Political language is not pretty at the moment, and it’s only going to get more brutal in the coming weeks and months.
Donald Trump is not alone in spotting the link between divisive rhetoric and approval ratings among his base as he switches to full 2020 campaign mode.
On this side of the Atlantic, our withdrawal from the EU and the Tory leadership race are proving to be the contemporary vehicles for intemperate views.
Three years after the Brexit referendum and Trump’s election, many things that were taboo before have become mainstream political rhetoric. Language is a key weapon in the aggressive battle to promote divisive policies.
Many of those who voted for the Brexit Party, or for Donald Trump or for Marine Le Pen in France have unwittingly legitimised the politics of blame – all represent movements which unashamedly appeal to base instincts and to the lowest common denominator. The electoral mandates they have been given pave the way for even more divisive policies and ultimately for a divided and confrontational society.
I could have just brushed off members of the Brexit Party yelling at me to “go home!” on election night as yet another unpleasant comment. But failure to challenge this behaviour allows the protagonists to feel more and more comfortable and to give up any form of restraint.
Those views are not new, but the language has shifted.
We have always known that at the root of Trump’s and the Brexit Party’s policies is a deep sense of nativism: Who belongs and who does not. And this kind of thinking is on the rise – from Brexit and the near-election success of Le Pen to the far-right FPO in Austria and the AfD in Germany.
Almost all share a strong anti-immigration discourse. The language changes – then the politics follows. First we see a shift in what is acceptable to say, then we get the policies that implement the ideas that are articulated.
It’s not hard to follow a direct line from Norman Tebbit’s notorious “cricket test” comments in the 80s through to Euroscepticism on the fringes of the Tory Party to the schism which led to the rise of Nigel Farage in his various political guises.
But I was pleased to see England pass a much more important “cricket test” this week by winning the ICC World Cup. And yet, in our melting pot team’s moment of triumph we saw another darling of the Eurosceptic right, Jacob Rees-Mogg tweet: “A d..n close run thing, we clearly don't need Europe to win...”
We may disagree on most things, but Rees-Mogg is not a stupid man and he is certainly not someone who chooses his words carelessly. So why would he make such a crass and demonstrably ludicrous comment about a team led by an Irish-born captain and including players whose origins span the Commonwealth?
It’s hard not to come to the conclusion that even the “honourable member for the 19th century” is not immune to the coarsening of modern discourse which is now infecting political thought.
In his 1946 essay Politics and the English Language, George Orwell bemoaned what he saw as a growing phenomenon even then of a decline in political vocabulary leading to a decline in the quality of political thinking.
He wrote: “A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.”
If certain simplistic positions are repeated time and time again, and remain unchallenged, they become more acceptable. This shapes political discourse and favours certain decisions – in social as well as in economic, security or migration policy.
Language is powerful here because it is our access to reality. Politicians are role models: If they use divisive rhetoric, people who used to do so only in the dim corners of society will be encouraged to talk like that in public. And to act with it.
What can we do? We need to confront it.
On the one hand, we must draw clear boundaries in public debates and condemn language and ideology that attacks liberal democratic societies as undemocratic and anti-liberal.
On the other hand, we need a debate on the content – not only on the issues that right-wing populists define themselves by – but also on those that are important in day-to-day business: housing and urbanism, traffic, defence or pension policy.
If we can shift the discussion away from their pet subjects we can fight their fixation on migration policy and massively undermine their rhetorical possibilities.
I have been in politics for many years now, and as a person with an immigration background, I have had to deal with many unpleasant comments. I fought through it, and I believe it is worth it. But I fear that many talented men and women with a similar background will not find the courage and the strength to enter the political arena when they see what awaits them.
I want to tell them that I understand, but that we also need them, and that I will do everything to support them.
We must not let the vile rhetoric and behaviour of Trump, Farage, and their cronies scare people with positive agendas away from politics.
Neena Gill is a Labour MEP for the West Midlands