When the Labour MP Jo Cox was murdered in June 2016, a week before the EU referendum, her far-right killer gave his name in court as “death to traitors, freedom for Britain”.
Only a month afterwards, there was so much talk of “betrayal” that the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn called on his own party to stop labelling MPs “traitors”, during what was widely reported as an attempted “coup” by his internal opponents. The word “traitor” was put on an official banned list for party members.
That autumn, Theresa May labelled opponents of Brexit “citizens of nowhere” in her speech to Conservative Party conference. In 2018 when Tory MPs began briefing against their then leader, they warned that “the moment is coming when the knife gets heated, stuck in her front and twisted. She’ll be dead soon”. Others said she should “bring her own noose” to their meeting.
As May was trying to take her deal with the EU through parliament in late 2018, she accused Labour of a “betrayal of the British people”. Since then, “WANTED” poster-style newspaper front pages have proliferated, bearing large photos of whoever is deemed by the press as betraying the people that week.
Over three years after Cox’s death, language of war and treachery persists. On 25 September Boris Johnson dismissed as “humbug” a Labour MP’s warning for him to temper his rhetoric. Yet the real-life consequences of such language prove that words matter. Here’s how.
“Once Brexit is done, we will take the knife to the pen pushers in Whitehall”
Nigel Farage, September 2019
In the middle of a row over the poisoning of political rhetoric, the Brexit Party leader told a rally in Newport that he would “take the knife” to civil servants. The police investigated his comments, and though they declined to take action, even Farage said he should have used “axe” – the “more traditional term for cuts” – instead of “knife”. In March 2017 a police officer was fatally stabbed by a terrorist trying to break into the Palace of Westminster, which makes Farage’s language here particularly tasteless.
“130,000 killed under Tory rule. Time to level the playing field”
Banner, Manchester, September 2019
A banner attached to a bridge in Manchester during this year’s Conservative Party conference called for an attack on Tories to avenge “130,000” fatalities – a figure often attached to their austerity agenda. Two effigies hung from the bridge. In 2017, a similar banner appeared in Salford reading “Hang the Tories”. These threats could have consequences, considering conference attendees, including journalists, were spat on and abused by protesters in 2015. The language of lynching has spread: in 2016 Unite leader Len McCluskey called moves to oust Jeremy Corbyn “an attempted political lynching”, and John McDonnell described party meetings as a “lynch mob without the rope”.
“Napoleon, Hitler, various people tried this out, and it ends tragically – the EU is an attempt to do this by different methods”
Boris Johnson, May 2016
Evoking dictatorship has become a habit for MPs on both sides of the Brexit debate. In the run-up to the referendum Johnson suggested the EU was pursuing the same goal as Hitler by attempting to build a European superstate, while Michael Gove compared Remain-backing economists to the Nazi scientists who denounced Albert Einstein in the 1930s (Gove later apologised). Two years later, Jeremy Hunt, then foreign secretary, compared the EU to the Soviet Union in a speech. In April 2019 the Labour MP and second referendum campaigner David Lammy defended his warning not to “appease” Tory MPs in the Eurosceptic European Research Group. “I don’t care how elected they are – so was the far right in Germany,” he told Andrew Marr in an interview.
These historical references seem to have rubbed off. The second referendum advocate Anna Soubry was showered with chants of “Soubry is a Nazi” by protesters earlier this year. On 27 September, after the Labour MP Jess Phillips tabled an urgent question in the Commons about inflammatory language, a man was arrested after he reportedly banged on the windows of her constituency office in Birmingham Yardley and shouted “fascist”.
After Johnson revealed his plan to prorogue parliament, he was accused of acting like a dictator, with Nicola Sturgeon saying on 28 August that it was “not democracy, it’s dictatorship”, and would “go down in history as the day UK democracy died”.
