Brian Monteith: Our politicians must dial-down the bile

Had you heard of David Amess before Friday? Would you have been able to describe him as the MP of 38 years, knighted in 2015 for his undoubted commitment to public service helping mostly local causes whether he believed in them personally or not?

Candles are lit next to a portrait of David Amess during a vigil for him at St Michaels Church, in Leigh-on-Sea, on Sunday
Candles are lit next to a portrait of David Amess during a vigil for him at St Michaels Church, in Leigh-on-Sea, on Sunday

The forever smiling Sir David was essentially a dependable and charming backbencher thought well of by practically everyone who came into contact with him. He was the epitome of how our democratic politics is meant to work – being comfortable supporting MPs from other parties on common causes to help the disadvantaged, the suffering and the unrepresented animal kingdom.

Committed to helping his constituents and constituencies, firstly Basildon and then Southend benefitted from his hard work.

While, as a devout Catholic, he was socially conservative and his voting record reflected that, he was not easily pigeon-holed but followed his own judgement.

He accepted Tony Blair’s argument on the threat of Weapons of Mass Destruction and voted for the Iraq war in 2003 – like so many of his colleagues – but then, following the failure to find any substantial threat was in a small group who supported the impeachment of Blair the following year and later in 2013 voted against the bombing of Syria during its civil war.

Amess’s private bills were forces for good, such as the Protection Against Cruel Tethering Act (1988) inspired by his local Essex Horse and Pony Protection Society, or the Warm Homes and Energy Conservation Act (2000) which is credited with helping four million people out of fuel poverty.

There was much more I could inform readers about, like Amess promoting the work of Raoul Wallenberg helping Jews escape the Nazis or establishing with colleagues the all-party group on endometriosis, but space restricts me to the most impactful.

Likewise I question how many readers had heard of Jo Cox before her brutal murder when walking to her constituency office?

Admittedly she died only a year after being elected Labour MP for Batley and Spen in 2015, but Cox was another MP that could work with opposing colleagues, co-authoring an article in the Observer with former Tory Minister Andrew Mitchell on the Syrian civil war. She then launched and chaired the all-party parliamentary group Friends of Syria and was working with Tory Tom Tugendhat on a report into the Iraq War at the time of her death.

I ask the questions about public awareness of these victims and provide the background of their work and their ability to co-operate with opponents because that democratic tradition – of debating ideas and positions, but being able to respect and disagree, and even work together where there is common ground – is a fundamental aspect of our democratic tradition. It tends to go unnoticed.

There will always be robust, even bitter, disagreement in politics, including between people in the same parties, but the maintenance of mutual respect and practical collaboration – built on candid sincere expression and the vital ingredient of losers' consent – are very precious commodities. Pluralism and liberal debate, recognising nuances and detail are the antithesis of authoritarian and totalitarian beliefs.

Extremists of radicalised ideologies or religions abhor and seek to silence what they consider as the dangerous attributes of politicians who behave civilly by establishing common ground.

It is for this reason we must call out inflammatory speech and writings and encourage our politicians to be honest with us if we are to protect our democracy and individual politicians. Our political actors, be they professional politicians, commentators, comedians or anonymous demagogues punching out their bile from their smartphones need to rein-in the hate.

“Calling opponents “scum”, “Tory” or “English” with a venomous pejorative edge to it – as we have seen in the last few years on T-shirts and banners as well as heard in fringe speeches and on social media – serves to facilitate an atmosphere of hate used to justify acts of violence by others without scruples.

That may not have been the intention of those who raise the emotional temperatures but it is the consequence.

As recently as Saturday past, the day after Sir David Amess’s murder, the Green Party Scottish Government Minister, Lorna Slater, issued a particularly insensitive Tweet she later deleted. She questioned how could the English keep voting Tory – as if no Tory voters exist in Scotland (but just happen to be the second largest party in Holyrood because of Scots’ own votes) – and ignored the truth that a majority of English people themselves did not vote Tory in 2019. Nevertheless Slater portrayed them as homogenous groups of people all to be treated the same, implicitly banishing them from respectable discourse as if being beyond the pale.

Only a fortnight before, the Labour Deputy Leader, Angela Rayner, had spoken with pejorative intent about “Tory Scum” and was defended by many as having justification.

While in the general election of 2019, at a general election rally in Glasgow’s George Square, our First Minister delivered with a venomous tone the self-contradictory phrase, “the Scotland we seek is open, welcoming, diverse and inclusive – and no Tory is ever going to be allowed to change that.” Sturgeon’s Scotland would clearly be neither open, welcoming, diverse or inclusive if you just happen to be Tory – a large minority of Scots.

Whatever turns out to be the motivation behind Sir David's killing, I think most reasonable people would agree there is a need to dial-down some of the rhetoric we have heard lately. It establishes a moral relativism that justifies at the very least bullying and threatening behaviour to minorities – often women defending their rights – and that surely cannot be the Scotland or Britain we seek

Brian Monteith is editor of and previously served in the Scottish and European Parliaments for the Conservative and Brexit Parties respectively