David Amess: Do we need to cool the temperature of political debate?

The shocking death of Sir David Amess MP has reignited the debate about how best to ensure the safety of elected representatives and others in public office. That phrase, public office, is critically important to those that elect to run for election and then serve as MPs and councillors. But being public can also be dangerous.

The police have declared yesterday’s stabbing a terrorist incident. That does not mean we should ignore the growing abuse and antagonism between the public and politicians at all levels and between politicians in the House of Commons and elsewhere.

PMQs has become ever more gladiatorial, with media pundits declaring winners and losers.

But should political debate be conducted at a feverish temperature, more about point scoring and tribal loyalties than getting the right things done for our country and its citizens.

Contest and challenge are central to political discourse and our political system. It is the job of opposition parties to challenge the administration, presenting different ideas and perspectives, and to halt or modify the plans of the leaders of the day.

But there is a consensus that the language of politics has become more hostile. More abusive. And more tribal.

Quoted in the FT, the former Labour home secretary Jacqui Smith and chair of the Jo Cox Foundation said attacks against parliamentarians undermined the ability of constituents to come to their MPs with their local concerns one of the cornerstones of British democracy:

“Online abuse tipped easily into real-life attacks and terrorism. That’s the responsibility that everybody has, to think about the way they talk about and describe politicians.”

The FT also reports that Nigel Jones, former Lib Dem MP for Cheltenham, who was severely injured after being attacked in his constituency office by a man with a sword in 2000, said more security lessons should have been learned from previous attacks. Local councillor Andrew Pennington died in that attack.

Although the police have declared yesterday’s stabbing a terrorist attack, attention now is not just on the safety of MPs but also the growing use of aggressive language by politicians and the public.

Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner infamously told a fringe event at the Labour Conference in September:

“We cannot get any worse than a bunch of scum, homophobic, racist, misogynistic, absolute vile … banana republic, vile, nasty, Etonian … piece of scum”.

She was of course referring to the Conservatives. Her sympathetic comment on yesterday’s horror has inevitably come in for criticism.

James Gray, Conservative MP North Wiltshire suggested that a bomb should be planted in the office of Anneliese Dodds, the Labour party chair. Apparently, it was a joke. Dodds responded:

“I think all parliamentarians should be committed to ensuring that everyone can be involved in public life without any fear of intimidation or violence.”

I think we can all agree with that.

The media has had its role in poisoning the debate. Just one example is the Daily Mail’s “Enemies of the People” headline of 2016 vilifying supreme court judges.

Social media has had a role to play too. Quick fire, barely considered comments, expressing a reaction but not a considered political or public position. Some councillors have found the burden intolerable.

The problem of political aggression is not unique to Britain. Donald Trump’s belligerent language is widely believed to have led to the storming of Capitol Hill on 6 January.

Many of you will have views on yesterday’s tragedy, what it says about politics now and its implications. The editors of LDV request that there is no speculation on the circumstances of yesterday but that we begin (or rather continue) the debate on the safety of those in public office and the language and temperature of political debate.

* Andy Boddington is a Lib Dem councillor in Shropshire. He blogs at andybodders.co.uk.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Brad Barrows 16th Oct '21 - 11:19am

    I do worry that some in the mainstream media, and not just on social media, could and should have been charged with incitement for some of the things they have printed. For example, in 2017 the Telegraph ran an article with the headline “Sturgeon is a liar and a traitor – off with her head”. They later changed the headline but, to my knowledge, there was no police investigation. Maybe it will take more robust policing to ensure newspapers and others do not cross the line from fair comment/opinion to incitement.

  • Jane Ann Liston 16th Oct '21 - 11:33am

    The question has to be asked, if comments such as ‘they’re all the same’, ‘they’re all in it for themselves’, ‘snouts in the trough’ and even ‘F*** the Tories’ have contributed to the dehumanising of politicians in general whereby this sort of outrage is facilitated.

  • Good to see this kind of discussion happening. We certainly do need to turn down the venom in politics. To my mind, the starting point has to be a recognition that people who disagree with us are just that – people who have different opinions or beliefs. And those different opinions doesn’t make them any less human or less worthy of respect.

    @Jane-Ann Liston males a good point about comment like ‘‘snouts in the trough’. Other related tropes I’d throw in here would be things like the Tories ‘trying to destroy the health service’ or ‘using culture wars to divide us’ (in both cases with an implied, unstated, ‘deliberately’): The problem with these kinds of attacks is that they presume bad motives by the people they are attacking, rather than recognising that there are genuine disagreements. These kinds of attacks are more subtle than simply calling people ‘scum’ but in the long run, I think they are just as toxic.