“Enemies of the people”
Daily Mail front page, 4 November 2016
The Daily Mail branded three High Court judges “Enemies of the people”, plastering their faces on the front page for ruling that the government had to receive parliamentary approval to trigger Article 50. The coverage included personal attacks on the individual judges. “It’s the only time in the whole of my judicial career that I’ve had to ask for the police to give us a measure of advice and protection in relation to the emotions that were being stirred up,” said one of the judges, Lord Chief Justice John Thomas. Some judges reported litigants calling them “enemy of the people” in person. There has also been a rise in threats and harassment of judges, both online and in court.
“If they don’t deliver this Brexit that I spent 25 years of my life working for, then I will be forced to don khaki, pick up a rifle and head for the front lines”
Nigel Farage, 14 May 2017
This is a running theme for the Brexit Party leader. Before the referendum, in May 2016, Farage warned that if immigration was not controlled then “violence is the next step”. The next month, Jo Cox MP was fatally shot and stabbed in her constituency of Batley and Spen. This didn’t stop Farage declaring in a victory speech pre-empting the referendum result that it had been achieved “without a single bullet being fired”.
In May, Jack Renshaw, a former spokesperson for the banned neo-Nazi group National Action, was jailed for plotting to kill the West Lancashire Labour MP Rosie Cooper “in the name of white jihad”. He’d bought a 48cm knife and had also threatened to kill a police officer.
“The Brexit mutineers”
Daily Telegraph front page,15 November 2017
The former Tory minister Anna Soubry was pictured under this headline alongside 14 of her Remain-supporting party colleagues. Four days later, she said her office had already received 13 death threats. Some of the threats she received outlined “what happens to mutineers” – including being hanged. “If the Telegraph had not printed that headline those death threats would not have come through – that is a fact,” she said.
“Proud of yourselves?”
Daily Mail front page, 14 December 2017
In another photo montage splash, only a month after the Telegraph’s “Brexit mutineers” headline had been followed by death threats, the Mail labelled 11 Tory rebels as “self-consumed malcontents”, accusing them of “betray[ing]” their “leader, party and 17.4 million Brexit voters”.
“When judges uphold the law, they are branded enemies of the people. When MPs uphold democracy, they are branded traitors,” said shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer when the paper was published.
Women wearing burkas “look like letter boxes” and “bank robbers”
Boris Johnson, Telegraph column, 5 August 2018
Following this column, hate crime monitor Tell MAMA recorded its biggest spike in anti-Muslim hatred in 2018. Reported anti-Muslim incidents went up from eight the previous week to 38 the week following publication, and 22 of those were directed at Muslim women wearing the niqab or other kinds of veil. Between 5 and 29 August, 42 per cent of Islamophobic incidents reported to Tell MAMA directly referred to Boris Johnson or the language used in his column.
Boris Johnson, 3 September 2019
The Prime Minister christened legislation from opposition MPs to delay Brexit in the event of no deal “a surrender bill”. Later in September, when MPs warned Johnson against such jingoistic rhetoric in the House of Commons, this language was echoed by far-right extremists online. “In a flurry of activity on Wednesday night, extremists across social media platforms labelled MPs ‘traitors’ and called for ‘no surrender’,” reported the Independent.
“I would rather be dead in a ditch”
Boris Johnson, 5 September 2019
The Prime Minister said he would “rather be dead in a ditch” than extend the Brexit deadline. The Labour MP Jess Phillips later shared a picture of a death threat she had received on paper that read: “It was rather prophetic that Boris Johnson should say: ‘I would rather be found dead in a ditch.’ That is what will happen to those who do not deliver Brexit.”
“We will not betray the people who sent us here”
Boris Johnson, 25 September 2019
“We will not betray the people who sent us here,” Johnson told the Commons chamber the day after the Supreme Court ruled that parliament had been unlawfully prorogued. “That is what the opposition want to do.” After MPs were outraged at his use of language, Johnson later said, “I don’t think I did say anything about a betrayal,” and the Chairman of the Conservative Party James Cleverly was caught out on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme for claiming Johnson “didn’t use the word betrayal yesterday”.
Yet these denials didn’t wash – he had used the language of treachery that has concerned MPs ever since Jo Cox’s murder. Her killer stood up in court and gave his name as: “Death to traitors, freedom for Britain.”