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“If anything positive is to come out of this latest awful tragedy, it is that the quality of political discourse has to change,” Lindsay Hoyle, the Commons speaker, wrote in two Sunday newspapers following the murder of David Amess. “The conversation has to be kinder and based on respect. This incident has shown that there is unity across the political divide in support of democracy. The hate, which drives these attacks, has to end.”
It’s hard to disagree. The problem is that we have heard it all before. The grief over the loss of Amess, and the desire for a gentler, kinder politics that now grips Westminster, is exactly the same mood that followed the murder of Jo Cox, five years ago, when she was on her way to meet constituents in her Batley and Spen seat.
Cox was one of the few MPs with whom I became personal friends during my four decades as a journalist pounding the Westminster beat. So for me, the killing of Amess, another selfless MP who, like Cox, was motivated by doing good rather than self-advancement, was doubly painful. I could not stop myself reliving the awful day when Cox died; I remembered every detail of it after the news broke that she had been attacked.
Then I recalled the atmosphere in the Westminster village at the time, and asked myself: “What’s changed?” Things have got worse, not better. MPs, particularly women, are subjected to even more vile attacks on social media; threats of rape and murder have become common currency. There are repeated complaints by MPs that the police response to such threats is patchy. That will surely have to change now.
Security measures like panic alarms were installed at the constituency offices and in the homes of some MPs in 2016, and such measures will now have to be more systematic. Restricting the ability of constituents to meet MPs face to face would only undermine democracy, so that is no answer. Tighter security at constituency surgeries will help, but will address only the symptoms rather than the causes.
One cause – and it is not the only one – is our political discourse, as the speaker argues. Of course there is not a straight line between nasty personal attacks and the deaths of members of parliament. But politicians are in part responsible for the culture of disrespect, and venomous attacks on each other, amplified by social media, help to create an atmosphere in which violence, or threats of it, are seen by non-politicians as acceptable.
The calibre of today’s front-rank politicians in all parties is less impressive than it was when I moved into the village in 1982. My fear is that it will decline further. The toxic nature of our politics – and the threat to physical safety – must deter many people, especially women, from entering public life. Who can blame them?
To take a recent story: amid today’s calmer mood, I’m sure that Angela Rayner, Labour’s deputy leader, would not have described Boris Johnson and senior Tories as “scum”. But she did make the remark, albeit in the tribal atmosphere of the party’s conference, and refused to withdraw it even when Keir Starmer and other senior figures showed their disapproval.
There’s nothing wrong with vigorous, passionate debate, but it should be based on the best argument, not the best insult. Rayner’s words crossed a line and should be a reminder to other politicians not to go there. It’s also worth noting that some of the online nastiness comes from people supposedly in the same party. What a terrible comment on our politics that Labour is spending more on legal disputes in the fallout from its antisemitism controversy than on campaigning.
The media has a responsibility too. Of course we have a duty to hold politicians to account. But, as I said in my oral evidence to the Leveson Inquiry into phone hacking (as a veteran Westminster journalist): “National papers have crossed a line between healthy scepticism about politics and politicians and gone in for unhealthy cynicism.” In 2009, the Daily Telegraph was right to expose abuses of the MPs’ expenses system. But there has been a feeding frenzy ever since: an assumption that MPs are in it for themselves, not the public. This has fuelled cynicism and a lack of trust in politicians and, in turn, the abuse and threats they now face on a daily basis.
Amess and Cox are a reminder that, whatever their faults and human failings, the vast majority of our politicians are in it for the right reasons. We should be grateful to them, not pillory them as a matter of course.
The problem with calling for a kinder, gentler politics is that all politicians agree with it, but traditional hostilities soon resume. Will it be any different this time? I doubt it very much.