Another day, another Twitter pile-on. This time, the warriors of social justice turned their ire on homely hot-drink merchants Yorkshire Tea. Their equally voluble online opponents rallied to its defence.
Why? Because Yorkshire Tea had the temerity to be, unbeknownst to them, our new chancellor’s choice of brew. Or, more precisely, the drink selected by Rishi Sunak’s communications team to best present him as an ordinary man of the people, the kind of man who paints red walls blue, not (as he has been dubbed in the past) the Maharajah of the Yorkshire Dales.
The backlash was swift, with Twitter hoards attacking the Yorkshire Tea account, promising to boycott the brand because it had allowed a Tory MP to drink it. Others rushed in to mock the boycotters. The account, run (as all accounts are) by a human, was inundated, finally tweeting a viral thread imploring everyone to calm down.
The dust is still settling, but it seems that almost every Twitter user, then every newspaper, made the same joke. “A storm in a teacup,” they quipped.
But to respond with so pithy (and unoriginal) a line is to do what Twitter has taught us to do: to reduce everything to a soundbite, designed to trigger a response, be it outrage or a laugh. Social media was supposed to herald a new era of public debate. Instead, it has made us a nation of hecklers.
This particular quip is especially reductive. This storm is in fact much bigger than a teacup. This was another indication of the coarsening of the public forum, fuelled by Twitter and other social media. And it illustrates how hard it has now become for businesses to avoid being drawn in.
Business leaders are increasingly using their public platform to land political points. In the 2016 Referendum, Paul Polman of Unilever vocally backed Remain. Tim Martin of Wetherspoons did the same for Leave, touring his pubs to rally drinkers to the Brexit cause.
It is possible that both Polman and Martin did so because they believed this was in the best interests of their companies. But I have little doubt that, in both cases, personal politics snuck in there too. The platform, afforded by their position, was used to voice political opinions that could have stayed private.
It would be wrong to conclude that businesses should disengage from the great questions of our day. They must not. There are many issues that businesses do need to engage seriously with, not only because politics affects everything, but also because their actions, from how sustainable they are to their efforts on diversity, impact the whole of society. There will be no resolution to the climate crisis, for instance, until businesses step up.
But that doesn’t mean that every product has to be a political statement. Businesses have the opportunity, perhaps the responsibility, to allow us to ascend from the party political. Tea especially ought to be a leveller. In an otherwise class-bound society, there are few things that unify us like a cuppa. It is surely the only drink sipped regularly by both your builder and your monarch.
To their credit, the Yorkshire Tea Twitter operator tried to stay above the fray. They used the account to remind users that Jeremy Corbyn had also previously tweeted a picture holding a jumbo bag of man-of-the-people Yorkshire Tea, pointing out that the brand had endorsed neither him nor Sunak in doing so. In a plaintive but powerful line, they urged their fellow Twitter users to “try to be kind”.
The wider business world would do well to follow the lead of Yorkshire Tea, but so would the rest of us. We must seize the opportunities we have to detoxify, and not ratchet up, debate.
With each tea break, I used to scroll aimlessly through Twitter. As of today, I stopped. It’s time, I think, to put down Twitter, and stick to the cuppa.
Main picture credit: Rishi Sunak/Twitter