Imagine a former Daily Mirror or Guardian editor joking about Theresa May being knifed to death as a cause for national celebration. There would be a national furore. It would be presented as a striking case of how hate-filled, vicious and sadistically intolerant the modern left is. Anyone vaguely on the left would come under immense pressure to immediately dissociate themselves from such a sickening outrage, or otherwise be tarred by association.
But this is exactly what Kelvin MacKenzie (who will go down in history for smearing Liverpool fans, if nothing else) has just done, his target being Jeremy Corbyn. “I think the fake news headline that would give this country the most joy would be: Jeremy Corbyn knifed to death by an asylum seeker,” was how the ex-editor of the Sun put it in a New York Times interview. It is, incidentally, less than a year since the Labour MP Jo Cox was murdered by a far-right terrorist who yelled: “Death to traitors, freedom for Britain!”
The left is routinely smeared as being full of hatred and bile. As we head into an election that is destined to sink pretty quickly into the sewer, it is worth challenging this lie. The corruption of British public debate – through hatred and smears – overwhelmingly comes from the Conservative party and, more specifically, its allies in the British press: a press that practically every day excoriates immigrants, refugees, Muslims, unemployed people – you name it; a press that cheerleads this election not as an exercise in the glory of democracy, but as an excuse to “crush the saboteurs”, commit “blue murder” and “kill off Labour”; a press that casts judges as “enemies of the people”.
Before returning to the press, let’s consider the behaviour of the Conservatives. Once again, they’ve hired the spinmeister Lynton Crosby, one of whose many campaign devices is the “dead cat” – saying something eye-catchingly nasty in an attempt to shift the debate from territory disadvantageous to the Tory party. A Crosby-inspired Boris Johnson, for example, has already lifted the tone of British political debate by denouncing Corbyn as a “mutton-headed mugwump”.
Then there is Michael Fallon, aka the minister for vicious smears. In the last election it was he who smeared Ed Miliband as a man “who stabbed his own brother in the back”, and would go on “to stab the United Kingdom in the back”. When the Mail denounced Miliband’s Jewish refugee father – and Royal Navy veteran – as “the man who hated Britain”, the aim was clear: leftish political opinion meant hatred of your own country, sedition. But here’s the danger: throw in one dead cat, and people become desensitised. Next time you need two, three, even five. Could that be the story of this election campaign?
Zac Goldsmith, the Tory mayoral candidate in London – a twice-defeated disgraced charlatan whom the Tories are once again fielding in Richmond – ran a vicious, bigoted campaign against Sadiq Khan, implying he was an associate of Islamist extremists. But these attacks were sanctioned at the very top of the Tory hierarchy, falsely smearing Suliman Gani, an ex-Tory Muslim imam from Khan’s constituency, as being an Isis supporter. It was a smear so serious Gani’s safety was endangered. Fallon paid compensation for repeating it.
The left is often portrayed as a hate-filled mob for two reasons: a small minority of angry tweeters (I’ve been on the receiving end of their work), and an even smaller group of angry people who yell things like “Tory scum”. But that hardly matches the ferocity of a tabloid press that runs front page obscenities such as “The ‘swarm’ on our streets”, “Migrant workers flooding Britain”, and “1 in 5 Brit Muslims’ sympathy for jihadis”. Or the creation of an atmosphere in which hate crimes flourish. (It’s not as if Tory voters or City bankers are randomly being abused or assaulted on the streets by leftwing pedestrians, is it?) Take Katie Hopkins – who calls refugees “cockroaches” and is accused of inciting hatred against Muslims and minorities. She’s no fringe figure. She’s employed by Mail Online, the world’s biggest online newspaper, and as a national talk radio host by LBC.
The most powerful rightwinger on earth, of course, is Donald Trump, a bigoted megalomaniac whose path to power is strewn with racist and misogynistic debris. But for an insight into the psychology of some of the most extreme rightists in this country, scan the comments section of the Telegraph, Spectator or rightwing blogs. Before long, you’ll encounter an unhinged intolerance to any vaguely left-of-centre opinion: generally abusive, sometimes violently so, equating differing opinions with treachery.
Is this how most right-of-centre Britons think? No, not even close. But rightwing tabloids and politicians deliberately fan extreme and abusive intolerance in an attempt to smash the opposition. The test will come in this election. Yes, disagreement should be passionate and rigorous: our democracy should accommodate such debate. But if it plunges into a sewer, will decent and honest Tories stay silent? What is more important to them? Party politics, or the integrity and health of our democratic system?