HAS nothing been learned from the murder of Yorkshire MP Jo Cox by a far-right extremist?
When Theresa May became Prime Minister she promised to heal the divisions in British politics and society that the referendum campaign had opened. Two year later, those divisions have widened, rather than narrowed, with violent language and threats appearing in newspaper headlines and online messages. And the Prime Minister has remained silent, two years later, about the underlying threat to democratic debate and dialogue – and to the safety of our politicians – that this presents.
Last week I met two MPs, from different parties, walking along Whitehall comparing the death threats they had received. Both were men; they remarked that many women MPs had received more such threats than they had, and were – two years after the murder of Batley & Spen’s Jo Cox – even more concerned that aggressive language might lead to violent attacks.
Trolling, often vicious in tone, happens to everyone who engages in public debate. But what many Parliamentarians have been facing have been concerted attacks, triggered by speeches that question the outcome of the referendum, which suggest a degree of organisation behind these verbal attacks and leave MPs worried about what actions might follow.
The leading Remain campaigner, Anna Soubry MP, went public on the issue recently, remarking that most of the abusive messages that had flooded into her mailbox came from well outside her constituency, but that many included threats of actual violence.
Threats and abuse come both from left and right. But in this embittered Brexit argument, the harassment has been most active towards Remainers. It’s been encouraged and legitimised by the aggressive tone of right-wing media. The Daily Mail has labelled Parliamentary Remainers ‘traitors and saboteurs’, providing ‘rogues gallery’ photos of the villains in question accompanied by lengthy attacks on their professional and personal lives. The Express carried a front-page headline that warned MPs that they would ‘ignore the will of the people at your peril’. The Sun has accused MPs of ‘contempt for democracy when it delivers a vote they don’t like; they seem neither to know or to care what they will unleash’.
The threat of violence closes down the space for reasoned debate, labelling opponents as ‘enemies’ and conspirators. Accusations of conspiracies by ‘the metropolitan elite’, with the Daily Mail labelling a series of meetings by Remainers as a secret plot against the country, take us further away from the necessary engagement with hard choices that Parliamentary democracy requires.
Some of the privileged right-wingers such as Jacob Rees-Mogg, who have set themselves up as champions of the people against an allegedly treacherous establishment, look to experienced Westminster-watchers as caricatures.
But their rhetoric strikes home with people who are confused by the technicalities of customs arrangements and market regulations, and inclined to distrust those who argue that the national interest does not easily fit with the popular will.
Britain’s political atmosphere is likely to get more embittered over the coming months, as we approach the deadline to leave the EU. Opposing sides will blame each other. Accusations of foreign interference, of ‘Brussels’ attempting to ‘punish’ Britain, are already flying around; contradictory assertions on the economic impact of leaving are confidently put forward. Ministers, past and present, have referred to the other EU governments as ‘the enemy’, at the same time that the Prime Minister is pursuing a ‘deep and special partnership’ in the national interest’ with them.
The surreal quality of offshore financiers and media barons feeding nationalistic rhetoric, as they have over Brexit, may become clearer.
Both sides claim deep grievances at the behaviour of the other. Whether negotiations on leaving the EU succeed or break down, the acrimony over the terms will fuel greater bitterness from those who reject the Government’s stance.
Intelligent political leadership would call for all sides to lower their aggressive tone, and to tell the right-wing media that they are encouraging the nastier elements of British society.
There are political extremists, and mentally-disturbed people, who will follow the logic of these headlines, and plot to attack democratic politicians; a popular mood of disillusion with political elites feeds their fantasies.
This week two members of the banned neo-Nazi group National Action were jailed in a disturbing case which included a plot to murder the Labour MP Rosie Cooper.
Many politicians do feel intimidated, and are taking security precautions under police advice.
The Prime Minister should therefore speak out, to tell partisans both of Leave and Remain to moderate their language, and call in newspaper editors to remind them of their responsibilities to promote informed public debate. They should not need reminding of Jo Cox’s murder. Sadly, it’s unlikely that Theresa May is willing or able to speak for the national interest, and the quality of our democracy, in this way.
Lord Wallace of Saltaire is a Lib Dem peer and former Minister.