Jo Cox birthday memorial, photography by Garry Knight (Wikimedia Commons)
British politics has been an industrial-sized dustbin for some time. But this week at Westminster has moved it from landfill-worthy to straight up gutter.
Our embarrassing political reality is a source of both ridicule and pity for the rest of the world. Explaining the day-to-day of the UK’s political soap opera – where the recurring characters change frequently and the script has way too many cliffhangers – is always exhausting. But this week reached a subterranean low, when the murder of an MP was used by our (unelected) Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, to justify a no-deal Brexit and shirk responsibility for his use of incendiary language.
On Wednesday, Labour MP Paula Sherriff made a moving speech in the House of Commons, calling on Boris to stop using agitiational language and terms such as “surrender”, “betrayal”, and “traitor” when discussing Brexit and the bill tabled to take “no-deal” off the table. This language has been used in death threats sent to pro-Remain MPs, particularly women and ethnic minorities. Boris responded by dismissing her statement as “humbug” and told Labour’s Tracy Brabin, the MP elected to the late Jo Cox’s seat after she was murdered by a far-right extremist, that the best way to honour Jo was “to get Brexit done”.
“Different variations of the Conservative governments have made it obvious that the lives of ordinary people do not matter. The Grenfell Tower fire, the anti-immigrant Leave campaign and the Windrush Scandal made this clear enough”
This is a new level of gutter politics. Different variations of the Conservative governments have made it obvious that the lives of ordinary people do not matter. The Grenfell Tower fire, the anti-immigrant Leave campaign and the Windrush Scandal made this clear enough. In one way or another, many of us have been cast as worthy collateral damage for the “greater goals” of austerity, the hostile environment or “Leave means Leave”. But to be dismissive of threats to the life of elected representatives and weaponising rhetoric that puts them at risk for your own ends, shows us that no one is protected.
We all know words matter, even Boris. In her speech, Paula Sherrif tried to appeal to his sense of decency, shame or integrity. Her mistake was assuming he has any.
“It’s no secret that women and ethnic minorities are at increased threat if they dare to enter public life and have opinions”
Because it’s no secret that women and ethnic minorities are at increased threat if they dare to enter public life and have opinions. A plot to murder West Lancashire MP Rosie Cooper in 2017 was foiled by Robbie Mullen and Hope Not Hate – the fact that this was not foiled by the police does not inspire confidence.
MPs such as Jess Phillips, Stella Creasy, Dawn Butler, David Lammy and Diane Abbott are targets of sustained abuse and death threats. And if you happen to be both a woman and a minority, you are punished on both fronts accordingly. Research by Amnesty International found that black women were 84% more likely to be mentioned in abusive tweets than white women. The shadow home secretary, Diane Abbott, received almost half of all the abusive tweets sent to female MPs in the run-up to the 2017 general election.
The threat of violence is palpable. On Thursday, a man was arrested outside the constituency office of Jess Phillips, Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley, who was smacking on her window shouting “fascist”. An email she forwarded to the police read, “Unless you change your attitude, be afraid, be very afraid… wherever you are, keep looking over your shoulder. The person standing behind you may not be friendly. You and your Remain friends have been warned.” In parliament, she shared that she’s received death threats that mention and quote Boris Johnson directly.
“Boris uses language regardless of who it endangers because it activates his base”
Boris uses language regardless of who it endangers because it activates his base. A voter base that hears the terms “Humiliation Act” and “Capitulation Act” and is stirred. A base that still sees Britain through an Imperial lens – a Britain that owned “a third of the world” and painted the map pink. A Britain that was victorious even in its “darkest hour”. A Britain that is, and always has been, a myth. The very real loss of global power, hegemony and supremacy in a globalised economy is conflated with the battle to Leave or Remain in the European Union.
Boris doesn’t care who is put at risk to achieve his goal – a general election in which he wins a majority, however slim that may be – as long as it’s not a risk unto himself. To him, we’re all collateral. Only now, even his fellow members’ lives are disposable.