Political discourse is being dragged into the gutter

The i, Friday 17 June 2016

The week started horribly with the murder of 49 people in a gay nightclub in Florida. It is ending with the almost unbelievable news that a brilliant young Labour MP, Jo Cox, has been murdered in her constituency in Yorkshire.

There was no warning of the news, which was broadcast live on TV and radio channels and shocked millions of people. Horrific accounts of the attack had already emerged from eyewitnesses, who described how the MP was dragged by the hair, shot three times and stabbed with a foot-long knife. In the hours afterwards, her condition was described as critical, but Acting Chief Constable Dee Collins of West Yorkshire Police said that the MP had been pronounced dead at the scene. A 77-year-old man was treated for injuries sustained in the attack but they are not life-threatening.

The death of Jo Cox is a tragedy of unimaginable proportions for her family, most of all, but also for her friends and supporters in the Labour Party. It was clear yesterday that admiration for her passion and dedication crossed party lines, with Tory, Lib Dem, SNP and Green MPs paying heartfelt tributes. She had been an MP for little more than a year, after previously working as Oxfam’s head of global policy, and her tireless advocacy on behalf of Syrian civilians was widely admired.

Politicians always face some degree of risk. Six years ago Stephen Timms, a Labour MP in east London, was almost killed by an Islamist extremist, Roshonara Choudhry, who stabbed him twice in the abdomen with a kitchen knife. She had been radicalised by watching online sermons by the notorious Islamist imam, Anwar al-Awlaki, and claimed she attacked Timms because he voted in favour of the Iraq war. Choudhry was convicted of attempted murder and sentenced to life, with a minimum term of 15 years.

Ten years earlier a Liberal Democrat MP, Nigel Jones, was attacked in his constituency office in Cheltenham by Robert Ashman, who was armed with a sword. Ashman killed Jones’s aide, Andrew Pennington, who bravely tried to restrain him. He was charged with manslaughter and attempted murder, found unfit to stand trial and detained in Broadmoor. He eventually stood trial in 2003, when he admitted manslaughter and was convicted of attempted murder.

It is impossible to protect every single politician all of the time, especially in democracies where meeting strangers is part of the job. In 2011 an Arizona congresswoman, Gabrielle Giffords, was shot in the head as she met constituents outside a supermarket in Tucson. Giffords survived with terrible brain injuries, while her assailant went on to kill six other people.

But we have now had two murderous attacks on British MPs in six years, and it has happened at a moment when political discourse has become more personal, bullying and rancorous than anything I can remember. Populist politicians provide a daily diet of sensationalist soundbites, creating an atmosphere of fear, hatred and anxiety. In the US, the presumptive Republican presidential candidate, Donald Trump, has demonised vulnerable minorities and exploited base human instincts.

In the UK, there is a peculiarly nasty element to this development, which is an apparent normalisation of the most grotesque misogyny. Last month the Labour MP Jess Phillips received 600 abusive tweets in a single evening, including numerous rape threats, after she launched a campaign against online bullying. Female MPs who complain about being threatened with sexual violence are frequently told to “man up”, as though being exposed to strangers’ rape fantasies is just part of the job.

They’re also told that people who spit venom on the internet don’t pose a threat in real life. Yet threats against politicians and other people in public life are now so common that the authors are likely to be a diverse group, ranging from keyboard warriors to individuals who are seriously disturbed.

We do not yet know the motive for the attack on Ms Cox, and I am cautious about claims her assailant shouted “Britain First” during the assault. The chief constable confirmed a man had been arrested but gave no further details about him. She said the attack appeared to be the work of one person and no one else is being sought in connection with the murder.

But it should be blindingly obvious that an atmosphere rank with misanthropy, distrust and the worst kind of populism risks dehumanising decent people, including the vast majority of MPs. The value of human life has seldom been so low, as we can see from an internet awash with decapitation and murder videos; I have worried for some time about the impact of all this not just on people with grievances, real or imagined, but individuals who are mentally ill.

In December last year, a man with a history of mental illness tried to cut the throat of a complete stranger at an east London tube station, claiming he was avenging his Syrian “brothers”. Such attacks are a relatively new phenomenon, and something in our culture is facilitating them.

The ability to disagree in a civilised manner, without demonising opponents, is being lost as political discourse is dragged into the gutter. What is at risk here is not just luminous individuals like Jo Cox, whose murder is nothing short of a national tragedy. It is an attack on democracy itself.

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