Today could be a turning point for democracy in this country and one that takes us in entirely the wrong direction.
This is nothing to do with Brexit, independence or the fate of Theresa May. Instead, it’s about our ability to act as decent human beings, to use reasoned arguments against those we disagree with and, if these fail, to agree to disagree in a spirit of civility, if perhaps not always friendship. And it’s also about our political leaders demonstrating that they are committed to these basic standards and disapprove of those who fail to live up to them.
In recent times, we have seen MPs harrassed and intimidated outside the Westminster parliament, called “traitors” and “Nazis”, while throwing milkshakes has become so common that police have asked some fast-food restaurants to stop selling them when a particular type of politician is in the area.
And yesterday, Police Scotland’s Deputy Chief Constable Will Kerr told a meeting of the Scottish Police Authority that they had decided to deploy more than 100 officers to ensure public safety during today’s European Parliament elections. “We would have never normally done that in the past. We would never normally have needed that level of support, particularly for European elections. We do now – the tone is just fundamentally different,” he added. It is easy to blame a few extremists for causing any trouble that occurs, but the new “tone” identified by the police is something that is largely set by society as a whole.
There have always been individuals willing to do unpleasant things for one cause or another, but if they feel like they have the support of a reasonably large constituency they are much more likely to act than if they feel isolated.
So all of us should endeavour to stress the importance of simple things that we have long taken for granted – that most people are trying to do the right thing and hold the views they do because they think they are the right ones and not because they are somehow evil. Supporting UK membership of the EU is not “treason”; no politician should claim it is time to “behead the political class”. In gentler times, this might have been acceptable because it would have been so obviously a metaphor but, with passions running high, such rhetoric is dangerous. Even if today’s voting passes off peacefully under the watchful eye of the police, we all need to work harder to be kinder to one another.