Outrage over a simple act of defiance shows that nuance and balance are gone in politics, writes Brian Monteith.
A week does not seem to pass without someone appealing for a gentler, kinder style of politics. Well, if my own experience this week is anything to go by it will be a long time coming. Indeed it is probably a forlorn hope.
I am just back from attending the first meeting of the ninth session of the European Parliament held in Strasbourg. It was an eventful experience and one that, unlike my colleagues, I am able to contrast and compare against the eight years I served in the Scottish Parliament. While the parliaments are different in a variety of ways (Holyrood can initiate its own legislation and repeal its laws that have failed or proven unremittingly unpopular) there was enough in my first week to give me a taste of what to expect.
Sadly I can testify the nature of political discourse has deteriorated significantly. Thus far it is not the behaviour of the parliamentarians that is especially different, but the relationship between politicians and the public that has changed. Politicians the world over and from all political colours can be pompous, ignorant, divisive and rude – and courteous, inspiring, witty and magnanimous – or a combination of both – but that has always been the case. What I found this week was that in my 12 years away from professional politics as an elected servant of the people, the mood of the public appears to have changed dramatically for the worse.
In my past life as a Tory MSP, I witnessed all sorts of stunts by opponents and colleagues, and took part intentionally or inadvertently in a few myself, but I cannot recall anything other than a handful of letters of complaint, never mind abusive language, in that time. Now there is an instant reaction that, courtesy of the internet, reaches elected members in a wide variety of forms – from text messages, emails,tweets and presumably Facebook posts (I suggest “presumably” because I don’t do Facebook). Some of it is vile, and the quantity surprised even an old dog like me.
One particular example was the opening of the European Parliament itself, where the 700-plus members were told to stand for its “national anthem” before proceedings officially began. The Brexit Party MEPs had been sitting down at that point but had agreed amongst ourselves that if asked to stand we would do so with our backs to the dais. For us it was a quiet and dignified way of showing our rejection of the idea of a European superstate with its own flag, embassies, diplomatic corps, army – and an anthem that had already been rejected by prime minister TonyBlair and in referendums on the proposed EU constitution by the French and Dutch.
As a statement, it did not require brightly coloured T-shirts with offensive slogans rejecting the UK’s democratic choice, or placards for MEPs to hold up in chamber (those both took place) – or causing a commotion or storming out in protest. It was just a silent rejection of an example of empire-building that has caused Europeans of all nations, but especially the British, to say we’ve had enough. After this short moment we then turned, sat down and participated in the remaining proceedings.
Within minutes the messages were pinging into our phones, the emails were arriving and the media, receiving and witnessing the same, only wanted to talk about that one “disrespectful” event. For all but a few exceptions the Liberal Democrats’ “Bollocks to Brexit” t-shirts were ignored unless we made a point of asking why.
Emails calling me a variety of epithets that would peel the varnish of my mother’s front door soon reached my inbox. A suspicious swarm of similarly worded emails then flew in – berating me in emotional terms that would make those of a gentler disposition wish to seek solitude in a dark room.
Former BBC politics journalist Gavin Esler tweeted we “shamelessly copied” the Nazi Party in 30s Germany who turned their backs on a Jewish speaker in the Reichstag – insinuating we share some political DNA them. This was somewhat ironic given the anthem, Beethoven’s Ode to Joy was one of Hitler’s favourites and played to him on his birthday. More importantly Esler’s reaction completely ignored the lineage that turning one’s back is a form of political protest and signalled the double standards of so many of those criticising it on this occasion.
As City lawyer Alex Deane pointed out, British POWs turned their backs on Japan’s Emperor Akihito in 1998 as he passed down the Mall with Her Majesty the Queen. In 2010 and 2013 members of the public – co-ordinated by campaign groups including Hope Not Hate and Prayers for Peace – turned their backs on English Democratic League rallies held in Bradford city centre. In 2014 some members of the public turned their backs on the funeral cortege of former prime minister Margaret Thatcher as it passed on its way to St Paul’s Cathedral. Likewise, later that same year hundreds of NYPD officers turned their backs on a speech by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio at a funeral of two officers killed on duty. More recently women turned their backs on Canadian premier Justin Trudeau protesting against his “fake feminism” and the same protest has been used against President Trump.
Were those people borrowing their form of protest from the Nazis, did those protests receive condemnation from our liberal intelligentsia or be ridiculed by BBC staff, past and present, as my colleagues and I were?
As the week moved on so did the media attention – but not the faux-outrage of social media victims. Quite correctly the media wanted to know what we thought of the EU’s backroom dealing to agree the candidates for various positions including the parliament’s own president, president of the European Commission, the president of the Council of Ministers and president of the European Central Bank. While we pointed to the democratic shortcomings of that process, that is just one symptom of the EUs centralised and secretive government, the communications parading the personal upset over our back-turning just kept coming – without any reference to the EU elite’s disrespect to their own people.
A gentler, kinder style of politics? If it ever existed I don’t think it’s returning soon. Social media’s anonymity has undoubtedly allowed greater guerrilla tactics and binary referenda have divided the country like never before. Politics has to return to meat and two veg issues again. Until then I’ll keep my thick skin.
• Brian Monteith is an MEP for the Brexit Party