This dangerous culture of abuse must end

Posted On: 
12th February 2019

When MPs demonise each other and show such disregard for the tradition of respect for opponents, how can they expect the public to behave better? We all have a responsibility to tackle the rage poisoning our politics, writes Tony Grew

"Social media can take some of the blame for the culture of abuse, but not all," writes Tony Grew
Credit: 
PA

There is an MP who is now afraid of walking in the street in London. A few weeks ago she was on Horseferry Road, lost in her own thoughts on her way to her place of work, when a large and aggressive man appeared in front of her. “He started screaming at me, cursing, ‘fuck MPs,’” she says. The MP in question does not want to be identified, does not want to be marked out publicly as the latest victim of a worrying tide of abuse that must be tackled head on.

In the end, she ran into a nearby supermarket because she knew there would be security staff there who might stop her from being physically attacked.

The unacceptable treatment of other female MPs has been played out in front of the television cameras, giving us all an uncomfortable taste of how vulnerable members are to people whose only agenda is abuse.

In the final decades of the last century, MPs were targets, but the people who sought to harm them were terrorists or the mentally ill. MPs work in one of the most heavily guarded buildings in the country, a reflection of that threat. Ian Gow and Airey Neave were assassinated by Irish Republican terrorists using car bombs. Stephen Timms and Lib Dem MP Nigel Jones were both attacked in a constituency surgery by assailants armed with knives. Jones’ attacker was judged to be mentally unfit for trail, Timms’ was not. Threats to MPs are unfortunately not new, but the situation where some are abused in the street is.

We can guard against terrorists but dealing with those who claim they are “just exercising their right to protest” has proved more problematic for the police.

What is the cause of the worrying phenomenon? The most obvious is the 2016 EU referendum: asking a binary question on a complex issue, leading to a narrow victory for the outcome nobody had planned for let alone understood, was bound to cause division and discord.

Every time MPs say they are interpreting the result, an angry and vocal minority claim it is contrary to something called ‘the will of the people’.

But that alone does not explain the rage. The reputation of MPs was in the mire during the expenses scandal, and while some Members did receive abusive comments and emails, there wasn’t the widespread intimidation that we are seeing now.

Of course back in 2009 social media was in its infancy. Today much of the population use Facebook or Twitter. These platforms have shattered any lingering fantasises of British reserve, awash with all sorts of abuse, viciousness and misinformation. Perhaps we should blame social media. Politicians were slow to grasp the utility of these platforms for spreading their own messages, slow to realise the effect they would have on the mental health and general anger levels of users, and are now slowly realising that they might need to legislate to control them.

Unfortunately that horse has bolted and a stable door is unlikely to be of much use now. There is a perceived right of free speech attached to social media. People do think they can say whatever they like, and MPs have borne the brunt of that perceived right.

Social media can take some of the blame for the culture of abuse, but not all. For it is newspapers that have used their huge reach and influence to declare some MPs as ‘traitors’, as ‘saboteurs’, and judges as ‘enemies of the people’. How many MPs who imagined such headlines as helpful to ‘their side’ condemned that use of language?

When MPs demean and demonise each other as Remoaners or Brexit ‘unicorn chasers’, show casual disregard for the tradition of respect for their opponents, how can they expect publicity hungry journalists or a social media obsessed public to behave better than they do?

The culture of abuse is as evident inside the Commons and inside political parties as it is outside the gates. For the sake of scoring a Twitter hit or generating a headline, we risk our ability to come together at some vague post-Brexit point in the future, when it is imagined everything will return to normal.

The MP who now avoids Horseferry Road will in time return to her usual routine. Hopefully no other large aggressive men will decide it is acceptable to scream abuse at her in the street.

But the rage continues all around us. We have already lost one MP to it, and we all have a responsibility to make sure we do not lose any more.

It is only by returning our politics and our press to its former state, respectfully disagreeing, believing in the honourable nature of our opponents, that we can begin to rebuild.   

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Some people were a bit sniffy about the general debate on sport in the UK,  but it was actually fascinating. We should all know by now that Jim Shannon enjoys country sports and shooting, but who knew there are MPs who are fans of canoeing? Or that Ben Bradley is so passionate about hockey? Or that Team GB’s basketball teams are on course for Olympic qualification? It turns out Gavin Newlands is a St Johnstone fan and Tonia Antoniazzi has played rugby for Wales. Trivia heaven.

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It’s no secret the government has quite a lot of primary and secondary legislation to get though before Brexit day. Lobby journalist Rob Hutton has dug up an interesting historical fact that may be of use as we get closer to 29th March. “If parliament wants to, it can pass laws very quickly,” he reports. “On September 1st 1939, Parliament passed 18 bills into law, despite not beginning its work until 6pm. One bill completed all its Commons stages in just two minutes. The sitting finished just before midnight.” Now we know what is possible, can we have our recess back?