In the week where Remain-supporting Conservative MP Anna Soubry was branded a Nazi by protestors outside parliament, and left-wing commentator Owen Jones was followed and harassed by far-right demonstrators at Leave Means Leave protests, there is a growing sense of disquiet around how differing expressions of opinion are met within this juncture in British politics.
The Labour MP for Kensington Emma Dent Coad has described her fears around the state of political rhetoric and the threat of far-right intimidation of parliamentarians in the late stages of the Brexit process.
When asked about instructions given on Monday to MPs to avoid media interviews on the parliamentary estate, Ms Dent Coad said: “It is very frightening. I am very happy to be lobbied, I will always talk to people who are passionate, even angry, but if it goes to that personal level then it does get very difficult.”
“I’ve had a lot of abuse about all kinds of things that I’ve said. I think I should be able to have a different opinion to some people without getting death threats,” she continued.
She suggested that both the press and politicians have fanned the flames of the debate, and specifically noted that MPs have failed in setting a standard of good discourse in the House of Commons. Ms Dent Coad revealed: “I’ve seen MPs make fun of how people speak, not just once, but over and over again making fun of people’s accents in the House, and that’s absolutely shocking, because that means anyone can make fun of how anyone speaks now.”
For her, the increasingly abrasive language of parliamentarians has allowed an inflamed public argument around Brexit.
Ms Dent Coad spoke of the responsibility of politicians to create a dialogue around Brexit which transcends bitterness. She said: “Particularly as politicians, we should be able to set the standard for having reasonable, healthy debate however passionate without it descending into visceral hatred and personal attack.”
The MP describes a toxic atmosphere around Brexit, and notes that racist expression has been aggravated since 2016. She said: “Around the referendum, we had a lot of race hate on the street which I personally witnessed that I hadn’t seen before. Whilst that died down a bit, it hasn’t gone away. We haven’t got back to where we were, which was a better acceptance of difference and of who we all are. That has changed.”
Zac Goldsmith, a former Conservative mayoral candidate for London and the MP for Richmond Park, has been sharply critical of far-right attacks on MPs outside parliament. He said: “Threatening people like Anna Soubry or Nadine Dorries because you disagree with their views is utterly repugnant. Intimidation should have no place in our politics and protestors, as well as the commentators who urge them on, need to grow up.”
However, with regard to Owen Jones, Goldsmith was less sympathetic. He argued: “Owen Jones himself has often urged his supporters to ‘hound’ MPs he disagrees with ‘wherever they go’, so perhaps now he has been targeted, he will reconsider his own malignant approach to politics.”
In response to Goldsmith’s critique of Jones, Ms Dent Coad identified a hypocrisy in the MP’s language. She said: “I think Zac Goldsmith needs to really, really take a good hard long look at himself in the mirror, because he made some terrible comments in the last mayoral elections. He needs to have a good hard think about how he reacts to people.”
Ms Dent Coad is chiefly afraid of the physical intimidation visited on Jones by protestors, filmed and broadcast on his Twitter feed. She said: “There’s a difference between lobbying, debate, and harassment. What I saw in the film Owen made was him being physically harassed, and that’s frightening, because it only takes one person who gets whipped up into a frenzy, it just takes one person to throw that punch and that can be it.”
On the topic of a much-discussed People’s Vote, and its potential to resolve the tensions of the current public debate, the Labour MP was not optimistic. She said: “I’m really very afraid because I really do remember seeing that hideous racism on the streets. I don’t think the mainstream media would hold back during a second referendum and say, ‘Let’s just have a political debate here, let’s not whip up racism, let’s just leave that this time, shall we?’.
“I don’t think that could possibly happen. I think it will be even more divisive and difficult. If this is what people want at the end of this process, we have to look at it. But I don’t think it would pass off peacefully, neither do I think we would get the better result, and we wouldn’t get a Remain result, which is also quite frightening.”
Ms Dent Coad has a personal interest in the worsening of rhetoric and the threat of violence against parliamentarians. She said: “Not everybody knows this, but my three-times great-grandfather Spencer Percival was Prime Minister in 1812; he wasn’t a popular Prime Minister. He had a longstanding debate and correspondence with someone who felt that the Prime Minister wasn’t responding.
“One day in 1812 John Bellingham came into the lobby, accosted the Prime Minister and shot him dead.”
Reflecting finally on the atmosphere in Westminster since the referendum, Ms Dent Coad described her sense of foreboding. “It’s a very frightening time. Despite all the security that we have now, a policeman lost his life during an attack and Jo Cox lost her life,” she said.
Met Operations’ deputy assistant commissioner, Laurence Taylor, said: “An ongoing policing operation at the Parliamentary estate around Brexit continues and we have an appropriate policing plan in place. Our role is to facilitate peaceful protest and balance the needs and rights of all those present, including protestors, MPs and members of the public.”