The UK General Election 2019 was branded as one of the most ‘toxic’ in modern constitutional history. Putting to one side the issue of Brexit, ‘trust’ and ‘respect’ are two of the most prominent buzz-words that were debated last year.


First published in January 2020.


Following the tragic politically motivated murder of Jo Cox in 2016, there was recognition that the nature of politics within the United Kingdom had to change, and lessons had to be learnt. Politicians recognised that divisiveness, threats, vile language and constant bickering had to end.

Yet in 2019, Prime Minister Boris Johnson was accused of stirring up hatred and violence again. For example, by using ‘war-like’ language in reference to ‘traitors’ and ‘betrayals’ from Members of Parliament who tabled a legislative amendment- which he branded a ‘Surrender Act.’ In the Prime Minister’s opinion, such was fundamentally against what was in Britain’s interest, and would have seen a continued loss of UK sovereignty to the European Union, in being a ‘rule taker’ rather than a ‘rule maker.’

When challenged on the divisiveness and aggressiveness of his language within the House of Commons, and how such was fuelling violence within the country similar to that seen in 2016, the Prime Minister told MPs that their concerns were “humbug;” and that the best way to honour Jo Cox’s memory was to “get Brexit done.”

The press have similarly reported how the Prime Minister has called homosexual males ‘tank-topped bum boys’; black people ‘piccaninnies’ with ‘watermelon smiles’; and likened Muslim women to ‘letterboxes’ or ‘bank robbers.’

Surprisingly, despite calls to restrain his language, the Prime Minister has only been willing to apologise for some of these comments (even during the election period). Some former Ministers from his own Conservative political party go as far as to say that Number 10 is seeking to ape Donald Trump’s politics of division ‘tactics and language.’

Similarly, the Leader of the Opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, has been condemned for his failure to address anti-Semitism within his own Labour political party. He has similarly been criticised for not apologising quickly enough for his historical comments that Hamas and Hezbollah were his ‘friends.’

WHY POLITICAL LANGUAGE IS IMPORTANT

The politics of division within the UK has been a toxic development ever since the Brexit referendum. The use of confrontational and extreme language has become more commonplace amongst political infighting.

Nonetheless, we should remember that the key tenets of parliamentary sovereignty confirm that a key function of the UK Parliament is to hold the Executive to account, in counter-acting against an arbitrary Government. This working relationship, between the Parliament and Government, has been re-affirmed within the Supreme Court’s Miller II judgment in 2019.

Which leads to the question of the constitutional role of the judiciary within the UK. A key foundation conception of Professor Albert Dicey’s Rule of Law, is that it is the role of the judiciary to uphold and apply the rights of individual citizens when challenged by the power of the ‘State’. This is a principle that was repeatedly referenced during the Miller I and Miller II Supreme Court cases.

Ironically, the consequences of such judgments, contrary to the purpose and intention of parliamentary sovereignty and the Rule of Law, was that parliamentarians were called rebels; High Court judges were branded ‘Enemies of the People;’ and the Supreme Court Justices’ traitors, in causing ‘constitutional chaos’ by deciding that the prorogation of Parliament was unlawful.

Political language matters. The aforementioned comments from political leaders provided the background context, and set the tone, for these criticisms and attacks. The use of divisive language, that promotes violence, has pathed the way for both parliamentarians and the judiciary to become targets of hatred by some sectors of the press and, inevitably, some members of the public. Ironically, the very two arms of the State (the legislature and the judiciary) that exist to promote citizen’s rights and liberties; ensure equality before the law; fairness, and democracy, are the same two arms who have been accused of being traitors and enemies of the people. Care and diligence is needed in 2020 to remedy the nature of political debate within the UK.

THE CONSEQUENCES OF POLITICAL DIVISIVENESS

The question therefore becomes: ‘Do words have consequences?’

The evidence suggests ‘absolutely yes’ within the context of political expression.

