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Murdering the language: a history of violent rhetoric at Westminster

There’s a long tradition of inflammatory speech in British politics: so why does today’s discourse feel so toxic?

Listening to Boris Johnson in Manchester at the weekend, I felt he was right about one thing: martial – and even violent – language is traditional in British politics. So, I fear, is incitement. Go back to “civilised” Edwardian times, to December 1901. The radical imperialist Joseph Chamberlain was in a furious argument with David Lloyd George. The Liberal leader was determined to speak in Chamberlain’s territory, Birmingham, against the Boer War.

Chamberlain was asked to promise safe passage. He replied: “If Lloyd George wants his life, he had better keep away from Birmingham… If he doesn’t go, I will see that it is known he is afraid. If he does go, he will deserve all he gets.” Can you think of a more blatant incitement to political violence against an MP than that?

Faced with this challenge, Lloyd George went – and faced down a violent mob of roughly 100,000 people surrounding the town hall. He escaped with his life only by disguising himself as a policeman, but in the fighting two others were killed. Chamberlain, entirely unfazed, merely expressed regret that “the traitor” George had got away.

A decade later, in the mutinous summer of 1911, the dockyard workers’ leader Ben Tillett sent a threatening letter to the young home secretary, Winston Churchill, warning him of a coming class war in Britain: “Neither your police, your soldiers, your murder, nor your Cossacks will avert disaster coming to this country.” Churchill’s own father, Randolph, had been closely associated with the violence-inciting Northern Irish slogan, “Ulster will fight, and Ulster will be right.”

Inflammatory language has been with us as long as modern democracy. Nye Bevan caused outrage in 1947 by declaring that Churchill’s Conservatives were “lower than the vermin”. (What do you do with vermin?) As unemployment soared in the early Thatcher years, crowds marched through London and Liverpool, chanting “one more cut – Thatcher’s head”. “Tory scum” is such a frequent phrase among the left that it barely raises an eyebrow. Long before Brexit, well-known figures in Tony Blair’s government feared for their physical safety, as they were portrayed as bloody war criminals, killers, liars. Big, violent events, such as the Iraq War, stir up big, violent passions; and political language reflects that.

None of this, however, is to excuse the language of incitement. Politicians have a responsibility to take into account the temper of the times. Betrayal and treachery – and indeed surrender – may be in the standard political lexicon, but they sound very different when millions of people already feel quietly bubbling rage. Sometimes violent words flare up, then vanish and are forgotten after the heat of a late-night parliamentary row – but at other times they light a gunpowder trail back into the real world, encouraging already inflamed people to action, with awful consequences.

Context is all. Historically, there has been very little evidence that menaces are effective in politics. The most powerful slogans are very short, just three words long, and optimistically urge a change in things as they are. They might be as simple as “Tories out now”, the SNP’s “Yes, we can” or Leave’s 2016 call to “Take back control”. (This year’s Tory conference slogan, “Get Brexit done”, is from precisely the same template.)

These three-worders ricochet round the political landscape much more quickly than before the age of social media. The equally effective Second World War slogans, such as “Dig for victory” and “Walls have ears”, only bit their way into the national consciousness after being laboriously pasted on to station platforms and hoardings for months. In every case, they are a verbal pivot, intended to infuse energy and make us act.

Violent language, by contrast, becomes more worrying when the country is struggling with a huge and complicated problem, for which there seems no solution or escape. To describe anti-Brexit MPs as colluding with foreign powers feels, as I told the Prime Minister, very 1930s in tone. Johnson is genuinely furious about the Benn Act, which he calls “the surrender act” and which forces him to seek an extension rather than allow a no-deal Brexit. He believes it has destroyed any negotiating power he had with the EU. Fair enough. But “surrender” is kissing-cousin to “traitor”, and we all know where that leads. He may assume that the people listening to him are parliamentarians, old-style conservative activists, and so forth. But also listening are pumped-up and already livid young men, who may take it all literally. And, by the way, to describe your opponents as Nazis is just as much an incitement – because what would you do with Nazis but fight them?

Context, one more time. In a Britain where lawyers are being advised by the police to wear stab vests, MPs are receiving daily death threats, and prominent female politicians are regularly being threatened with rape, this isn’t really about political discourse in a debating chamber way. It’s about responsibility at a perilous moment – about listening to the echoes of political language on the street, and how it reverberates in homes. Certain words or phrases might test well in focus groups, but they should be used with restraint and care. There are more important things than winning an argument, even one as momentous as this.

Andrew Marr’s books include “A History of Modern Britain” (Pan)

Andrew Marr is a broadcaster and journalist. Formerly the BBC’s Political Editor, he presents the Andrew Marr Show on BBC1 on Sundays and Start the Week on Monday mornings on Radio 4.

This article appears in the 02 October 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit revolutionaries