    As the most centrist party, the LibDems ought to be in a good position to speak out against this toxification of politics, and to stand up for moderation and for listening to all points of view, but that does also require the leadership and LibDem MPs to start being a lot more careful about the language they use when they criticise other parties. My own sense is that most of the toxicity in language right at the moment is coming from Labour, but neither the Tories nor the LibDems are blame-free.

  • Andrew Melmoth 16th Oct '21 - 1:51pm

    We all know what will happen. Politicians will temper their language for a short period but then things will go back to how they have been for the last few years. After all, that ‘Enemies of the People’ headline ran only months after Jo Cox was murdered. The person who wrote it went to work for Theresa May weeks later.
    Our politics has become deeply infected with populism. The populist style of politics is predicated on the identification of enemies and the stoking of anger and division. And as we saw with Cumming’s “People against Parliament” election strategy in 2019 it is a style of politics with a broad constituency. Sadly we have developed a toxic political culture because it suits the agendas of certain people in politics and media. I don’t see things getting better any time soon.

  • John Marriott 16th Oct '21 - 3:06pm

    Next week I believe that BBC Two is running a ‘fly on the wall’ documentary about the storming of the Capitol in Washington DC last January. It promises to be compulsive viewing. That’s what happens when compromise takes a back seat. Those of you who are quite prepared to give your political opponents a good kicking in written form on sites like LDV might think of watching it to see what happens people take entrenched positions.

    As I have written before, I really do believe that social media has in many way S been the catalyst for many of the horrendous events we have witnessed in recent years. I agree with ‘Simon R’ that the Lib Dems ought to be a moderating influence. The trouble is that many more active members seem to prefer confrontation to cooperation.

  • Jenny Barnes 16th Oct '21 - 3:37pm

    “these kinds of attacks is that they presume bad motives by the people they are attacking, rather than recognising that there are genuine disagreements.”

    You don’t have to assume bad motives. It’s more likely that the actions in question are for political or financial gain. For example, it’s hard to disagree that the Serco Test & Trace system contract was awarded to one of Hancock’s buddies, has been remarkably ineffective, and cost a huge amount of money. And to add insult to injury was badgedas the “NHS” system. If that £37 Billion had been given direct to then NHS I would argue that they would have saved more lives with it.

    Culture wars – those going on about statues etc may genuinely believe it matters, but again, it seems to me that it’s about firing up a cohort of people who think it’s all “woke” nonsense – which used to be “it’s political correctness gone mad”

  • Peter Chambers 16th Oct '21 - 8:44pm

    @Jenny Barnes

    Quite right. When the Investors have given their orders, political actors have the choice of complying or returning to the back benches. Ask Mrs May. We have entered a phase of politics characterised by ‘winner takes all’. With a poll rating of less than 10% we are not winners.

  • Michael Bukola 17th Oct '21 - 1:39am

    We must show courage in our convictions. What is our purpose if not to protect the vulnerable and safeguard everyone’s human rights. If the Party’s much heralded ‘fight back’ slogan is to avoid fighting back against its former voters, working against the logic of the electoral system, or to not act as a mere rallying call aiming to distract the public from our recent mistakes, then the Party must accept the key dilemma of having to ‘pick a side’. Liberal Democrats who still think centrism can take the Party to success hold a paradoxical stance where their preference over the Party’s positioning is incompatible with it achieving a General Election breakthrough.

  • Nonconformistradical 17th Oct '21 - 7:26am

    @Jenny Barnes
    “Culture wars – those going on about statues etc may genuinely believe it matters, but again, it seems to me that it’s about firing up a cohort of people who think it’s all “woke” nonsense – which used to be “it’s political correctness gone mad””

    Shouldn’t we call out such people for apparently wishing to preserve incomplete history? i.e. apparently wishing to continue covering up part of the history of supposed national heroes who maybe (if e.g. they were slave traders) weren’t so heroic after all?

  • An example of where the tone of debate was overheated was Brexit, in particular those people predicting or calling for “civil unrest” or riots if the outcome of the non-binding referendum was not delivered. This created a hostile atmosphere which led to some people feeling intimidated just for standing up for what they believed in. It was irresponsible that politicians on all sides weren’t prepared to condemn those attitudes.

