Fixing "Broken Politics" within the United Kingdom: Lessons from the "Toxic" General Election 2019

This article by Stephen Clear, Lecturer in Constitutional and Administrative Law, at Bangor Law School was published here on the day of the UK General Election, 12th December 2019.

The UK General Election 2019 has been 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 have been consistently debated in December.

Following the tragic and callous, 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.” 

Prime Minister Boris Johnson being accused of fuelling divisiveness and aggression via his use of language within the House of Commons in 2019.

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).

Boris Johnson apologising for his comments made about Muslim women during the General Election 2019.

Today, 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.

Criticism of Jeremy Corbyn over his response to anti-Semitism within the Labour Party.

He has similarly been criticised for not apologising quick enough for his historical comments that Hamas and Hezbollah were his ‘friends.’

why is political language important?

The politics of division within the UK has been a toxic development ever since the Brexit referendum.

How Brexit has fuelled toxicity within UK politics.

Constitutional lawyers are reminded of the key tenets of parliamentary sovereignty that confirm that the fundamental purpose of the UK Parliament is to represent their constituencies and the democratic will of the people. The role of the legislature is to hold the Executive arm of the State to account, in counter-acting against an arbitrary Government. Such a constitutional principle, and the relationship between the UK Parliament and the UK Government, has since been re-affirmed within the Supreme Court’s Miller II judgment of this year. 

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.

The consequences of such, contrary to the purpose and intention of the Rule of Law, was that High Court judges were branded’ ‘Enemies of the People’ by the press, and the Supreme Court Justices’ traitors, in causing ‘constitutional chaos’ by deciding that the prorogation of Parliament was unlawful.

Care and diligence in the language used by politicians is important, as it sets the tone for further debate and criticism of the other institutions of the State.

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 both the press and public at large.

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 are being accused of being traitors and enemies of the people. 

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.  

The online abuse of Members of Parliament.

For example, Anna Soubry MP, 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. This year she reported how, following the messages of hate she received, she felt unsafe to return to her home. Similar messages of threat 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 has 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, after the General Election, 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. 

Got a question about this blog post? email s.clear@bangor.ac.uk. The images on this post are taken from Pexels (who offer licence free photos, for use without accreditation, for further information see: http://www.pexels.com).

Published on the 12th December 2019

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