Chilly interviews on the patch of grass opposite Parliament are part of the bread and butter of being an MP. But in the last few months, rather than battling the weather, the battle has become hearing the question you’re being asked, as protestors try to drown out the interview. The protestors are on both sides of the Brexit argument, for and against leaving – but what they have in common is determination to make themselves heard.
As a country that respects free speech, I encourage people to speak up. I want people to express their views. I encourage school children to discuss and debate. I encourage my constituents to contact me to let me know their views – even though it is a challenge to read and respond to hundreds of emails.
As the well-used Evelyn Hall quote goes: ‘I [may] disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the hilt your right to say it.’ We all need to hear points of view that we disagree with – it is a healthy part of the democratic process and the means by which our assumptions are challenged and we come to an informed opinion.
And yet, there comes a point where a line is crossed, when speaking up turns into something altogether nastier and more threatening. MPs are no longer receiving the occasional threatening email - now they arrive regularly in our inboxes. And the protests outside Parliament have taken on a new tone too, going beyond making a noise to intimidating and even harassing MPs and journalists, with members of the public caught in the crossfire.
Earlier this week, a far-right group claiming to be supporters of Tommy Robinson confronted Guardian columnist Owen Jones as he made his way to work on College Green - shouting aggressively that he was a ‘traitor’ and ‘scum’. Sky broadcaster Faisal Islam has been subjected to horrendous racial slurs.
As the Conservative MP Anna Soubry was interviewed live on TV chants of ‘Nazi’, ‘traitor’ and ‘slag’ were screamed in the background. And as if this barrage of abuse wasn’t enough, Anna was followed by this group as she made her way back to Parliament. Broadcasters Kay Burley and Laura Kuenssberg have also suffered the same bile.
And I know this tone has been carried through into conversations among friends and families even.
Shouting people down, threatening them, accusing them of being traitors – none of this enhances the quality of our conversation nor our decision-making.
We know that Parliament should lead by example, so we cannot stand by and let this behaviour continue on our doorstep.
The harassment of MPs, journalists and even members of the public we have witnessed over the past few months is not an exercise in free speech. It seeks to shut down debate.
This week’s events are all the more disturbing given the murder of Labour MP Jo Cox in her constituency by a member of the far-right only two years ago.
Language that incites violence or is discriminatory, whether it be misogynistic, racist or xenophobic, has no place in society. Justifying it in the name of free speech is no justification – since the practical effect is people become fearful of speaking up, fearful of making the case for what they believe in, even fearful of standing for election.
We know that it is possible for people on different sides to engage in healthy debate. It happens all the time in Parliament and across the country. In the days and weeks ahead we face difficult decisions as a country. There will be much soul searching. We will call on our heads and our hearts to make the right judgements. As we do so, it is imperative that we reassert the importance of free speech – true free speech in which people don’t just shout out their views but also listen to each other with respect. That is the tone in which we must go forwards.
Helen Whately is the Conservative MP for Faversham & Mid Kent