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Is Raab a bully or just a very bad boss?

An inquiry decision is imminent, but here is what the case tells us about the deputy PM and the nature of bullies

Image: The New European

Most bullying, the Reverend John suggested, is mere thoughtlessness. “Not one little bit of it, Padre… Bullies like bullyin’. They mean it. They think it up in lessons and practise it in the quarters.”

That’s the point to keep in mind as the deputy prime minister, Dominic Raab, contends that he’s not a bully… just a man with rather higher standards than the rest of us. 

The wise words come from M’Turk or Turkey from Rudyard Kipling’s school stories, collected as Stalky & Co. This one – it’s called The Moral Reformers – was first published in 1899. The issue of bullying echoes through the pages of the complete collection.

The inquiry into the allegations that Raab bullied members of staff will shortly deliver its verdict, with Raab denying the lot and insisting he behaved professionally at all times. Others have different interpretations, claiming that he shouted, made public examples of people who had displeased him, “used demeaning tactics to make himself the most powerful person in the room”, that he “behaved like a monster at times”. 

There is a stock euphemism for a bullying personality: someone who “doesn’t suffer fools gladly”. It’s used as an expression of admiration, sometimes even a boast, and it’s a reference to Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians: “For ye suffer fools gladly, seeing ye yourselves are wise.” In other words, a person secure in personal wisdom is at ease with foolish people: it’s the person who doesn’t suffer fools who lacks wisdom.

Bullying is a staple of human life and turns up in a million stories. Poor Cinderella is bullied by her stepmother and especially by the Ugly Sisters, her step-sisters. The story sets the pattern of the true bully across the ages: that is to say, systematic oppression of the already helpless. Cinderella spells out one of the essential truths of bullying, the astute selection of the victim: invariably someone in no position to retaliate. 

It’s not just an abrasive manner or an excessively authoritarian attitude, though these may be symptoms. On their own, such traits merely mark you out as a bit of a shit. A real bully takes it all much further: first identifying the usefully helpless person and then getting struck in. 

Bullying might be understood as an overactive sense of hierarchy. The belief that a superior position permits all kinds of cruelty to those below is usually accompanied by a talent for keeping in with those in authority: to be “a scoundrel, a liar, a thief, a cheat, a coward – and, oh yes, a toady”. 

That is the self-description of Flashman from the novels by George MacDonald Fraser. Flashman is one of the most famous bullies in literature, a character stolen from Tom Brown’s Schooldays by Thomas Hughes, first published in 1857.

“Here, lend a hand one of you, and help me pull out this young howling brute. Hold your tongue, sir, or I’ll kill you.”

“Oh please, Flashman, please Walker, don’t toss me. I’ll fag for you, I’ll do anything, only don’t toss me.”

The dozen Flashman novels – the first one was published in 1969 – have achieved the ultimate in metafiction and made the borrowed character more famous from the new writing than the original was. In the course of them Flashman is changed into another archetype: no longer Eternal Bully but Loveable Rogue.

Of course, Flashman gets his comeuppance in Tom Brown, and is beaten by Tom in a fair fight. Bullies always get their comeuppance in fiction. Just as the loaded revolver in chapter one must be fired before the last page, so every bully must be trumped by the former victim before the story ends. The Ugly Sisters were scorned by the prince and humiliated when the glass slipper didn’t fit. The Good Character – the one who represents us – must have the last laugh. 

Thus Flash, the high-school bully in Spider-Man, is humiliated by his former victim, Peter Parker, once Peter has gained his superpowers. This humiliation is an important step in Peter’s education: he must learn what he should and should not do with his superpowers: ie not become a bully himself. 

Most James Bond villains are bullies. Sir Hugo Drax in Moonraker is a loudmouth who “seems to want to squash Basildon like a fly,” as Bond observes. Naturally and inevitably, they get their comeuppance: “And suddenly Bond didn’t care about the high stakes. Suddenly all he wanted to do was to give this hairy ape the lesson of his life…”

The nature of the bullying type is most obvious in Casino Royale, the first Bond novel, published in 1953. Bond beats Le Chiffre at baccarat, only to find himself tied to a chair naked with his testicles being walloped with a carpet-beater. Le Chiffre, carpet-beater in hand, takes on the role of a bullying parent, making Bond his oppressed and hapless child.

“My dear boy,” – Le Chiffre spoke like a  father – “the game of Red Indians is over, quite over. You have stumbled by chance into a game for grownups and you have already found it a painful experience. You are not equipped, dear boy, to play games with adults and it was very foolish of your nanny in London to have sent you here with your spade and bucket.”

Bullying is not all about ranting and raving. It is often subtle and quiet – and always hideously undermining. It’s about helplessness: I, the bully, can do exactly what I like and you, the victim, can do nothing about it.

