Conservative Party members are going to extreme lengths to defend their leader against allegations of sexual impropriety.
One – a Tory activist called Alex Deane – went on Sky News last week to counter claims that prime minister Boris Johnson was an under-the-table groper.
Deane appeared to be angered by the journalist Ayesha Hazarika, who said she believed Johnson was guilty. In response, Deane rehashed the advice of an avid philanderer, Nazi sympathiser and former Conservative minister to suggest that women should be more restrained in their complaints about harassment.
“The late Alan Clark said: ‘How do I know my advances are unwanted until I’ve made them?’” argued Deane, who used to be an adviser to former PM David Cameron.
Deane’s words – delivered with a chilling seriousness – shocked many, but he was undeterred. It was only when Deane’s profoundly misogynistic quote was widely condemned that he claimed: “it doesn’t reflect my views, as anyone who knows me will know.”
I wasn’t surprised by any of this, however. As a victim of Deane’s approach, I have no doubt that his views and actions are utterly representative of the exceedingly nasty party to which he belongs.
My recent appearance with Deane on the BBC’s Dateline London triggered a hate campaign that was so ferocious the Metropolitan Police became involved. Misogyny and racism against me appeared in more than 100 pages of online harassment printed out and handed to officers.
Infuriated by my contribution to the programme, social media trolls who claimed allegiance to the all-new Conservative Party had inundated me with online insults focusing on my ethnic origin, gender, religion, nationality and skin colour.
They said I had “blacked up for a pantomime”, that I was “filthy” and that I should “f*** off back” to where I had come from. “She’s not even British,” said one of my tormentors, clearly unaware that Dateline – a flagship discussion programme that has been running in an unchanged format for almost a quarter of a century – is literally designed for correspondents who are foreign.
As a French-Algerian journalist who studied at the London School of Economics and who has worked for British institutions from the traditional Fleet Street newspapers to Oxford University, I was an obvious choice of panellist.
Deane is not a journalist, but a prominent Conservative Brexiteer – one who personifies how a party that once professed to be a One Nation organisation has now changed out of all recognition. It has been purged of moderates, and is more aligned with the sinister rallying cries of far-right nationalism.
It seemed that Deane had few qualms about joining in the baiting. He posted images on Twitter of British soldiers massacring black Africans. They were from the film Zulu – which dramatised the 1879 Battle of Rorke’s Drift, when red-coated infantrymen put the natives in their place, shooting dead 351 tribesmen and wounding around 500 more, for the loss of 17 Empire troops.
Deane revelled in a comparison between this Imperial adventure and his efforts at subduing foes on Dateline, captioning the Zulu gif with the words: “Sometimes one’s morning in the media is like”. Needless to say, I was the only woman of African origin on Dateline – all the other guests were white and male.
Deane didn’t shy away from gun violence analogies that followed among his social media allies. “Oh for a decent machine gun!”, “Both barrels fired!” and “Thank goodness we have you there to return fire”, were among the tweets Deane liked or retweeted that were seemingly directed at me.
He also liked and retweeted jubilatory posts about how he allegedly “clinically destroyed”, “slayed”, “exterminated”, “skewered” me, and “shot [me] down” during the debate. Deane even approved of a tweet questioning my very presence on the programme: “Why is she involved in this discussion?”
Deane liked tweets describing me as a “moron”, “halfwit”, and “disgusting woman… drained out of a swamp”. In short, an unwanted “foreigner” who needed to be “educated”, as his Twitter supporters put it. Deane sneered at me throughout the programme, intimating that I was unqualified to comment on his country’s political system. Deane also endorsed a tweet likening me to the “bigot Alibi Nazi” – a reference to Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, another journalist who, like myself and Ayesha Hazarika, is a Muslim.
Despite my non-affiliated approach to politics, the online mob followed Deane’s lead in falsely caricaturing me as left-wing. This was particularly alarming, according to the investigators who looked at the threats, because it evoked the murder of Jo Cox – the Labour MP who was gunned down and knifed repeatedly by an online obsessive three years ago because he considered her a “traitor” to white people.
Words – and especially vindictive online postings – have consequences, but the new breed of Conservative extremists remain unconcerned. Their focus is currently on crushing ideological enemies using methods honed by far-right strategists such as Steve Bannon.
Online hate can easily be intensified by the kind of anonymous accounts that assisted Deane in his attacks on me. Their interactions with him accused me of numerous monstrosities, such as support for terrorism – appalling allegations which Deane condoned by liking a series of them on Twitter and engaging with some of their authors.
These accounts, most likely “bots”, swell support for cruel messages like Deane’s and push ideas into people’s social feeds. It is this messaging that can warp elections when deployed at scale.
There are Tories who powerfully object to the kind of language that Deane felt able to endorse. Johnson has been told by numerous critics, not least Amber Rudd, his own former work and pensions secretary, that his own language “does incite violence”, but he could, apparently, not care less.
Tory grandees are evidently as disturbed about such developments as the rest of us. Ex-Conservative Party chairman Lord Patten said the brutal expulsion of his colleagues in favour of die-hard Brexit fanatics said everything about the coarse nature of the reconstituted Tories.
“It’s an English nationalist government which, as Ken Clarke said, is the most extreme far-right cabinet in the history of the Conservative Party. It’s absolutely outrageous,” Lord Patten told Sky News.
Boris Johnson and Alex Deane are textbook examples of what the new Tory Party represents. Every one of us should be worried about the rapidly changing nature of British politics and must be extremely wary about this shift towards wickedness, and the immense harm it is doing to public life.
Update (23.10.19): Following publication of this article, Alex Deane has contacted The Independent to make clear that he denies encouraging other Twitter users to racially abuse Nabila Ramdani. He says that he does not endorse all the posts that he retweeted and he ‘liked’ some in order to acknowledge the contributions they made to the debate. He further says that he had not intended to cause offence by publishing the GIF of a battle scene from Zulu; he had used it to convey his feeling that on the programme, he was fighting against overwhelming odds. We are happy to place his position on record.