At a column-writing workshop run by Women in Journalism last week, one journalist posed this question: “How do you decide if a risk is justified?” She wasn’t referring to legal risks: newspapers have lawyers on hand to advise on those. She was asking how opinion writers weigh up if a particular piece is worth the backlash either to themselves or to the target of their ire.
There followed a discussion about ensuring the views expressed were a) fair and b) of sufficient import to justify the hurt caused. I said I worried less about hurting politicians because – as with columnists – criticism goes with the territory.
Mostly, I believe that’s true. The purpose of journalism is to hold power to account. If MPs are corrupt or incompetent; if they obfuscate or freeload or put party before country, then it is our job to point that out. And if – like Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg – they sail the good ship UK towards an iceberg, it is not unreasonable to couch one’s criticism in scathing terms.
Several events, however, led me to reflect on how MPs are now, almost universally, seen as fair game. As progress on Brexit has stalled, they are treated as Aunt Sallys: dehumanised figures on whom it is acceptable to unleash our anger and frustration. Yet if you believe, as I do, that MPs who vilify migrants are complicit in their persecution, then why wouldn’t this apply to those who vilify MPs?
By far the most shocking of last week’s revelations involved Jack Renshaw, the far-right activist who, a year after the murder of Jo Cox, plotted to kill his local Labour MP, Rosie Cooper. Not far behind were the photographs that showed members of the Parachute Regiment using a picture of Jeremy Corbyn’s face as a target for shooting practice. In response to critics, Brigadier Nick Perry said: “I think it would be helpful to remind ourselves of the importance, as soldiers, of remaining non-political.” As if the “error of judgment” here was the failure to be neutral, as opposed to the simulation of violence against an elected representative. As if, had they also been shooting at a picture of Theresa May’s face, it would have been OK.
Even if these events were aberrations, they would be appalling, but they are not. As the Brexit fiasco has unfolded, MPs have increasingly found themselves labelled “traitors”. Given the epic failures on all sides, anger is understandable: but it is nevertheless unacceptable that politicians should be afraid to make their way home at night. How can the UK function as a democracy when Rupa Huq is called “a stinking EU whore”; Anna Soubry is sent 13 death threats, and Nick Boles is told: “Your days are numbered.”?
Like far-right terrorist attacks, these threats don’t come from nowhere; they have germinated in a climate of growing tribalism and intolerance. The Prime Minister set the tone when she held up her fellow MPs to public contempt. But it was no more edifying to hear commentator Quentin Letts accuse her of treachery, adding that her name would be “spat to the floor in balls of green-gob spittle”.
Tabloids have always lashed out at politicians, but in the wake of Brexit, those attacks have become more frequent and more indiscriminate. Last week, for example, the Sun ran a story suggesting SNP MP Patricia Gibson had fallen asleep during the Brexit debate. The whole affair is so wearying I wouldn’t have blamed her if she had nodded off . But it is clear from footage that she rolled back her head in a show of impatience. Later, she tweeted a screenshot of some of the tweets she received as a result. “None of these assholes could do a hard day’s work… lazy, idle bastards,” read one.
Later, SNP MP Joanna Cherry, who had retweeted Gibson’s screenshot, demonstrated the same knee-jerk tribalism, hitting out at Emily Thornberry for missing a Brexit vote. The shadow foreign secretary, who had been at the hospital with one of her children, said the Sun’s spurious accusation had exposed her to similar invective.
Given the spectre of civil disorder has been raised, even comedians ought to exercise a degree of caution. In another context, perhaps, Frankie Boyle’s response to Brexiteers meeting at Chequers – “where’s the IRA when you need them?” – might have raised a laugh. But now that politicians are again being targeted and arguments over the Irish backstop are casting a shadow over the Good Friday Agreement, it feels deeply irresponsible.
Reducing the toxicity of the debate is important for several reasons. The current acrimony is impeding cross-party collaboration to the extent that when Boles reached out to the SNP and Labour it ended with him quitting the Conservative Party.
But the poisonous atmosphere is also taking its toll on the mental health of everyone involved. Long hours in a pressure cooker environment, with so much at stake, no prospect of a solution and endless trading of insults, has left many tearful.
We might not have much sympathy for Pauline Latham – a member of the ERG group, who complained about having to work so hard. But MPs are also human beings with marriages that can fail and children who deserve to have time spent with them.
As Attorney General Geoffrey Cox has pointed out, the current crisis is unlikely to be solved by politicians too overwrought to focus. And distress like this is self-perpetuating. The more strain MPs are under, the more likely they are to attack one another and the more difficult it becomes to see the world from any perspective but their own.
This is true for the rest of us as well. The more we indulge our worst instincts, the greater the national division and the more difficult it will be for the country to heal.
This was the gist of a recent exchange between author Michael Morpurgo and pro-Leave historian Robert Tombs. Morpurgo said the country was going through two divorces – the one from the EU and the one with itself. He said the internal one was particularly painful, and diagnosed more kindness and empathy as a balm.
His point is on the simplistic side. It is right and proper to point out the selfish recklessness of those who sabotaged our future. And the discussion between Morpurgo and Tombs – while civil – provided no way forward.
But, if it is true that democracy is broken, then it is up to all of us to fix it. And that cannot be done by further debasing ourselves. One MP has been murdered, a second came close, a third has had soldiers using a picture of his face for target practice; and there are warnings of trouble on the streets.
In tinder box conditions, it is irresponsible to light a match. We – politicians, activists, the media and others – must not shy away from exposing political failings; but we should choose our words carefully. The line between righteous anger and incitement to violence is a thin one. At a time when people are spoiling for a fight, one stray insult might be all it takes.