For example, independent studies in September 2019 reported that Islamophobic incidents rose by 375% after Boris Johnson compared Muslim women to ‘letterboxes.’

Similarly, whilst national newspapers have branded some MPs in the last Parliament as rebels, mutineers, and traitors for dissenting against Brexit legislation, some members of the public have acted upon such by sending hate mail, violent social media messages, and even rape and death threats to such MPs and their families. These messages of hate have been aimed at individuals across the political spectrum.

For example, former Member of Parliament Anna Soubry, who regularly appeared on the front pages of national papers as one of the rebels, received several death threats in 2019, and was told that she would be the next Member of Parliament to die after Jo Cox. Last year she reported how, following the messages of hate she received, she felt unsafe to return to her home. Similar threats were received by both her mother and her husband.

Whilst criminal prosecutions have now followed these specific incidents against Anna Soubry, the state of politics within the UK urgently needs to be appraised.

Trust in some sectors of the political classes has eroded. Fuelling such divisiveness, through political language has been a key contributor to hate crime, and the toxicity of the General Election the UK fought in 2019. Particularly in empowering some members of the public to feel it is permissible to write extreme and violent messages to political candidates on social media.

FIXING BROKEN POLITICS

The question then becomes, in 2020, how does the UK fix its broken politics problem.

First and foremost, there needs to be greater recognition of the criminality of the actions that have been perpetrated against parliamentarians and political candidates. Part and parcel with such is the need for tighter policing of social media, particularly in terms of hate crime.

Of course, one has to be mindful of the fine-line between the constitutionally protected right to freedom of expression and respecting differences of opinion. However, when such crosses the line and becomes abusive, such needs to be condemned.

Secondly, there needs to be cross-party support and recognition that the nature of politics within the UK needs to change. Respect for differences in political opinion, rather than personal character assassination attempts, is interlinked with the question of the maturity and sophistication in the language that is being used during debates.

Finally, we need to be concerned with the human rights and liberties of those who put themselves forward for political office within elections. Of course there is a very high level of legal protection for freedom of expression during election periods, and rightly so. As recognised by the Equality and Human Rights Commission: “Any interference with this right must be exceptional and subject to the strict limitations set out in human rights law. Within election periods, the law permits candidates to offend others during election periods.” It is constitutionally proper that there should be vigorous debates about controversial matters, particularly during General Elections.

However, it is similarly important to note that the right to freedom of expression does not justify incitement to racial or religious violence or hatred, or other unlawful acts. Put simply, the right to freedom of expression cannot, and must not, become a guise for criminality at the expense of the rights and freedoms of parliamentarians and political candidates.

Post the General Election 2019, these matters need to be urgently revisited, as failing to do so could be viewed as an affront to democracy itself.

Of course some will argue that if you put yourself forward for public office you open yourself to public scrutiny, and political candidates should know such when they put their names forward for nomination. And, of course, being subject to public scrutiny is an important feature of a democratic society.

However, such should not be mistaken as a synonym for opening yourself for personal attack or abuse. Neither should such be taken to mean that the candidates’ family are part of that scrutiny process.

In a democracy where differences in political opinion are silenced through fear of being personally intimidated and subject to violence, either online or in person, such has the potential to shoot-down opposing voices and deter candidates from putting themselves forward for public office. Failing to revisit these issues in the UK post the General Election in 2019 could have a detrimental effect on the diversity of the political candidates who put themselves forward for consideration, through fear of falling into one of the targeted groups of the toxic politics of divisiveness.🔷


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[This is an original piece, first published by the author in PoliticsMeansPolitics.com on 6 January 2020. | The author writes in a personal capacity.]

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THE AUTHOR

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Lecturer in Constitutional and Administrative Law, and Public Procurement, Law, Bangor University. Legal Research Officer to the Institute for Competition and Procurement Studies (ICPS).

Bangor, Wales, UK. Articles in PMP Magazine Website