Shortly after the news came through about the murder of Sir David Amess, I was talking to a colleague, as journalists tend to, about where the story might go, and how long it would take for Angela Rayner to, effectively, get the blame. And sure enough, within hours, Rayner’s infamous use of the word “scum” to describe Tories inserted itself into a wider national debate about the way language is used in politics.
For what it’s worth, I find it utterly implausible that what Rayner said had any bearing on what happened in Leigh-on-Sea. The police are treating it as a terrorist incident; people seem to think it’s an act of an Islamist; and there is even media speculation that the police are investigating Sir David’s links to Qatar, via an all-party parliamentary group. I really cannot see what Rayner said at the Labour conference about Conservatives – mainly directed at Boris Johnson and his government – triggering anyone to go out and kill.
Nor do we know that the killer was much influenced by the general coarsening of political discourse, the death threats regularly dished out online, or the angry, nasty things people have said they wanted to do to the prime minister, to Diane Abbott, to Jeremy Corbyn or many others over the years.
Political assassins have been around for as long as people have had leaders, and while we don’t yet know what motivated this particular suspect, they tend to be motivated by causes and beliefs, irrationally held or not, sometimes political, sometimes born of mental illness, that they felt propelled them to take the life of someone they’d never met and who’d done them no harm. They don’t do what they do because people use violent language online. We didn’t have “online” when, say, John Wilkes Booth shot President Lincoln or the IRA blew up Ian Gow MP or Yigal Amir took the life of Yitzhak Rabin. These people do these awful things because they have a cause or because they are mad, or both. They tend not to be influenced by the general tenor of political debate, but by deeper, darker motivations.
The appeals for people to be more moderate and responsible online, and for MPs to be treated as human beings are laudable, and we’d all be better off if there was a bit more respect between political opponents and if the keyboard warriors operated the online equivalent of the Geneva Convention, but history suggests that this won’t have much effect for very long.
Putting barriers and guards between politicians and the public will work, and should be implemented immediately. It will save lives. But trying to get users to calm down on social media won’t. Priti Patel wants to end anonymity online. It is a brilliant idea but, as the saying goes, “good luck with that”. The trolls and the bots will continue to make their presence felt online, because the web is virtually unpoliceable in a free society. Besides, many of those making the most vile, inflammatory remarks, online and otherwise, do it in their own name, and regard it as part of their human right to free expression.
When you call a political opponent a “traitor”, is that incitement to kill or to harm, or mere rhetorical flourish? When people said that of Anna Soubry MP, a high-profile Remainer, she found herself under attack, literally unable to walk down the street in Westminster without being threatened or abused, but it seems the fundamental reason was that those who were doing that hated her and her politics anyway.
Plenty of political argument shades into disrespect, and worse, to the great disgust of others – but not all of it starts anonymously online by any means. Some takes place in the House of Commons, where people call each other “honourable members”, and the word “liar” (and “scum”) is banned. In 2019, when the arguments about Brexit were once again turning vicious, Labour MP Paula Sherriff, who happens to be a friend of Sir David, reprimanded Johnson for having “continually used pejorative language to describe an Act of Parliament passed by this House”. Gesturing to the coat of arms placed on the wall of the chamber commemorating the service of Jo Cox, assassinated three years earlier, she told the prime minister the kind of thing that everyone is telling each other today: “We should not resort to using offensive, dangerous or inflammatory language for legislation that we do not like, and we stand here under the shield of our departed friend with many of us in this place subject to death threats and abuse every single day.
“They often quote his [Johnson’s] words ‘surrender act’, ‘betrayal’, ‘traitor’, and I for one am sick of it. We must moderate our language, and it has to come from the prime minister first.”
In response, Johnson declared: “I have to say, Mr Speaker, I’ve never heard such humbug in all my life.” He suggested that the best way to honour the memory of Jo Cox was to “get Brexit done”. Uproar. Even his own sister, Rachel Johnson, was appalled by the insensitivity: “It was a very tasteless way of referring to the memory of a murdered MP, who was murdered by someone who said ‘Britain first’, obviously of the far right tendency, which is being whipped up by this sort of language.”
Boris Johnson never apologised, and it was a revealingly callous and arrogant thing to have said, and no doubt upset many – but I very much doubt that this kind of ugly political debate led, even indirectly and as part of an undoubtedly debased, depraved political culture, to the death of Sir David Amess. We should stop kidding ourselves that it did.
The police are investigating the killing as possible terrorism. It has nothing to do with Angela Rayner’s comments.