If we want to protect our democracy in 2019, we must step up the fight against abuse in politics, writes Catherine Anderson
In the heart of Westminster, Parliament Square has long been the showcase of British democracy at both its very best, and its very worst.
On the day of the government’s historic defeat over Theresa May’s Brexit deal, we saw volunteers coming together under the ‘more in common’ banner and sharing flasks of hot tea with ‘Leavers’ and ‘Remainers’, encouraging them to enjoy a civilised chat about their differences.
Yet just days before, on the very same pavements, Anna Soubry had been harangued by an angry mob of extreme far-right thugs sporting yellow vests who, ironically, accused her of being a ‘fascist’ while chanting ‘Soubry is a Nazi’ over and over as she was interviewed. To me, it amounted to an attack – verbal, certainly, with the implicit threat of physical violence, too.
While sympathy for Soubry was almost universal, debate nevertheless covered the grey areas of what was and was not acceptable under the banner of free speech and healthy disagreement. Semantics were dissected. The issue was examined in a policing context, and one of operational activity around the estate. And grim comparisons were inevitably made with the horrific murder of our own friend and colleague, Jo Cox. We all recall the period of mourning following Jo’s death that appeared to herald a tacit agreement that we all needed to engage in a better, more civil, and more compassionate way of doing politics. It did not. What went wrong?
Members of parliament from across the political spectrum report credible death threats. They stand back from the platform in tube stations for fear of an unprovoked push from behind. Journalists employ bodyguards. Voices struggle to be heard against the noise of threatening demonstrations. Both online and offline they are subjected, day in and day out, to the most vile and threatening abuse and threats.
Of course, politics has always been a noisy, passionate affair – both in and outside the chamber – and so it should be. But aggressive harassment and intimidation have no place in our democracy. In the end it diminishes us all, since we deter the best people – from all backgrounds – from entering the fray of public life. And beyond the immediate quagmire of uncertainty over Brexit, a government in collapse, and a chaotic opposition, one question comes again and again to the fore: what sort of politicians – and what sort of politics – do we want?
Jo will forever be a potent symbol of public service, and of the reasons that public servants rise to the call of duty. To serve, yes, but mostly to improve. To improve our communities, and to increase opportunities. To listen, and to respond. To exclude no one, and to include everyone including, and most especially, the most marginalised. To act not out of a desire for legacy, but a desire to create tangible change.
That she should inspire us posthumously is a tragedy of the greatest magnitude. We desperately need politicians like Jo, or the Polish mayor of Gdansk Pawel Adamwicz who was murdered last month, in and among us – not taken from us. Until and unless we take real steps to restore kindness and humility to our public life, I fear a worsening of the environment that allows these acts of violence to continue. Now more than ever the future of our democracy depends on the example of politicians like Jo.
This is why I have invited the broadcasters, the police, parliamentary authorities and MPs to join the Jo Cox Foundation in trying to find better ways of guaranteeing the safety of all participants in public debate without restricting anybody’s right to engage in free speech or peaceful protest. There are big issues at stake in British public life right now. But none is bigger than the need to defend our tradition of passionate yet peaceful debate. If Jo’s example cannot bring us to our senses – what will?
Catherine Anderson is chief executive officer of the Jo Cox Foundation
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