Over the weekend, there was significant discussion about political culture and how politicians talk about each other and how the rest of us talk about politicians. Now, given that it looks likely that the person who attacked and murdered Sir David Amess was motivated by Islamist extremist, there is a reasonable response to this. Namely, that it is difficult to link comments made generally about politicians with an attack that had a specific motive. Terrorists and lone-wolf extremists will chose to attack and to kill whether it is by seeking to assassinate a politician or taking a bomb to a concert.
However, I don’t think this means we can simply ignore what is so often a toxic culture. It’s a culture that we see not only with politicians but is part of the wider discourse and social media doesn’t help. Often the language used is vicious and can be bullying and that leaves many wondering if there isn’t a better way of conversing.
Now, I picked up that two politicians came in for particular opprobrium. The first was Angela Rayner, the Labour deputy leader who at the recent party conference had referred to Tories as “scum.” The other is John McDonnell who has infamously talked about female Conservatives being lynched and called for direct action against Tories saying at one point that no Tory should be able to travel freely without being confronted.
I would suggest that there is actually a category difference between the rhetoric of both MPs. I don’t think that a reasonable person could genuinely accuse Rayner of inciting violence. I understand that people may have felt strongly as grief provoked anger and blame but I suspect that those responding in grief when they have chance to reflect will realise that this wasn’t the case. Back in the 1940s, Aneurin Bevan described Tories as “less than vermin.” There is a long history of such strong language.
Just as we can recognise that many people attacking Rayner or Friday were not involved in cold calculated political smearing but were reacting emotionally, so we can understand when a poltiicians expresses their frustration and anger at what they consider to be unjust and even corrupt actions by their opponents with colourful, even violent language. I believe that’s what Rayner was doing. Now, we can acknowledge that distinction and we can also recognise that such words are not intended to and would not with the reasonable person incite violence whilst at the same time saying that such words were unwise , bad for public discourse and should not have been uttered. I hope Rayner will apologise and retract them. It is possible to express righteous anger at the government without resorting to language which dehumanises people who disagree with you.
On the other hand, McDonnell’s language was to my m ind on a completely different level. Partly, that’s because of the language itself and partly it’s about context. The language itself was in certain cases aimed at specific individuals and was not just colourful language but expressed the desire to see physical harm come to others. The context was that this was not simply a parliamentarian using colourful language but rather someone whose political agenda seems to involve a commitment to extra-democratic methods, a Marxist agenda that will use whatever means necessary to further its cause whether that’s the ballot box of direct action. McDonnell and others with him have praised those involved in violent demonstration and given platforms to terrorists. McDonnell served as shadow chancellor for Jeremy Corbyn who allowed antisemitism to infect the mainstream of public discourse. This is why it was so shameful, so disgraceful and so dangerous that such men came so close to power and why it is concerning that we still haven’t recognised how close we came.
I suspect that after a brief pause and some warm, well intended words about a better, kinder politics that things will quickly revert to normal -such is the way of humanity. I hope that Christians in politics will seek to model a different way of doing things.