On the seafront in Hastings last September, giant letters were daubed in white on one of the Sussex town’s historic fishing huts: “You’re lucky Theresa, we used to HANG traitors in this country”.
The coastal town, famed for the 1066 battle that resulted in the Normans conquering England, voted Leave in the EU referendum. But the language pasted so aggressively on that fishing hut is the effect of something beyond the vote: the toxicity of political language that our media, politicians and activists have allowed to take hold around its divisive result.
Examples are everywhere. In Theresa May’s “citizens of nowhere” speech, or her accusing Labour of a “betrayal of the British people”, or her claims that EU migrants are “jump[ing] the queue”. Elsewhere in her party, Tory MPs briefing against the Prime Minister 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.
Meanwhile Unite’s general secretary Len McCluskey called moves to oust Jeremy Corbyn in 2016 “an attempted political lynching”, and shadow chancellor John McDonnell described PLP meetings as a “lynch mob without the rope”. There has been so much talk of treachery and betrayal in the Labour Party that Corbyn himself called on his party to stop labelling MPs “traitors”. Some Labour members were barred from voting in the second leadership election for using words on an official banned list – one of which was “traitor”.
Then there are the WANTED-poster style front pages our newspapers have run since the result: the Daily Telegraph’s “Brexit mutineers” and the Daily Mail’s urge to “CRUSH THE SABOTEURS”, or its description of judges as “ENEMIES OF THE PEOPLE”. This is not to mention the way the Mail called the Labour leadership “APOLOGISTS FOR TERROR”, and asked if a montage of Tory rebels are “PROUD OF YOURSELVES?”. MPs have reported receiving abuse following their faces appearing on such covers.
Such aggressive discourse would always have jarred in what is supposed to be a liberal democracy. But it makes even less sense following the murder of a sitting MP Jo Cox by a man engrossed in far-right politics, in the build-up to a referendum. He gave his name in court as “death to traitors, freedom for Britain”.
This is the context in which police are standing by, as far-right thugs hound politicians and journalists outside parliament with threatening and misogynistic chants.
A gaggle defining itself as the “Yellow Vests UK” had its first official protest last December after organising on Facebook. Since then it has gained notoriety for going after the anti-Brexit Tory MP Anna Soubry – squaring up to her, calling her “Hitler”, “traitor”, chanting “Soubry is a Nazi”, surrounding her and calling her a “fascist” – on numerous occasions during and after TV interviews on College Green outside parliament.
Second referendum campaigner Femi Oluwole has also been abused by the same mob. One of them kept calling him “Lammy”, in an apparent reference to the colour of his skin. Others closed in on him, calling him “scum”, with one threatening: “Fucking piece of shit, you’re a disgrace, I’m gonna put you on the internet you piece of shit.”
They have also gone after the left-wing commentator Owen Jones, on one occasion following him and calling him a “liar” and “traitor”, a “disgrace”, a “horrible little man”, a “lying little snake”, and a “vile, vicious little bully”. The group’s apparent ringleader was filmed near a police van, arguing with an officer and then shouting: “Every fucking one of you are fair game. You want a war? I’ll give you a war”.
Soubry has urged police outside parliament to “do their job”, with the Speaker John Bercow and more than 60 MPs writing to the Met raising “serious concerns about the deteriorating public order and security situation” and lamenting “lack of co-ordination in the response from the police and appropriate authorities”.
The atmosphere of intimidation surrounding the Palace of Westminster has become so bad that Sky News journalist Kay Burley, who regularly reports from outside parliament, has revealed that she now has security to escort her from the green. This echoes Nick Robinson, who as BBC political editor covering the Scottish referendum was accompanied by a bodyguard, because of the vitriol to which Yes campaigners treated the broadcaster. His successor Laura Kuenssberg is now accompanied by security at party conferences.
It’s a trend that exposes the ever snowballing nastiness of our politics, and the lack of will to stop it. But now it is changing the face of our democracy, too.
One of the best aspects of Britain’s attitude to politics has been the way we don’t venerate our politicians like they do in the US. I’ve wandered round rainy streets, trundled along on buses and trains and sat in greasy spoons with MPs while out interviewing them – and constituents, whether critics or admirers, generally seem comfortable to approach them and have a chat, or tick them off, or share a joke.
This dynamic has, until the last few years, been broadly civil, and very rarely intimidating. Now that low-key accountability is under threat from thugs who want to drown it out – using language our political system should have drowned out long ago.