Vicious political language is spilling over into violence. We must change how we talk about each other – Alastair Stewart

In 2014, Alex Salmond gave a speech at the Glasgow Caledonian University campus in New York.

Boris Johnson, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer and SNP Wesminster leader Ian Blackford attend a service to honour the late Sir David Amess at St Margaret's church in London, England (Picture: Jonathan Brady/WPA pool/Getty Images)
Boris Johnson, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer and SNP Wesminster leader Ian Blackford attend a service to honour the late Sir David Amess at St Margaret's church in London, England (Picture: Jonathan Brady/WPA pool/Getty Images)

Beyond the usual pitch about Scottish independence, he said: “We should remember that in a century of striving for home rule and independence, nobody has lost their life arguing for or against Scottish independence. Indeed, nobody has had so much as a nosebleed. That's not unique, but it's a very, very precious thing.”

It is nonsense to believe in Scottish or British exceptionalism. It is as monstrous a pretence as American presidents self-proclaiming themselves to be leaders of the free world. Any close examination of our history will confirm violence is our de facto state. Goodness, we mark it enough with tour guides and plaques and monuments.

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Two Members of Parliament, from different parties, have been murdered in the last five years. Both on constituency business. Both were doing their job. In between those tragedies is a staggering amount of abuse and threats targeting staffers and elected representatives.

Despite that pain and suffering, some insist on politicising death. Conor Matchett, of this paper, summed it up neatly in the hours after the murder of Sir David Amess on October 15: “If you are the sort of person whose first reaction to the news about David Amess is to blame whichever political opponent best suits your cause as I have already seen on this godforsaken hell-site, please log off Twitter and never come back.” This was followed by some people writing “shame it wasn’t you” on First Minister Nicola Sturgeon's condolences.

A friend and I touched base about the news. I made the point something has to be done to tackle the violence. His response, not wholly outwith his general political outlook, was to suggest the right-wing press, and the Conservatives, have created this gurgling cauldron of hatred.

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David Amess's murder shows the need to tackle violence and abuse that's creating...

I probed more and responded that Jo Cox was a Labour politician, and Amess was well-respected. He rebutted with a damning point – now that it has happened to “The Tories”, they will probably care enough to “get it sorted”.

In microcosm, there's our societal problem in one exchange. Not the hatred of social media or the anonymity of commenting, but a country that defines public servants first by party, then by humanity. They are apologists for murder whether they realise it or not.

These people undoubtedly agreed with the Guardian when it said, in a later retracted editorial, that David Cameron felt only “privileged pain” after his son died. Cruelty is not a new phenomenon in politics, but it has reached a pretty critical mass. Now it comes masked as moral superiority – “very sorry for your pain and suffering, but you and your party are heinous, so maybe you got what you deserve, just a bit?”

Why would anyone in their right mind want to enter public life if this is what they can expect?

MPs David Lammy and Diane Abbott have both spoken of the vile racism hurled at him. Joanna Cherry reminded her Twitter followers that a man convicted of making threats of sexual violence against her also had a previous conviction for carrying a knife.

Moves to tackle abuse are doomed to funnel the problem if we do not aim for the source. Home Secretary Priti Patel suggested the government would consider removing the right to anonymity on social media. There is a growing argument that the proposed Online Harms Bill should include criminal sanctions for tech giants which do not penalise abuse on their platforms.

Undoubtedly this would help, but it targets the symptom when it should be looking at the big picture. We have an entire political culture predicated on breaking the other guy and trying to break them as much as possible.

The 'Overton Window', named after American policy analyst Joseph P Overton, frames the range of policies that politicians can recommend to gain or keep public office. It is predicated on the culture and public opinion at that time.

In the last 15 years, the window has shifted to such an extent that most of us have, at some stage, shrugged and said, “well, I guess that's just part of politics”. Imagine the shift where it became acceptable to harass and harangue NHS staff or bus drivers or firefighters? We have already seen an upsurge of abuse thrown at police officers.

At the highest echelons of policy-making and campaigning, there is an increasingly blurred line. When does discrediting the policies of a party and government become an outright attack and stigmatisation of its members?

Consider Scotland. “The Tories”' has become an umbrella denigration and a casual slur. Some paint nationalism as a cancerous growth to be exorcised. The rhetoric is violent; it ignores the millions of everyday voters and members who participate in the political process and celebrate their right to do so.

Left and Right seem to casually hate on journalism these days, conveniently conflating news and opinion pieces at will and condemning it as biased. Politics is a rugby match, but we are in deep trouble when it becomes a culture war against fellow citizens.

What's worse is anyone who has worked in politics will tell you all is not as it seems. The most militant of party enmities for the cameras could well end in a pint. If not outright friendly, there is a cordiality to make you ask where the hate comes from in speeches, in social media posts and manifestos.

It is a decision to make hatred and bile the lingua franca of the day. It can be changed. It must be changed.

Murder and abuse and fiery political rancour are not the same things. We are in a dangerous situation when we accept that violence and death are professional hazards. It is tragically sad that we cannot even see that distinction at the moment.

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