Maybe it’s down to all these films about Churchill but there seems to be an unhealthy desire to revert to the language of a dark era without much regard for the cataclysmic forces that created it.
We have a gadfly Foreign Secretary tossing analogies with Hitler from the top of his head in full knowledge of their unique capacity to offend a proud country that lost 20 million people in the Second World War.
Never to be outdone, we have luminaries of the SNP intimating that democratic Spain, our partner in the EU to which they are so much attached, is – after 12 elections and seven changes of government – a “fascist state” because it acted in defence of its own constitution.
As if to serve as a warning of what happens when stupidity of language overspills into more dangerous expressions of zealotry, we find Jeremy Corbyn mired in allegations of anti-semitism because he failed to cut off the flow of that particularly nasty poison.
Hitherto, the role of mainstream politicians was to marginalise extremism by distancing themselves from it. That no longer seems to apply. Words are now so cheap that they need reflect no expectation of accountability. Too often, they pander to the fringes and legitimise the ravings of social media.
If any previous Foreign Secretary accused the head of a foreign state of personal responsibility for serious crimes, he would have done so through carefully weighed words, conveying the gravitas of the charge. If he then thought it appropriate to invoke Hitler, he would probably have been counselled out of it by wiser heads.
To Boris Johnson, however, insults are ten-a-penny, the stuff of a thousand newspaper columns. So these exceptionally serious charges are not contained within considered speeches but as throwaway lines, without the slightest regard for the consequences they might give rise to. Unfortunately, it is not Johnson who will pay that price.
Meanwhile, Labour faces the most degrading piece of self-inflicted humiliation I can recall. The party of internationalism and tolerance, for which establishing the state of Israel was a great left-wing cause, is now held to harbour anti-semitic views which have been fostered, or at least tolerated, by its current leadership. The charge could hardly be more serious.
I do not believe that Corbyn is anti-semitic or holds any form of racist opinions. The problem is that a lifetime of London politics and dabbling in the Middle East inevitably guarantees contact with some who certainly do hold such views and past associations are coming back to haunt him.
The revolting case of Christine Shawcroft brings the whole affair uncomfortably close to the throne. Ms Shawcroft was recently installed by Corbyn’s acolytes as head of the panel which adjudicates on disciplinary actions against party members. She has lasted two months in the job before showing her predicted colours.
Almost unbelievably, Shawcroft privately berated colleagues who had decided that an outright Holocaust denier should be expelled. She has resigned and good riddance to her. But really, it is those who installed her in the first place who should follow her out the door – and that would mean a very senior exodus. The irony is that the vast majority of Labour Party members – and a far bigger share of voters – know absolutely nothing of these people or their manoeuvrings. The charge of widespread anti-semitism will have come as news to them as it did to me. Maybe it was always there, among zealots who never expected to be leading anything more consequential than a demonstration in Islington.
Again, it is the degradation of debate that has led to this sorry state of affairs. The wrong is not all on one side. There is a powerful pro-Israeli lobby with its own political agenda and it is only too eager to translate criticism of Israel or support for the Palestinian cause into a charge of anti-semitism. That trap has been around for a long time and most politicians can spot it and dismiss it.
Of course, the winners in the current fiasco are exactly those whose interests lie in delegitimising that debate. For a long time to come, the evidence now emerging – and particularly the Shawcroft case – will be used to imply that any Labour figure who speaks up for Palestine is actually pursuing another agenda. Their supposed arch-supporters have done the Palestinians no favours.
And so to Spain and the case of Clara Ponsati, which has led some senior SNP figures to declare Spain a “fascist state”. The one of most interest to me is my MP, Angus Brendan MacNeil, who chairs the House of Commons Select Committee on International Trade. Presumably he would deplore trading with a “fascist state” which will come as bad news for Western Isles fishermen.
MacNeil and his colleagues are welcome to their views on Catalan independence. What is outrageous is that he should casually and repeatedly denigrate Spain as “fascist” not least because it suffered fascism for 40 years and has cast it off to become a successful, flourishing democracy. If MacNeil wants to understand what fascism looks like, I could recommend some books.
The Spanish constitution, which was overwhelmingly endorsed in Catalonia, sought to pre-empt the break-up of the state and, as we well know, once one starts down the referendum route, it never, ever goes away. So, in my book, Spain is entitled to defend its constitution. How it does so is a legitimate question but when criticism turns to mindless abuse, the argument is lost.
Incidentally, even by the self-indulgent standards of academia, it does seem remarkable that Ponsati can spend a year at St Andrews, depart to become Education Minister in Catalonia, help lead an illegal referendum, flee to the cold embrace of Flemish Nationalists, grow understandably bored with this form of exile and then traipse back to St Andrews where a job awaits. Nice work if you can get it!
It is a plea more in hope than expectation, but can we get back to debate and diplomacy in which words matter? The alternative is for the language of the mainstream to merge with extremism, to the point at which the two become indistinguishable.