On June 16th of this year, the MP Jo Cox was brutally murdered. In the aftermath of this killing, we all vowed to be better – to “love like Jo” and remember we have more in common than divides us. A week later, the UK narrowly voted to leave the European Union, sparking off a series of events that have led to one of the nastiest period in British politics.
Yesterday there was an altercation between Ukip MEPs; subsequently, one man being hospitalised.
Over and over again after Jo’s death, I used the word “culminated”: “It all culminated in this”. It would fit all the neat storytelling clichés. A summer that started and ended in violence. A lesson learned never to be forgotten. But I can’t do it anymore. Because I don’t think this fight will be the last. I am scared that Jo’s death won’t be the last.
Thankfully it seems that Steven Woolfe MEP is doing well and it no longer in a critical condition. Already his acting party leader is dismissing the incident as “one of those things that happen between men”. The party of the pub bore is now shrugging this off as merely a pub brawl. In a political world that favours old school masculinity, the pressure (not least from himself) on Steven Woolfe, a man who wants to lead that party, to show a stiff upper lip will be enormous.
That this extraordinary incident may be brushed under the carpet is a fairly horrific example of how appalling our public debate has become in all forums. The referendum acted as a release valve on pressures that had been building up over a very long time. The political events that have followed – leadership contests for Ukip, the Tories and Labour – would once have been seen as natural reactions to changed political landscapes. Now, particularly in Labour, everything is seen through a prism of betrayal and treachery for or against Jeremy Corbyn.
Jo Cox was a Labour MP and one who had both nominated Jeremy Corbyn and been critical of his leadership. Had she lived she would have been – one way or another – caught up in this summer of bile and hatred. Many who have spent their summer abusing her friends and colleagues mourned her passing and yet see no irony in this.
We have normalised aggression and abuse in our language – in politics and other areas of public life – to such an extent that we simply don’t even notice it any more. But this language is creating a permissive atmosphere for the increase of violent threats and acts in political life. Being a political activist and voicing opinions about politics increasingly feels like something you have to be both emotionally courageous and physically brave to do. To do so as a woman or a minority especially so. Abuse has become a side effect of politics and a fact of life. As we have accepted this, what will be accepted next?
Just as I doubt that Woolfe’s hospitalisation will end the cycle of violence, the referendum campaign didn’t start the coarsening of our debate. In fact, part of the problem we face at the moment is a desire for simplistic answers to incredibly complex questions.
Freedom of speech, and where to draw the line on the freedom to say the unthinkable, is one such complex question. It certainly seems there is little it is impermissible to say in public now. Even in my Remain-voting area of London, I heard nasty, xenophobic anti-immigrant and violent sentiments in my local supermarket for the second time in a month just last night.
As debate is coarsened, is our speech freer or just cheaper? And is violence the inevitable price we will pay?Reuse content