  • I at last recognise that I do not fit in with the ideas that underpin our political system. In my time as a councillor and also as a trade union lay officer I met few if any people who really believed in it.
    I believe the rather obvious idea, to me a fact, that humans consist of individual people, each with a variety of ideas which they draw from their own life experiences. To me and I may say that of most people I meet, the system does not and cannot represent them.
    The occasional, fortunately rare, expressions of extreme hostility we need to take very seriously. This should not be done by using it as an opportunity to push our own prejudices but to find out the facts after a thorough investigation by those trained to do it. We need a proper discussion at that time.
    The broader issues which I am only too keen to see discussed should be based I hope on listening to those who do not present themselves as experts as well as those that do.

  • George Thomas 17th Oct '21 - 9:26am

    “Good to see this kind of discussion happening. We certainly do need to turn down the venom in politics.”

    One of the real strengths of our political system is how close politicians can get to people they represent and we absolutely need to cool things down so that i) no one feels or becomes endangered for doing their job and ii) that quality of UK politics remains, but I would like it if discourse about cooling down venom in politics expanded so includes how some policies and decisions brought though are also venomous.

    Considering Zach Goldsmith went from being voted out to lifelong peer (with the financial support that entails while some become heavily and increasingly reliant on foodbanks) and minister that way of standing up to bad politicians doesn’t seem to be working, and FPTP hardly helps either. Then when former special aid to PM is saying that Northern Ireland was played around with in order to win an election… and it does actually work to win that election! May I describe a system which protects and rewards bad governments/bad politicians as venomous as well?

    I’m reminded by the saying for two children arguing that when we point the finger at someone else three fingers are pointing back at us.

    I admit that my point is made better for a less serious event – what has happened should never ever happen and is a real tragedy. I only raised because this post was about discourse and not specifically the events of past few days.

  • John Marriott 17th Oct '21 - 9:41am

    I have banged on about social media for a while. Yes, I email; but I ALWAYS sign off with my real name. However, while you would quite rightly face prosecution if you tried to publish in print some of the drivel that appears on various media platforms, it’s open season for abuse if it only appears on a screen. This has GOT to change. Are you listening, Sir Nick? Now, THAT would be a start.

  • Nonconformistradical 17th Oct '21 - 10:26am
  • I think it’s worth being extremely clear that there is a distinction between headlines like “enemies of the people” and “off with her head” cited above which specifically rely on an explicit or implied threat of violence, and which might contribute to actual acts of violence … and general political disagreement which can include extremely harsh language in criticising your opponents’ policies, motivations and behaviour.

    The political decisions made at Westminster are a literal matter of life and death for everyone in the country, and many beyond it. Around 150,000 are already dead from Covid and that number rises by almost a thousand every week. The government is considering passing legislation to allow its naval forces to break international law with complete domestic impunity when attacking refugees. Our military may on the orders of government drop thousands of bombs on a foreign country. In the ultimate case, Trident may be used to start a nuclear war and wipe out all life on this planet, though people were only particularly enthusiastic about that policy when it came out that Corbyn was opposed to the nuclear apocalypse. People every day live or die based on the decisions made by Parliament and the Government.

    I’m certainly not going to cloak my opinions of whether their policies are good or bad, whether their motivations for those policies are ones I agree or disagree with, in so much fake civility and politeness that you can’t actually tell whether I agree or disagree with them. That doesn’t mean I’m going to stab an MP or that I want anyone else to either. Are Liberals for freedom of speech and expression, or are they for keeping their heads down, not disagreeing too loudly with the government, and being more critical of the precise language used by protestors than the issues they’re protesting about?

  • Stopping shouting in the House of Commons and hearing the member speaking out would be a good starting point mainly for the Tories.

  • Nonconformistradical 17th Oct '21 - 6:01pm

    “Stopping shouting in the House of Commons and hearing the member speaking out would be a good starting point mainly for the Tories.”
    Seconded wholeheartedly.

  • James Fowler 17th Oct '21 - 9:18pm

    Sadly, the murder of an MP has precedents that go beyond David Amess and Jo Cox. The haphazard and personalized nature of those attacks perhaps speaks to our times, just political organised murder was a product of the period that saw the deaths of Ian Gow and Airey Neave. Horrible though these incidents are, I’m not sure if they set any meaningful precedents. ‘O Tempora, O Mores’.

  • David Garlick 18th Oct '21 - 8:38pm

    When truth is in such short supply we will get angry and quite rightly so. Having slept on it we need to calm down and get the truth out there whilst pointing out where the untruth, misspeak, lie(s) came from. Not easy when getting attention is so difficult. The right, honest policies that are needed by us all is a good place to start without smoothing off any edges to please those who may otherwise disagree maybe?

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