Bill Carmichael: Time for civility in the Anna Soubry debate as insults go too far

A FEW years back when Nick Clegg was in his pomp, I sent a team of student journalists to cover a demonstration in his then Sheffield Hallam constituency held to protest against his infamous decision to break a solemn promise not to raise student tuition fees.

Conservative MP Anna Soubry arrives at the Houses of Parliament in London. Police are to step up their operation around Parliament in the run up to next week's Brexit deal vote after MPs were subjected to intimidation and harassment just yards from the Commons.

The demo quickly turned ugly with hotheaded activists screaming all 
kinds of abuse and eventually the police had to escort a white-faced Clegg to 
safety before the confrontation turned violent.

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Back in the newsroom one of the student reporters – a young lady from China – was shaking in shock.

“They can’t say those things, can 
they?” she asked me. “He’s the Deputy Prime Minister! What will happen to them?”

The answer, of course, was “nothing” but in turn I asked her what would happen if a similar thing took place in China.

I already knew the answer: arrest and imprisonment, certainly; torture, most likely; and execution, quite possibly.

This incident came to mind when reading about the latest controversy this week when Conservative Remainer MP Anna Soubry was roundly abused by a small group of protesters in Westminster.

Such aggressive and thuggish behaviour is undoubtedly vile and stupid and it has been rightly condemned.

But I am immensely glad I live in a country where ordinary people can 
shout insults at their elected representatives without fear of the consequences.

It is far better to have a society where the political elite live in fear of the people, rather than a society – such as, for example China – where the people live in fear of the political elite.

There is no doubt that there has been a coarsening in public discourse over recent years – but I am afraid people like Soubry have to take their share of the blame for that.

Soubry, like many of her fellow Remainers, has been known to accuse people who disagree with her on Brexit 
of being racists and fascists – but now 
the boot is on the other foot and she clutches her pearls and calls for the smelling salts.

Perhaps if you can’t take it, you shouldn’t dish it out in the first place?

Soubry is not alone. In fact hardly a week goes by without the 17.4 million people who voted for Brexit being labelled as fascists, Nazis, racist and bigots. For example, Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, decried Brexit as being in the “fascist tradition of politics”.

All because we want to restore the UK as an independent self-governing democracy!

We are constantly told we are thick, easily duped, didn’t know what we were voting for (we did!) and – the worst insult in the Remainer armoury – Northerners.

Guilty as charged on the last count, but as for the rest, it is water off a duck’s back as far as I am concerned. I reason that if Remainers are unable to articulate a persuasive argument and have to resort to low abuse instead, then the case for staying in the EU must be weaker than I imagined.

Predictably, now Remainers are experiencing a taste of the medicine they have been dishing out for two years there are calls for the police to clamp down on protests.

This would be a big mistake. Chanting “Soubry is a Nazi” may be wrong and stupid, but it isn’t against the law and neither should it be. It is free speech.

I add my voice for a call for a return to civility in public debate and a general cooling down of the political temperature. We owe it to the memory of Jo Cox, the Yorkshire MP murdered by an actual fascist, not to stir up hatred and violence.

We should be able to exchange strongly-held views in a mutually respectful way without resorting to insults and, of course, MPs and journalists should be able to go about their business without threats and intimidation.

A good start would be for people on both sides to drop the preposterous 
Nazi comparisons and stop calling 
each other racists and fascists unless there is clear evidence these charges are true.

I’d like to think these things will happen, but I fear if a Remainer Parliament succeeds in thwarting the will of the people and stealing Brexit, then the anger we have witnessed this week will only intensify.