Friday, June 17, 2016

Politics must go on - but let us make it kinder

Today, the campaigns have been suspended, and politics is in mourning.  The horrific murder of Jo Cox MP stunned Westminster and brought the frenetic circus of referendum activity to a sudden halt.  As tributes are paid to a genuinely respected and much-loved colleague, wife and mother, politicians from all parties and both sides of the EU debate are united in sorrow and sympathy. Differences are set aside.

This will not last.  After a respectful pause, the campaigns will start up again.  With less than a week to go until polling day, there is a big decision to be made on the EU, and politics must go on.  After that, there will be other campaigns, other elections.  Despite this brutal attack our democracy endures, and politicians will go on working hard to fight for the causes they believe in and to serve those they represent, as Jo Cox did.  That is only right. 

But perhaps we can use this pause in political hostilities to reflect more deeply.  Already, in the aftermath of the tragedy, we have seen a wave of sympathy and appreciation directed at MPs in general for the work that they do.  The hashtag #ThankYourMP became a trend on Twitter, as people took the opportunity to express a gratitude too rarely seen nowadays for those in public life, who are more often denigrated, insulted and abused.  

There is certainly a problem of a lack of respect for our MPs and those derided as 'the political classes'.  Michael Deacon of the Telegraph, a Parliamentary sketch-writer whose job is to poke fun at them, has written a commendable piece arguing that the demonisation has gone too far.  As he writes: 

'Public discourse about politicians is becoming ugly. It’s one thing to be critical of a specific MP’s language, or their actions, or a party’s policies. But it’s quite another to wish a plague on all their houses, to snort that they’re “all the same”, that they’re “only in it for themselves”. I’m tired of hearing about “the elites” and “the establishment”, “the bubble” and “the political class”, nasty little phrases that dehumanise the individual, encourage brainless paranoia, poison us with suspicion – and provoke some to hate. We aren’t ruled by a cabal of the evil, greedy and callous. We’re served by human beings who make mistakes, and get no end of grief even when they don’t.'

Amen to that.  What is too often lacking is a sense of perspective, and generosity of spirit.  Of course MPs make mistakes - they are human, after all.  And of course they often take decisions with which we will fundamentally and passionately disagree- that is their job, and is in the nature of politics.  We get to pass judgement in the ballot box at election time, and enjoy freedom of speech to debate and argue with them between elections.  We can do so vociferously and with feeling.  But is it really necessary to impugn their personal motives, call them liars and cheats, and claim they are acting from cynical and selfish motives?  Does that help encourage other good people to enter public service?

So yes, we should be more appreciative of our MPs and other elected representatives, and the fact the vast majority of them are dedicated, hard-working people trying to do their best in an often impossibly difficult job. I hope the outpouring of such a sentiment in the wake of yesterday's dreadful tragedy might have some lasting impact on how people think about their politicians.

But being more appreciative of our politicians as voters is just one part of this.  Those of us engaged in politics ourselves have a responsibility to be more respectful of each other, too.  There is far too much personal vitriol and nastiness in our current discourse, which has troubled me for some time. Two years ago I wrote a blogpost here about the need for us all to try and be a bit kinder to each other in general.  Some would say it was naive piece of simplistic sentiment, but I stand by it more today than ever.  As I wrote then:

'Passions inevitably rise high in politics - as they should on issues of importance where deeply-held convictions are at stake.  But even fundamental disagreements don't have to spill over into personal animosity.  There are too many people in politics willing to demonise their opponents and slur their motives, rather than their policy.  "Tory scum";  "Evil socialists" - derogatory prejudice that we would abhor if based on religion or ethnicity are tolerated too often in the underlying culture of political discourse.  The main parties' messaging can too often slip into personal attack mode, refusing to concede an opponent could possibly be well-meaning if their favoured solutions differs from their own.'

As politicians we need to consider how personal abuse undermines our own claim for the respect of others.  Is it surprising that voters resort to calling us liars and selfish cheats if that is what they hear us say of each other?  The EU referendum campaign had already become an unpleasant mud-slinging contest that has debased the currency of debate on both sides, as even one battle-hardened former colleague of mine has eloquently written.     

Negativity begets negativity in a downward spiral towards ever-greater mutual distrust, and hatred.  If we feed it as politicians or as voters, we will reap the backlash in the form of increasing division in society and rising extremism of all sorts.  Yesterday, just hours before Jo Cox was attacked, Nigel Farage stood before a repulsively crude anti-immigrant poster that was roundly condemned as racist and akin to Nazi propaganda of the 1930s.  That should have no place in mainstream debate, whatever your view on the EU - but nor should it tempt us into intemperate abuse of the many decent Leave supporters.

We need to break the cycle of negativity.  In his unbearably moving statement yesterday, Jo Cox's husband Brendan wrote of how he thought she would want people to react to her death.  He said her wish would be 'that we all unite to fight against the hatred that killed her.'  To do that, we should start by draining the vitriol and poison from our politics.  

So yes, the campaign busses will roll again, and politics will go on.  Slogans will be exchanged, and arguments made.  But before that happens, let us pause to reflect on how we treat each other, as politicians and voters. Let us remember how the brutal murder of an honourable and good-hearted politician made us feel.  And let us resolve to be kinder.

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