The death of civility in political discourse has poisoned British politics. Brexit is many terrible things but one thing it is surely the worst for is polarising society where two halves now often see the other as traitors to their people. The politics of common good, inclusiveness and solidarity is being engulfed in the fissures opened up with Brexit.
What else can you draw from watching the videos of Anna Soubry and Owen Jones being abused relentlessly over Brexit? It was deeply harrowing, and in the case of Owen Jones, at one point surely frightening with the writer seemingly moments away from perhaps being physically assaulted. He handled it with humorous grace and superb dignity, as did Anna Soubry. But this isn’t the first time they have been victims of brutal verbal abuse and this isn’t the first time that Brexit has been the cause of shocking abusive scenes.
If we didn’t know it then, we know it now: language isn’t a neutral battleground in politics but a weapon itself if wielded deliberately by forces for cynical purposes. Brexit has surely been the encapsulation of that in every way in how it has depicted individuals and groups, both before and after the referendum.
EU migrants have long been the victims of repulsive language used in British politics. Nigel Farage stoked prejudice towards Romanians by questioning whether people would want them as their neighbours, playing on the stereotypes that they are low-level criminals. Quite often, the language around European workers reduced them to commodities rather than human beings with aspirations of being long-term stakeholders in their local communities possibly. Conservatives were mostly guilty of this in their negative depiction of migrant workers as undermining the low-end pay of the labour market, but even liberals were by dressing up their exploitation as a celebration of economic freedom. Migrant voices were notably absent during the EU referendum. And in the wake of Brexit, hate crime against migrants shot upwards. The language around Brexit centred on immigration, with messages of “take back control” pitting the native English reclaiming power from Brussels and the foreigners. There was a visible aura of euphoria to the far-right when they began attacking minorities, emboldened by a political result that brought them in from the margins of the debates.
The absence of civility is telling in how Remain have been portrayed. Traitors. Saboteurs. Unpatriotic. The enemy. “Remoaners”. Newspapers like the Daily Mail unashamedly ran with these themes. To the far-right, those calling for a People’s Vote were seen as subverting the people’s will, as denying them what they had craved and been promised. They were threats to democracy, to Britain, to the people. When you have such inflammatory and divisive language that makes no attempt to reconcile different groups of a polarised society, you deepen the fractures and entrench the images where both sides see each other terribly. One can make the argument that Remain is too technocratic and materialistic in its arguments around the European Union, that it is too London-centric. But to start labelling people as “traitors” or “enemy” makes them targets for those prepared for political violence.
Language matters, and so does civility. The latter has been seen as mellow centrist behaviour that doesn’t understand oppression but it is the only way to create the politics of solidarity and common good in a pluralistic democratic society. If we on the left reject civility as something that doesn’t understand how aggression is required to deal with a powerful threat, do not be surprised when the far-right appropriate it more dangerously and effectively.
This isn’t how we do politics in Britain. Common decency and intense but respectful dialogue matter. We sometimes look at the political language in America and seek to emulate it here but this is a different political culture. There, the extreme marginalisation of many groups and identity-based discrimination makes aggressive and polarising language almost inevitable. Here this does not apply but we have forgotten a worthwhile truth and value that freedom of speech and democracy are compatible only by requiring the other side to be heard with a degree of respect. This has not happened and we should ultimately not be surprised at the violent undertones now shaping our political debates.
This is Britain now then. A divided and toxic nation at risk of losing the values that once made its politics admirable even when it was disagreeable.