I admit that at one point yesterday afternoon I thought Steven Woolfe was going to die. Reports were coming in thick and fast, and when the words “bleed on the brain” appeared on my computer screen, I absolutely feared the worst. Since finding out that Mr Woolfe will be okay after his fight with Mike Hookem (what an appropriate surname), I have begun to reflect both on what the political community seems to think it means, and what we must actually learn from the incident.
The immediate reaction to Woolfe’s collapse was an unsurprising attempt at linking the UK’s vote to leave the European Union with the fight. ‘Brexit Britain’, we were told by pro-Remain commentators on social media, and its toxic atmosphere was to blame. Presumably, referendums can produce such unwanted fervour that, occasionally, emotions spill over. I suppose to some extent this is true, but the politicisation of Woolfe’s condition was unhelpful.
I don’t care if Steven Woolfe (quite rationally) was considering a Tory defection. I certainly don’t care if Mr Hookem believed he should not leave UKIP. We already know that political differences are not grounds for violence, and didn’t need a head-banging in the European Parliament to remind us of this fact. Notice also that I am being careful not to accuse Hookem of punching Woolfe, who denied doing so today, as was alleged to have happened.
Many, including national newspapers, decided to use the event as an opportunity to make what happened in Strasbourg all about UKIP. The Sun’s splash read: “Anarchy in UKIP”. The Times’ (clearly bitter after their failed Remain campaign over the spring and summer) produced a two-page spread dedicated to comparing ‘the two heavyweights’, with one paragraph reading:
“Ukip’s success in transforming itself from an anti-establishment drinking club into Britain’s third largest political party has come at a cost. The driving force behind Brexit is now bitterly divided and riven with personal animosities.”
But in actual fact, the real lesson to be learned from yesterday’s brawl is a medical one, not a political one. Yet anybody who reads the comment and news reflections on the incident will notice straight away that almost no mention whatsoever has been made about the severity of even minor head injuries, and how easily they can happen. That is the real takeaway, and it is an issue we rarely treat with the seriousness it deserves and one we almost always trivialise.
Mike Hookem described it as a ‘silly tussle’ on Sky News this afternoon. Putting aside whether this is true or not, I am once again concerned by the language used to describe incidents which result in head injuries. Maybe it’s a consequence of masculinity. Mr Hookem is, after all, an ex-soldier. Even silly tussles can result in quite serious consequences for those involved in them. As I type I remember being told by a friend that one of her colleagues fell into a coma after falling of his bike and hitting his head on the curb outside his workplace. These things do happen.
Why is it that the responsibility of raising the importance of brain damage must always fall upon the shoulders of sport? In recent years, and across all major sports, real efforts have been made to highlight the effects of head injuries, with particular emphasis being placed on tackling concussions. Even I, until recently, didn’t properly recognise how dangerous minor head injuries can be. If the problem was discussed more frequently and in a more mainstream context, I think our society would be better educated and more likely to treat head injuries with the seriousness they merit.
More worryingly, the vast majority of concussions do not come with a loss of consciousness. An interesting, well referenced article from a scientific journal (only four paragraphs long and well worth reading) published almost 20 years ago explains: “More than 90% of all cerebral concussions fall into this most mild category where there has not been a loss of consciousness but rather only a brief period of post-traumatic amnesia or loss of mental alertness.”
It can be read here: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0278591905700594
I cite this because it tends to suggest that many people are suffering with concussions without realising it. Despite not being a medical expert, my suspicion is that a concussion is exactly what Steven Woolfe had yesterday morning when his head struck a metal pole at the European Parliament. An incident so minor it was described as a ‘silly tussle’ resulted in bleeding on the brain and a husband and wife almost being killed. And yet all we can think about while he lays in hospital is UKIP’s PR and how divisive the Brexit vote has been.