Abuse of MPs is the symptom of a much deeper problem

Image credit: Diliff

The Prime Minister condemned yesterday the threats levelled at various MPs in the aftermath of a controversial parliamentary vote on Brexit. Speaking in the Commons, Theresa May said there was “no place in our politics” for intimidation and urged “tolerance, decency and respect” in public discourse. The Speaker, too, defended MPs as “dedicated public servants” who are “never mutineers, traitors, malcontents nor enemies of the people.”  Their comments come in light of abuse suffered, primarily via social media, by Tory Brexit rebels, many of whom have received threats of violence and intimidation.

Of course, any form of intimidation is unacceptable and must be stamped out, particularly when specific crimes are committed in the form of incitement to violence. After all, though the murder of Jo Cox was an awful and – hopefully – isolated tragedy, the physical safety of MPs should continue to be of genuine and pressing concern. Particularly in the age of social media, which gives millions of people a very direct and personal route to those they wish to abuse, parliament needs to modernise legislation to deal with these technological developments, and the authorities need to find new ways to enforce it.

However, the most significant issue here is not necessarily the abuse per se, condemnable though that is. Indeed, such is the nature of politics – and an unfortunately omnipresent minority in society – that those who put themselves forward in public life are always likely to attract some degree of bile. Presuming their safety is genuinely not in danger, MPs who receive abuse could, perhaps, adopt Tony Benn’s stoic approach to such matters. Commenting on receiving a death threat, Benn said: “[I am] thrilled that someone thought I was still dangerous. I hadn’t had one in ages.” Whilst the authorities should prosecute crimes involving threats and intimidation when they arise, a reasonable level of resoluteness should nonetheless be expected from our representatives.

The real political issue here is rather how abuse is being used by various groups to attempt to shut down parliamentary democracy and debate. Some, with regards to the Brexit Question have indeed – unacceptably – thrown around baseless accusations of “treachery” and “betrayal” to try and establish one, single, ‘acceptable’ narrative, within which debate on how we leave the EU must lie – something clearly incompatible with our democratic system. And intimidation was a particular issue in the General Election, too, amongst the far-left. With the rise of Corbyn, a particularly dangerous form of leftism has been unleashed, one which is more than content to directly target and abuse Tory candidates in cynical efforts to create a worryingly intimidating political atmosphere. Whether that is covering Conservative offices with offensive graffiti, self-proclaiming a status of moral superiority and falsely monopolising compassion, sending mobs of aggressive activists to conferences and party events, or even simply refusing to befriend a Tory, many on the Corbynite left are now actively engaged with demeaning political opponents and creating an environment in which certain thoughts are unsayable, and therefore certain parties unelectable. The intimidation coming to characterise modern political debate is thus the symptom of a far deeper social problem, and one which represents a serious threat to our parliamentary democracy.

Our parliament is the mother of parliaments; our country is one of the world’s greatest democracies. British political debate has, historically, been passionate, intense, ferocious and contested – but, crucially, respectful. This is something which is beginning to breakdown in modern discourse. We need to rediscover the art of polite disagreement and courteous political argument. Our democracy depends upon it.  

blog comments powered by Disqus

Related Stories

In this section

Across the site

Best of the Rest