Violence in Washington shows we must change the toxic political culture in Britain
Both in the States and here in Britain we must make it a priority to understand our political culture, to see where it went so badly wrong, writes Richard Benyon MP. | PA Images
Stepping back from the cut and thrust of politics, I can now see how the culture of division outside Parliament was turbocharged within it.
The British public looked on with horror last week as terrorists stormed the US Capitol and threatened the democracy of our closest ally. We watched these scenes play out as though they were from a film - but unless we heed the warnings from across the Atlantic, roles could reverse and we might soon find ourselves playing a part in a political horror movie of our own.
I was fortunate to serve the people of Newbury as their MP from 2005 to 2019. During those fourteen years I can honestly say that the culture, climate, and condition of our politics deteriorated significantly.
MPs now routinely receive death threats on social media from every side of the political spectrum. As a white male I know that my experience was tepid compared to the abuse BAME and female colleagues were subjected to but I still had to call the police on a number of occasions about threats made to me or my staff that I believed to be serious in intent.
Much of the media sensationalise, dramatise, and personalise serious issues of national concern. Hyperbolic language and the peddling of gross stereotypes about groups and individuals - based on their ethnicity, gender, and political standpoint - is tearing a division down the centre of our society and legitimising hate speech and physical violence.
Even in Parliament some MPs (mercifully, far from all) seek to attack, shame, and defile their colleagues - not realising that they are poisoning the well from which we all draw water.
The combative nature of elections combined with the use of the whipping system can lead Members to see the annihilation of, rather than collaboration with, the opposition as the order of the day
How has this happened?
Much of the responsibility lies with social media. On these platforms, unqualified, unequivocal, and uncompromising statements perform best. Little room is given over to debate the complexities of an issue or to find common ground. Moreover, algorithms create social bubbles which reinforce our prejudices and beliefs. Most of us will struggle to understand the motivations behind the rioters who stormed the Capitol because we are being fed a radically different diet of news, views, and opinions.
Divisions sown on social media have made their way into the Houses of Parliament.
Research by Compassion in Politics found that Conservative and Labour MPs are now less likely to agree with one another than at any other time during the 21st century. Stepping back from the cut and thrust of politics I can now easily see how the culture of division outside Parliament was turbocharged within it: the combative nature of elections combined with the use of the whipping system can lead Members to see the annihilation of, rather than collaboration with, the opposition as the order of the day.
All of this has left us with a political system in Britain that is nasty, divisive, and increasingly toxic. So what can we do about it?
Firstly, the government must get serious about online abuse and misinformation and the upcoming Online Harms Bill represents the perfect opportunity for them to do that.
I support the Stop the Hate campaign which is calling for a user duty of care to be imposed upon social media companies - like any other customer-facing organisation - and for action to be taken to limit the number of anonymous accounts.
Research by Clean Up The Internet has shown that the majority of abuse and misinformation spread on social media comes from anonymous users. Though some - whistleblowers in particular - rightly need to use a pseudonym online, a much larger number are using them to spread hate or falsehoods with impunity. This has got to stop. We should start by creating a two-tiered structure on social media platforms - one for “accredited” users who provide a piece of personal identification on sign-up and the other for the “non-accredited”.
Compassion in Politics suggest establishing cross-party solidarity groups for MPs to work on issues of common cause will help create greater understanding between MPs and voters.
We need a cultural shift which teaches us from an early age that you can disagree with someone whilst still respecting them. No one has ever been insulted into changing their opinion.
Last week’s events represented a very dark day in American politics. I fear there may yet be darker days still to come. Both in the States and here in Britain we must make it a priority to understand our political culture, to see where it went so badly wrong, and take bold steps towards a more collegiate, cooperative, and compassionate future.
Richard Benyon was the Conservative MP for Newbury until 2019 and will soon take his seat in the House of Lords.