Debate is a cornerstone of our democracy.
Freedom of speech is a principle enshrined in our unwritten constitution.
It is something which we are duty bound to protect, but it is something which is increasingly changing in character.
You can fundamentally disagree with someone and debate them, or their ideas, in a respectful manner. That is how we should conduct debate in our society. To use rhetoric such as “Enemy of Britain” crosses a line beyond which public debate should never seek to go — effectively placing a target on an individual.
The Leave.EU, Donald Trump and Boris Johnsons’ of the world know they are in a position of influence. They have influence over groups and individuals who will take their word as the gospel truth and repeat this rhetoric in their social circles and everyday lives. These groups then believe such behaviour and language is acceptable because it comes from the mouths of those in a position of influence and authority. If a President can say it, then why shouldn’t I be able to?
A former Mayor of London and Foreign Secretary using language such as “we have wrapped a suicide vest around the British constitution” to describe the actions of the Prime Minister and her government is ignorant and irresponsible. It rightly faced backlash and criticism from all corners of the Conservative party and from the Prime Minister, whose spokesman said “ this isn’t language the prime minister would choose to use, beyond that I don’t plan on giving this article further oxygen”.
This behaviour is not just limited to the higher acords of the political spectrum, they trickle down to the roots of activism. We have seen too often how the left try to dehumanise their political opponents. Look at how some Corbynistas behave towards Conservative activists. The twitter account Rachael Swindon — who was given her own Buzzfeed splash a few weeks ago — is an example of the vitriol we so often see from the left. I’ve watched this account compare conservatives to the KKK, to attempt to intimidate and hound young individuals online who dare to raise their heads above the parapet. I’ve unfortunately had to experience more than my fair share of this kind of behaviour.
The Labour MP Jo Cox was murdered on our streets by a radical right wing individual, a week before the EU Referendum in 2016. Eyewitnesses say he shouted “Britain first” as he carried out his appalling crime. When her murderer appeared in court, he gave his name as “Death to Traitors, Freedom for Britain”. This language is not a far stretch from that being used by Leave.EU and others.
This weekend, we have seen newspapers report that a small number of Conservative MPs are using their own kind of dangerous rhetoric when speaking about the Prime Minister. How any MP could say the Prime Minister should “bring her own noose”, that she is facing “assassination”, or “entering the killing zone” is beyond me. Whichever MP said the statement “the moment is coming when the knife gets heated, stuck in her front and twisted. She’ll be dead soon” has no place in the party or parliament. They should be named and shamed by those who claim to know who it is. Individuals like that do not deserve your protection.
If her political opposite — Nicola Sturgeon — could put politics aside to call out this language which she says “debases politics”, then there’s no excuse as to why those without the Prime Minister’s own party should not be joining her in this condemnation.
You cannot call out the abuse others face in the political arena and then stand by and watch as the state of public debate in Britain deteriorates — and often at the hands of its own gatekeepers.
To protect our democracy, we have a duty to hold such individuals and organisations — particularly those in positions of influence — to account when they cross the line of basic human decency. Rhetoric can be dangerous.
Social media has changed public debate in Britain, it has changed how people speak to one another. However, this has not always been for the benefit of democracy. Now, you can reach practically anyone in the political and public sphere with the sending of a tweet. You are no longer safe from the abuse, threats, and vitriol once you close your door and lock out the outside world. It’s on the phone in your pocket. It can be found with a simple search on your tablet. It can be given a platform on your television screen. You can face the force of it, or the influence of it, at any time of the day or night. There’s no denying that the existence of such rhetoric online can carry over to behaviour in real life, impact what society believes is ‘acceptable’.
Behaviour like this puts individuals — particularly women — off coming forward and standing for public office. Our democracy is worse off as a result. What we see online and what is quoted in newspapers can and does spill over into real life.
For the sake of democracy, this is a path that public debate in Britain must not go down.
We must hold the state of public debate to a higher regard.
[Authors note: this piece was originally published on medium]