Rishi Sunak's frantic attempts to find scapegoats to blame are a threat to democracy – Stewart McDonald

With MPs facing threats of violence as never before, the UK’s political system needs root-and-branch reform if democracy is to survive

It is March 2024. The United Kingdom, according to current and former Conservative Prime Ministers, is no longer run by the UK Government. This country, we learn, is in the grip a shadowy cabal of violent protestors, Financial Times journalists, lefty lawyers, and Islamists. The Conservative party’s frantic whack-a-mole approach to scapegoating would almost be funny if it wasn’t actually happening.

Yet instead of taking stock and reflecting on how years of Conservative government have left this country poorer, angrier and more divided than at any point in my lifetime, Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss have chosen, in the greatest traditions of their party, to lay the blame at someone else’s door. Their party has been in power for 14 years. The problems that this country faces are theirs to own.

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With several Conservative MPs creaming six-figure salaries from the payroll of a “news” channel and over a dozen having resigned or lost the whip during this parliament alone for sexual misconduct or corruption, it is patently clear that the Conservative party cannot even govern its own recalcitrant members, let alone the country. Sunak’s latest foray into the culture war, generously described as “unhelpful” by a former Met Police chief superintendent, was simply another attempt to avoid confronting this fact.

Rishi Sunak's rhetoric is making the UK more fractured and politically disillusioned (Picture: Paul Ellis/pool/AFP via Getty Images)Rishi Sunak's rhetoric is making the UK more fractured and politically disillusioned (Picture: Paul Ellis/pool/AFP via Getty Images)
Rishi Sunak's rhetoric is making the UK more fractured and politically disillusioned (Picture: Paul Ellis/pool/AFP via Getty Images)

MPs in stab vests

I’ll not pretend for a moment that the problems that Sunak describes are not real. I have had to seek more assistance from the police over the course of my time in office than I had ever imagined – more than anyone would have imagined – since standing for elected office. I have had anonymous threats made to my personal phone number, threats made to my home in Glasgow where my partner lives when I am at work, and a gang of far-right thugs descend on my constituency surgery. Two of my colleagues have been murdered since I was elected in 2015.

My own circumstances are not unique: I can scarcely think of an MP who does not have similar stories to tell. Just this week, the UK security minister told the House of an MP who must wear a stab vest to constituency surgeries because of threats to her person from a far-right group. As well as the physical threats of intimidation and violence, MPs from all parties have been taken to court by people far wealthier and more powerful than one of Sunak’s “mobs” in a very literal attempt to silence them.

This type of lawsuit is so common in the UK that they have been given a name: SLAPPs. So-called “strategic lawsuits against public participation” – of which one infamous member of the Lords is only the most recent and high-profile user – are a common way that powerful individuals seek to prevent legitimate reporting and discussion about corruption, illicit finance and political wrongdoing. I was subjected to the threat of one a few years ago by a wealthy Tory donor with deep and longstanding links to the Russian state, and although in my own case it fizzled out after I refused to back down, it was a deeply unpleasant experience and can have a destroying impact on people’s lives. If Sunak was serious about protecting democracy in the UK, he would have acted on them years ago. (He also might not have served with such enthusiasm alongside a Prime Minister who illegally shut down parliament for his own political ends.)

Stifling of elected representatives

Across the board, MPs are now subject to more harassment, intimidation and abuse than they have ever been – at home, in the streets, in the courts and on the internet. I know that Lindsay Hoyle, the Commons’ Speaker, is more alive to these threats than anyone else in the country and that he feels an almost paternal duty to protect elected members from them. This must be understood, however, as a new development in the role of the Speaker, who has traditionally served to protect the rights of parliament as an institution rather than the safety of its members. It is a development that should worry us all.

The police and security services already do the work of protecting MPs. The Speaker has enough on his plate without adding this job too. However, if Hoyle has indeed developed a more interventionist appetite, as his actions last week suggest, I would welcome more outspoken remarks from him on all the other ways that the voices of elected MPs are stifled: the government’s overreliance on secondary legislation, the legislative impotence of opposition parties, the frequent use of SLAPPs… there is no shortage of places to begin.

Clinging to power

The uncomfortable truth is that the UK’s political system needs root-and-branch reform if its democracy is to survive, not procedural tricks in the Commons. It is not natural or normal for politicians to face such constant high levels of intimidation and abuse, and MPs from across the house need to clear-eyed about the factors driving it. From the parliamentary chaos of Brexit to the Post Office Horizon scandal, citizens are angry at an institution that increasingly seems unable to deliver accountable good government. The prevarication and inaction over the unimaginable loss of life in Gaza is only the latest example of this – and it will not be the last.

Instead of reflecting on Westminster’s dysfunction and their own role in fuelling popular discontent with politicians, Sunak and co will continue their desperate scrabble for a scapegoat for as long as they can cling to power – making the UK more fractured and politically disillusioned with each passing day. Attempts at blame-shifting and buck-passing will only exacerbate the crisis. The Home Secretary said this week the protestors have “made their point” and should pack up and go home. After 14 years of economic and political vandalism, it is perhaps time that he and his colleagues took his own advice.

Stewart McDonald is SNP MP for Glasgow South



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