There has been much discussion in recent times of the abuse that nasty people see fit to dole out to MPs online. Think of the most violent, obscene thing you would never dream of saying to anyone; it’s almost certainly already been tweeted to Diane Abbott.
But foul social media attacks now seem to be par for the course. It is no longer so shocking to hear that MPs are threatened with rape and death, because we know how frequently such threats are made. This is a tragedy in itself of course, that so many of us have been numbed into a state of apathy, but it is not unnatural. Do or see anything too many times, no matter how exciting or repulsive at first, and one is bound to become steadily more weary.
When these people spill out of the internet and onto the streets however, there’s a difference. The footage that surfaced online yesterday of the Tory MP Anna Soubry being escorted by a policeman whilst people howled at her that she was a “traitor” and “on the side of Adolf Hitler,” is a case in point. To watch big men attempt to aggressively confront a 62-year-old female elected representative is rightly to be appalled and disgusted.
But surprised? I am not so sure. After all, both the Brexit movement and the Labour Party are led, in part, by those who have encouraged this type of behaviour.
Two years ago Nigel Farage said that there would be “political anger the likes of which none of us in our lifetimes have ever witnessed” if Parliament tried to block Brexit. This is not a direct threat on Farage’s part, he is too wily for that. But it is veiled, and a flirtatious wink at the ugliest pro-Brexit element which implies that activist hostility towards pro-European MPs like Soubry is justified.
Tom Harwood from Guido Fawkes was recently a guest on the BBC’s ‘Politics Live’ programme, dripping with disdain for MPs Nicky Morgan and Lisa Nandy because their views on Brexit are different to his. Not just disagreeing with them, but laughing at those whose opinions he holds in contempt. The tone of the discussion is certainly not healthy, and Harwood’s sneering is symptomatic of a Faragist framing which subtly implies that the various positions taken by Soubry, Morgan and Nandy are essentially illegitimate.
And it’s not just pro-Brexit types that speak in these terms. John McDonnell has in fact been more explicit: “I want to be in a situation where no Tory MP, no Tory or MP, no Coalition minister can travel anywhere in the country or show their face anywhere in public without being challenged by direct action.” Isn’t this exactly what is happening in the Soubry clip? Yes, McDonnell was speaking in 2011, before anyone had even uttered the word ‘Brexit’, but in their forthright challenging of Soubry on the street, aren’t the men in the video acting out McDonnell’s fantasy?
Labour supporter and writer Owen Jones recently endorsed a tweet from Pamela Anderson of all people, which read “I despise violence...but what is the violence of all these people and burned luxurious cars, compared to the structural violence of the French - and global - elites?” in reference to the recent gilets jaunes protests in France. How is this different to Farage’s innuendo? Both provocatively imply that certain political movements and systems are so corrupt that displays of aggression and violence from citizens who have been wronged are understandable, and perhaps even necessary.
Two years ago Joe Cox MP was murdered on the streets on this country. Earlier this year, Luciana Berger needed a police escort at the Labour Party Conference because of the violent antisemitic threats she receives.
This is the world we are living in now, and it is hard to see things changing for the better any time soon.