A film of British soldiers peppering an image of Jeremy Corbyn’s head with bullets under the caption ‘happy with that’ would be horrendous at any time. On the day the leader of the opposition sat down with the prime minister to discuss our nation’s future, it was all the more offensive.
It makes no difference whether the troops were using simulation weapons or not. Equally, their political beliefs are beside the point. Because it is abusive and intimidating behaviour like this that can lead to events like the tragic murder of MP Jo Cox. Yes, it is right that our political leaders are subject to fierce criticism. That is part of strong, democratic debate, but the recent catalogue of attacks on politicians is of a different order.
Only on Wednesday, thanks to the courage of an undercover whistle-blower, we know of the plot by an extreme right-wing nationalist to murder MP Rosie Cooper. The murder of Jo Cox three years ago should remind us every day that violent language and hate-filled sentiments can never be dismissed as harmless. They are not.
Hate crimes linked to Brexit have surged, and many MPs have requested additional security amid growing tension. It has led the National Police Chiefs’ Council chairman Martin Hewitt to urge those in the public eye ‘to communicate in a way that is temperate’ when discussing Brexit in this ‘febrile’ climate. That such warnings are needed highlights just how deeply violence has seeped into our public life and language. The video of the soldiers is a stark visual example of this.
When views and actions cross a line into something altogether uglier we all have to think carefully about what is happening to our country. Yes, we must cherish our disagreements and our right to protest. But when views and actions cross a line into something altogether uglier we all have to think carefully about what is happening to our country. And we all have to take collective responsibility for the way we discuss and debate the big issues of our time, no matter how angry or disillusioned we may feel.
Since Jo’s murder, things have tragically got worse, not better. We have accelerated towards a new sort of culture in public life. It is not a pleasant one. The disastrous erosion of respect for public service – the beginning of which pre-dates the Brexit vote – has created an environment in which intimidation flourishes, just as a cancer might create the conditions in which it can seed and thrive.
Aggressive words and threats against MPs and others in the public sphere all feed that culture. It is MPs, often the most visible, who bear the brunt and, within Westminster, it is women who overwhelmingly sustain the most abuse.
Research from Amnesty reports that an abusive tweet is sent to a female MP or journalist every 30 seconds. Often these threats are sexually brutal, personal, designed to bully and unleash fear. Evidence we have heard from MPs is that this abuse can be directed towards their children, their spouses, and their staff. Death threats are commonplace – but these have become so normalised that they are not always reported. Those willing to speak publicly have described the severe impact on their mental and physical health.
People in public life are human beings. The deeply chilling effects on them must be better understood. We need to remember what impact words and images can have. The threat of this culture to our wider democracy and to the future of our democratic debate can’t be ignored.
If we can’t have open and free debate – if our representatives are too scared to say what they really think – then we have no democracy. Minorities – women, people from BAME backgrounds and those who identify as LBGTQ – bear the brunt and that shames us all. Teenage girls and young women cite violent language and intimidation as a reason not to get involved in politics. We are turning off brilliant and promising young people who have everything to contribute to our society.
What can we do? Show courage. The courage to defend those who sacrifice so much to contribute to our political and public life. Courage to accept that while we may hold deeply different views, we can air those views without fear of aggression. We must cooperate and celebrate that we have, in Jo’s words, far more in common than the things that divide us. We must have courage to think before we act, and to criticise when justified. Because nothing justifies bullying.
And nothing justifies remaining silent about what is at stake: our fine democracy, the imagination and expertise of our government and its institutions, and the ability of our elected officials to both represent and govern us.
Catherine Anderson, CEO, Jo Cox Foundation