Boris Johnson's warlike words are already let loose on the street – the election campaign will be terrifying

The prime minister appears to think he can benefit, personally and politically, by levering wide the cracks opened by Brexit – and seems unconcerned when dignity and discourse fall into the abyss

Daisy Benson
Thursday 26 September 2019 13:04
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Boris Johnson said that the best way to honour the memory of Jo Cox is to get Brexit done

The language used by Boris Johnson in the Commons on Wednesday was pretty horrible, but it’s when you hear the same things coming out of the mouths of members of the public that things get really scary.

The prime minister’s loaded words around “surrender acts” and “betrayal” are already out there. I was shocked after the briefest conversation with someone delivering shopping a couple of weeks ago as we quickly moved to why, in his view, Brexit must be implemented to “right the wrongs of the Second World War”.

Our prime minister’s warlike language, coupled with one-sided reporting of our negotiations with the EU has created a toxic cocktail, and it is fuelling alienation and frustration with politicians and our political process.

The levels of hostility many of us faced while campaigning in the referendum of 2016 were bad enough. And that was without wall-to-wall coverage of high-octane parliamentary debates like the one we saw on Wednesday night.

Back then, it felt more like a drip-drip effect from articles in the Brexit-supporting, right-wing media and from ugly campaign posters. Most of it took place beyond the Palace of Westminster and it was startling to encounter. I campaigned in towns around the southwest of England and witnessed threatening and violent language directed at our youngest campaigners, many of them female.

It frightened me – and I’ve been active in politics for more than a decade. Three years on, and it feels like the same kind of divisive rhetoric is being spouted at the despatch box and has become part of our political culture.

In the post-referendum era of Brexit politics, helped along by our creaky two-party system, calls for consensus and nuance have been swept aside in favour of picking sides. The temptation is huge for the more brittle, less principled politicians. There are two vast hulks of the electorate wedded to either side of a binary issue and apparently willing to suspend their critical faculties for the duration. Too many politicians have succumbed to that temptation.

As things stand, political language is deteriorating at such a rate, and being so damaged I’m not sure I could face campaigning in the upcoming election. If this is the state of the political debate right now then imagine the election campaign? I’ve been dreading it for months.

We can get excited about BBC Parliament’s viewing figures but let’s get real: a minority of the population will have seen last night’s debate in full or in part. Most people will hear about it via tabloid headlines and social media.

Regardless of whether or not MPs agree or disagree with what the prime minister chose to say, what people will hear is the use and legitimisation of rhetoric that has been seen in threats to MPs and forms the foundation for the kind of hate speech seen around the country since the referendum. The medium is the message.

Boris Johnson appears to think he can benefit, personally and politically, by levering wide the cracks opened by Brexit – and seems unconcerned when dignity and discourse fall into the abyss. He smirked as the objections to his language mounted, then flounced out of the house while his conduct came under scrutiny and the real-world implications were raised.

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I have deep sympathy with MPs, candidates and their staff who are on the front line in this war of words. Who can blame them if they fear going out to the doorsteps of their constituencies or holding surgeries? Accessibility to the public is at the root of our representative politics. Things can’t go on as they are.

This is not just a Tory problem. Politicians of all sides need to choose their language carefully even more so at times like this. These make the actions of Labour’s Emily Thornberry apologising for remarks she made about the Liberal Democrats’ Brexit policy all the more laudable. As Lib Dem leader Jo Swinson said on Wednesday night, if a five-year-old can apologise so can a party leader.

Daisy Benson is a Liberal Democrat activist and a former prospective parliamentary candidate for the party

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