant because her work for the Trump administration put her at odds with the restaurant staff.
These incidents, and more besides, have prompted calls for increased civility in politics in the US and elsewhere. But should we really attempt to eradicate rudeness – or does it have an important role to play?
In British politics, for one, there is a long history of politicians being openly rude to each other, including in parliament itself. In the last several years, it has arguably hit new heights (or, depending on your view, depths). In 2010, Prime Minister David Cameron was slated by the press for his rudeness – what he himself referred to as “yah-boo style” – during prime minister’s questions.
Cameron was known to deploy every tactic from character assassination (“The truth is he is weak and despicable”, he said to Ed Miliband in 2015) to outright mockery (“If the prime minister is going to have pre-prepared jokes, I think they ought to be a bit better than that one – probably not enough bananas on the menu” – this to Gordon Brown in 2010, mocking his opponent’s dietary choices).
But while Cameron was often castigated for his behaviour, he was far from an outlier, and his behaviour did not occur in a vacuum. The House of Commons’s benches are organised in such a way that confrontation is encouraged, and adversarial style is both encouraged and expected by members of parliament. The demands of political tactics force opposing parliamentarians into a stark choice:…