Healthy, vigorous political debate is the lifeblood of democracy. It’s easy to dismiss such warnings over language as coming from “snowflakes” – and to argue that if you can’t stand the heat, you shouldn’t be in the kitchen. But the concerns are very real and it’s been obvious for some time that we have lost – or are on the point of losing – that typically British civility underpinning political debate which has stood us in such good stead for so long.
This week, a poll was published which should shock everyone involved in politics.
According to an academic study undertaken by Cardiff University and the University of Edinburgh, a majority of voters in England, Wales and Scotland say they believe the possibility of some level of violence against MPs is a “price worth paying” in order to get their way on Brexit.
It is difficult to imagine a more disturbing finding, or one that more clearly demonstrates that the fears over the descent of pure politics to a dark place are real indeed.
The poll of more than 4,000 voters asked what they would be prepared to see happen to secure their preferred option, whether leaving or remaining. The survey included whether achieving their desired outcome was worth violence against MPs.
Astonishingly, 71 per cent of English Leave supporters said such a possibility was indeed a “price worth paying” for Brexit – along with 60 per cent in Scotland and 70 per cent in Wales.
It wasn’t just Brexiteers. The poll found a majority of Remain supporters also said the risk of violence towards MPs was worth it if we could stay in the EU – 58 per cent in England, 53 per cent in Scotland and 56 per cent in Wales.
Not surprisingly, Richard Wyn Jones, a professor of Welsh politics at Cardiff University and one of those behind the research, said he was “flabbergasted” by the results.
This is not, of course, just a hypothetical exercise. During the 2016 referendum campaign the Labour MP Jo Cox was murdered and there have been many other threats of violence against MPs of all persuasions.
It is clear that something very dark has happened to our politics. On both sides.
With the heightened political tensions at the moment, it’s easy to fall into the trap of painting the other side as a dangerous enemy with malign motives rather than simply people who have a different view.
That means that politicians – and those of us with the privilege of access to the media to offer our views – need to be extra careful. I have been guilty. Immediately after the referendum, I took to referring to those Remainers who would not accept the result, and tried to overturn Brexit, as Remoaners.
In itself, the word is hardly explosive. But I realised a while ago that, in the context of a political atmosphere in which words and accusations can be toxic, I should be more careful.
This is also why I worry about some of the language used by the Prime Minister. On the one hand, when he describes the so-called Benn Act, which forced him to seek a Brexit extension from the EU, as the “Surrender Act”, it is nothing more than traditional political knockabout.
But in our current political climate – a climate in which the majority in both camps think violence can be justified to get their way – the word “surrender” has terrible implications. It’s far from one-sided.
Remainers often behave as if they have the moral high ground but their behaviour can be equally reprehensible, repeatedly dismissing the views of Brexiteers as if they are all racist morons with no right to be taken seriously.
Would we be here without the pernicious impact of waiting three years for Brexit? Both sides have been driven to distraction by their opponents’ tactics. The longer the stalemate drags on, the more we risk destroying the very basis of our democracy with tensions ratcheted up day by day.
While an election may seem the only means by which we can find a way through the chaos, there is an accompanying danger. All three main parties, to a degree unprecedented in recent years, seek to portray their opponents as threatening harm to our democracy.
I happen to think exactly that of Labour, and I will point this out at every opportunity. I regard it not only as my democratic right but as my duty. But we must all be alive to how we seek to put our case – the words we use and the arguments we mount.