Claridge’s is one of London’s finest five-star hotels, popular with royals and aristocrats, film stars and rock stars. But if you’d tried taking afternoon tea there over the weekend, you would have had to run the gauntlet of a rather less glamorous crowd: a bunch of around twenty-five not especially yummy-looking Mummies, making a political point with their lactating dugs and their freezing babies, in affirmation of their apparently unalienable right publicly to breast-feed their babies where and when they will.
The protest was sparked by an incident last week involving a woman called Louise Burns. In the course of taking afternoon tea at Claridges, Ms Burns had started breast-feeding her baby at the table. A waiter, solicitous of the other diners in the room, had brought her large napkin in order to cover her modesty. This Ms Burns found so upsetting and offensive that she decided to tweet before and after photographs showing her apparent humiliation.
Then the Offence Mob got on board. And then UKIP’s leader Nigel Farage got roped into the argument with comments which were represented by his numerous media critics as yet further evidence of his Blimpish sexism, misogyny and remoteness from the modern world.
As the smoke begins to clear, though, I suspect that yet again it’s going to be Farage who comes out of this story with his credibility enhanced while it will be his enemies who emerge looking petty, vindictive and out-of-touch.
Here is a reminder of what Farage said, when ambushed by a question about the issue on LBC radio.
When asked by the presenter whether new mothers should go to the toilets to breastfeed, Farage replied: “Or perhaps sit in the corner, or whatever it might be – that’s up to Claridge’s. It’s not an issue that I get terribly hung up about, but I know particularly people of the older generation feel awkward and embarrassed by it.”
In the heat of the moment, under the pressure of live radio I’d say that that was a pretty reasonable, fair and measured response. But this didn’t stop his critics doing their usual damnedest to smear him.
The Guardian made much of his use of the word “ostentatious.” (Inevitably it prompted an #ostentatiousbreastfeeding Twitter hashtag). While the Prime Minister’s office sought to take advantage of the situation by issuing a priggish statement saying it was “totally unacceptable” to make women feel uncomfortable about public breastfeeding.
But it’s Farage – not the Guardian or David Cameron’s press people – I suspect who is most closely in line with what the majority of British people actually feel on this subject.
For the more squeamish and decorous older generation, it still remains something of a culture shock when a young mum whips out one of her titties in a public place to feed her baby. In the old days this simply wasn’t done. Well, not outside places like Africa.
But even for younger mothers, breastfeeding in public is not so clear-cut an issue as the progressive, professional offence-takers on social media would have us believe. That is because, culturally, we are in a transitional stage. Yes, it’s true that thanks to the propagandising of all those Breast Nazi campaign groups who believe that giving your baby formula milk is tantamount to child abuse, lots of young mothers have persuaded themselves that breast is best.
But at the same time, though they don’t like being confined at home all day, they still don’t feel altogether comfortable about feeding their babies in public places because, being – as women generally are – sensitive, empathetic sorts, they recognise that not everyone out there is on quite on board with this brave new world where apparently the done thing is for lactating mums to whip out their bosoms at will.
Farage, in other words, got his response spot on. It is, I think, the greatest of all his strengths, this ability he has to shoot from the hip (as opposed to ducking the issue, which is what most of his career-safe political contemporaries would have done in the same situation) and say what the man or woman in the street actually thinks, as opposed to what the metropolitan elite think they ought to think.
This was never an issue about misogyny or women’s rights. It was, as Farage instinctively and correctly identified, an issue about basic good manners. The purpose of good manners is to make other people feel comfortable. Forcing the old-fashioned squeamishly to avert their gaze as you breast feed your baby while they’re trying to enjoy their Earl Grey and dainty sandwiches may be striking a blow for modernity but it is also a form of aggression and inconsideration.
Among the arguments we’ve heard advanced in the last few days by the usual feminist suspects is that breast feeding is natural. To which Jeremy Clarkson has provocatively responded that so is urinating – and when we want to do that “we go to a little room and do it in private.”
This is the kind of line really calculated to annoy all women (not just the ones who deserve to be annoyed), so I think a better analogy might be sex, which is also “natural” and, like feeding your baby, nice. I know in some parts of the world and throughout history there have been cultures where it has been acceptable to shag one another willy nilly in public spaces. But they’ve been in the minority and they’re not something we’ve done in the Western world of late, any more than we’ve been in the habit of breastfeeding our babies in public places.
Most people get this. It just so happens that the ones who don’t happen to be the shrillest, the most proficient on social media, and the most in tune with the politically correct values of our political and media class, which is why they get so much publicity.
Ultimately, though, it’s the common-sense majority view which will prevail. And Farage once again has shown us he’s perfectly in tune with it.