The bullied child is as much an archetype as the bully: and is central to the Harry Potter stories. Harry is bullied by the Dursleys, his stepfamily: he must live in a cupboard under the stairs, wait on everybody and suffer constant abuse. Bullying recurs throughout the seven novels, but Harry scores a series of victories along the way; in the first volume he accidentally sets a snake on his stepbrother, Dudley, and his stepfather, Vernon, is put in his place by the overwhelming Hagrid.

Harry is also verbally bullied by Professor Snape, the potions master and the most complex character in the sequence. Snape hated Harry’s late father and was bullied by him. So he bullies Harry, partly for revenge and partly because he believes Harry needs to be put in his place. That’s another thing that bullies often have in common: the convenient belief that the treatment they are doling out is actively good for the bullied person.

King is a bullying teacher in Stalky & Co. He has a special hatred for Beetle, who is a portrait of Kipling himself. “I pulverise the egregious Beetle daily for his soul’s good,” King boasts to his fellow teachers at the Coll. But of course, he has his comeuppance: Beetle’s great friend, the ingenious Stalky (the boy Stalky was modelled on became a general), causes a drunken villager to wreck King’s room.

Turkey, the third of the trio of boys at the heart of the story, draws the moral loudly while pretending to be unaware that King is nearby: “You see… he begins by bullying the little chaps, then he bullies the big chaps, then he bullies someone who isn’t connected with the Coll., and then he catches it. Serves him jolly well right… I beg your pardon sir. I didn’t see you were coming down the staircase.”

Few things make a story sweeter than that of the bully’s comeuppance. Perhaps that’s because in real life the comeuppance of bullies is less inevitable than it is in fiction.  

One reason for this is the compliance of the victim. Not compliance in being bullied: compliance in keeping quiet about it. I was bullied by the headmistress at my primary school; I was bullied by an editor when I was on local papers. A little to my surprise I find that I really don’t want to write about it.

That’s partly because it’s distressing – but it’s also partly because a bullied person looks such a fool. Why did you put up with it? Why didn’t you stand up for yourself? Why didn’t you blow the whistle on them? You can’t complain about being bullied without looking feeble and self-pitying.

But an eight-year-old doesn’t have a lot of weaponry against a headmistress: and cub reporters can’t walk out without breaking indentures and abandoning the profession of journalism: victim selection is an essential bully’s skill. And if you do complain, who will believe you? The bully already has the boss-class on his side: pre-flattered, and probably already told – pre-emptive strike against complaint – that you’re a despicable child from the worst sort of family, or that you’re a resentful, idle incompetent.

I envied Alice. In her adventures in Wonderland or through the looking-glass, she frequently meets bullying personalities, but she treats them without a hint of childish deference, certainly not the deference expected from a well-brought-up Victorian child.

When the Mad Hatter tells her that there is no room, she retorts “there’s plenty of room”, sits down and helps herself. She answers back to the terrifying baby-throwing Duchess; she gives as good as she gets from the Red Queen and Humpty Dumpty. Child Alice is the equal of every grownup in the stories, no matter how frightening they are – and that’s part of the dream-like nature of the Alice books.  

The bullies who claim they are bullying you for your own good, or for the good of the organisation, are fooling themselves. It’s not actually necessary to bully people to get them to do their best. Here’s the worst bollocking I ever had from one of my sports editors at the Times: “Super piece today, Simon, super piece. Not the best piece you’ve ever written in your life, but a super piece.”

It was a sharp reminder that I had to up my game. I worked my arse off for a series of sports editors in the course of 30 years at that newspaper, and not one of them ever shouted, railed, or sought to humiliate me. I didn’t need bullying to work hard: no one does. I had instead the shared purpose of trying to create great sports pages, and it was more than enough.

Bullying is not necessary for excellence. It’s just that some people prefer it to any other method. The advantages are not to be found in a superior finished product, but in the rich and varied pleasures of bullying. Turkey was right: bullies bully because they like bullying. It’s not a by-product of the search for excellence: it’s an end in itself.

The story of The Moral Reformers is appalling. The intrepid trio find that two senior boys are brutally oppressing one of their juniors. They trick the older boys, tie them up and then perform all the tortures they used on the hapless Clewer. Beetle, bullied more than the other two in his time, takes the greatest pleasure from this grisly afternoon. 

Ostensibly the moral of the story is that the school itself – rather than the people who run it – educates the pupils, bullies and all, and makes them better people. But Kipling was always a more subtle writer than he pretended: perhaps the deeper meaning of the story is that to understand the bully we must look inside ourselves.

Dominic Raab isn’t a bad name for a Bond villain, though better for the henchman who gets eaten by piranhas in the first 20 minutes. The inquiry will presumably decide whether he was a bully, or just a rotten boss. To the people making the decisions, I recommend James Bond and Stalky as a little light reading: especially the words of Beetle: “They never really bully… only knock ’em about a little bit. That’s what they say. Only kick their souls out of ’em, and they go and blub in the box-room. Shove their heads into the ulsters an’ blub. Write home three times a day – yes, you brute, I’ve done that…”

Simon Barnes is a journalist and the author of, among others, The History Of The World In 100 Plants

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