Of all the traditions that set us British apart from our continental cousins – be it the pathological need to join a queue, the monarchy, dogging, or complaining about the weather – it is van-banging that has latterly come to embody our national condition.

For those late to the party, van-banging is the practice of demonstrating the perpetrator’s disapproval of one accused, usually with crimes relating to a child. Some poor kid will go missing or worse, and arrests will at some stage be made, and charges brought. Then:

“There were angry scenes today outside Rotterdam (or anywhere) Crown Court, as SwivelEye McPervert, accused of the abduction of a five year old local girl, was driven in a high security van through angry crowds who had gathered outside.”

Cut to shot of a selection of people howling in fury as they stampede across the police line to hammer on the van and shout violent obscenities at its inmate. The thing that’s always struck me, however, is that when interviewed afterwards, the van-bangers never seem to be members of the unfortunate child’s family. There tend to be a smattering of locals, obviously, but most of them seem to have no connection with the area, yet felt they should come to “show their support”.

By banging on a van.

Images like this always reminds me of the anti-Iraq march  – my first and only protest march (unless you count the one I, along with a somewhat bemused Tory of my acquaintance, accidentally joined the other week in the course of trying to get to the pub). As we passed Downing Street on that overcast day in 2003, the chanting became more of an unholy scream. I was behind a family; young-ish parents, two smallish children. The father was screeching, “F**k you, Blair! F**k you!” and wearing an expression that could only be filed under “Pure Hatred” whilst the mother – holding hands with her kids – was crying with a sort of luxurious abandon, tears streaming down her face.

What in the name of ...?

Right, let’s get a few things sorted before everyone starts howling “liberal intellectual” (unlikely in my case, but I live in hope that one day these adjectives are applied to me) or starts accusing me of being an Iraq war apologist who spends her spare time writing letters of support to the CIA in the blood of Palestinian babies. First, I have absolutely no sympathy with those convicted of sexual crimes, and am not particularly bothered if their van gets banged. I do grudgingly acknowledge that the practical implications of my favoured punishment – amateur vasectomy via a rusty melon-baller – are probably not goers. You win this round, bleeding heart muesli knitters with your nonces-can-be-reformed-by-a-chat-about-Lords-reform-with-Unlock-Democracy attitude. But don’t expect me to be happy about it.

Second, this is not about the Iraq war, so please – hector me not in the comments. I’ve heard it all before, and nearly ten years on from that march, I’m still not clear on what I think about it all.

Those parents on the Iraq march: now, I could be totally wrong and Lord knows I hate being judgemental (stop laughing at the back), but what are the chances that two white, affluent, thirty-somethings dressed casually in designer labels were on first-name terms with dozens of Iraqis?

Obviously, assuming that as they’re probably not best buds with anyone in Basra doesn’t preclude them from being on the march. I was there too, afterall, and I’ve only once been south of Sorrento, but what I am getting at is that their response was violently disproportionate in terms of the personal stake they had in the situation.

They were van-bangers, but dressed in Burberry rather than Burton’s.

We are a nation of strangers taking a holiday in our own moral superiority, whether it’s over the 'monster' inside the van or the 'war criminal' in Number 10.

'I might diddle my taxes,' thinks the van-banger. 'I may have cheated on my wife, I may be lazy at work, I may have accidentally recorded the rugby over an entire season of The Only Way is Essex. But I tell you one thing: I am an angel compared to that person in there. I don’t have to question my behaviour, I don’t have to think about the nuances of my moral code because compared to someone I think is the very worst in society, I am the very best! An angel in fact! Bang that van!'

To a lesser extent, this attitude affects how the public experience politics. For example, there was an article recently in the Daily Mirror which addressed Iain Duncan Smith’s welfare policy thusly: 'Yeah, but he’s an MP and so, like, totally a bigger scrounger, amirite?' Actually state what the policy is and how it would or wouldn’t work? Bollocks! Bang that Work and Pensions Secretary instead (metaphorically speaking, of course).

Question Time: “Politicians are all the same and liars! IRAQ! EXPENSES!” Bang that van, folks!

The press, of course, have an interest in endorsing van-banging tendencies in the public.

It makes great copy for one thing, as well as allowing editors to sell their paper by pandering to their readers’ vanity and misplaced ethical superiority. Also, it makes opinion pieces easier. Issues and debate? Bollocks! Call that politician a wanker instead and we’ll have a good ol’ mutual backslap about how much better “we” are compared to those “arrogant” politicos.

We seem to have reduced and distorted politics to an imaginary fight between 'goodies' and 'baddies' rather than the appreciating that it is actually modern dispute resolution for complex socio-economic times. This, boringly enough, requires politicians to deal, negotiate, compromise, and be satisfied with not getting everything that they wanted.

But then van-banging, like dogging, is more fun. Also, it doesn’t require us to grapple with the sort of contradictions arising from the practice modern democracy that, if we followed to their logical conclusion, would bring us to the words of one of the Founding Fathers of the American constitution: “If (wo)men were angels, Government would not be necessary.”

Nah. Let’s bang that van instead!

Tags: Iraq War, Sadie Smith, Van-banging