The Consequences of Anti-Politics

by Marc Geddes

The killing of Jo Cox on Thursday was a horrific attack on British democracy, which happened in the context of an increasingly bitter and hostile referendum campaign on UK membership of the European Union. Today, this attack overshadows every aspect of British politics, but more broadly it is arguably the extreme tip of an ‘anti-politics’ iceberg that is extending across the western world.

The threat of aggression and physical violence, intrusive behaviour and stalking of elected politicians is not a new phenomenon. In 2001, Nigel Jones MP was attacked with a sword in his constituency office, which killed his colleague, Andrew Pennington. In 2010, Stephen Timms MP was stabbed, though luckily he survived. Throughout the twentieth century, there have also been further organised and politically-motivated attacks against MPs, from groups such as the IRA.

Threats, harassment and violence are not so distant or isolated to particular individuals, either. Twitter trolls have been relentless in their vitriol that includes death and rape threats. Stella Creasy has been extraordinary in her battle against online abuse, and more recently there has been the launch of a cross-party campaign to ‘reclaim the internet’ to tackle growing online misogyny. Together these examples serve to indicate that there is an undercurrent of abuse against our national politicians.

This undercurrent has been established recently through academic studies, too. David James et. al. (2016), for example, point out that 81% of MPs that responded to their research (239) had experienced one form of aggressive/intrusive behaviour or another. They also found that 18% had been subject to an attack or an attempted attack, 42% threats to harm and 22% to property damage. In 53% of cases, experiences met definitions of stalking or harassment. They are part of a ‘common experience’, with psychological effects including personal suffering (fear and vulnerability) and changes to lifestyles (reduced social outings, security precautions, etc.). This research made only few headlines and little seems to have been done to counter these attacks by either authorities or – perhaps more importantly – members of the public.

Politicians have never been loved, nor are they likely to be in the future. Yet this undercurrent of violence would seem to have been fuelled by the strengthening of ‘anti-political’ sentiments across British politics and society for many years. As Matthew Flinders pointed out in his research, MPs have become a demonised group in the UK, regarded as ‘folk devils’ and untrustworthy. We can see this perpetrated every day by the media as much as politicians themselves. Take the Telegraph headline, ‘MPs take another holiday – does anyone have a cushier deal’; or the view that MPs are ‘work-shy’ as they ‘slope off on holiday’ from the Daily Express. Headlines such as these are served to us daily by the media and reinforce the image that politicians of all colours are allegedly lazy, greedy and unworthy of our respect; in reality, of course, MPs are likely to be spending parliamentary recess on constituency service or similar work.

The 2009 MPs’ Expenses Scandal has also significantly (perhaps irrevocably) damaged the reputation of MPs. But there have been few attempts to articulate the fact that most MPs work long hours, face constant pressure and, indeed, have to deal with extensive and daily abuse from most sections of society. Meanwhile, mental health in politics remains a taboo subject, with only a few MPs willing to speak publicly about the subject despite its potentially severe repercussions. This has a significant impact on politicians and their ability to make decisions on behalf of the public, with MPs generally showing higher physical symptoms of stress than the general public. The mental health of politicians has not been widely documented by academia either, but the most recent available research leads Ashley Weinberg (2012) to ask the poignant question (chapter 7): ‘should the job of national politician carry a government health warning?’.

Despite the pressures of being an MPs and the threat of aggression and violence, MPs continue to work hard and continue to fight against the rising tide of ‘anti-politics’. Jo Cox herself serves as a brilliant example of this merely by the fact that she – as most national politicians across the UK – are willing to hold open surgeries without a strong security presence, metal detectors, etc. The rhetoric of anti-politics is that MPs are out-of-touch and part of an elite, inaccessible to the public. Yet here is an example of an MP who was plainly accessible and willing to engage with her constituents (with distressing consequences). Almost every MP is similarly available to contact, many of whom make their locations and personal details public knowledge (such as phone numbers and email addresses), or they have their whereabouts tracked.

The rise of anti-politics is not something that is purely directed against politicians, but part of a broader mentality of an ‘us versus them’ in which sections of society have been pitted against one another, including the presidential campaign in the US and the EU referendum campaign in the UK. This growing anti-politics across the West has legitimised hatred and violence. As Alex Massie summarises in his piece for the Spectator, ‘rhetoric has consequences’.

The murder of Jo Cox is an affront to free speech and an intolerable attack on the ideals of representative democracy. While many have been – rightly – calling for her death not to be politicised, perhaps we should ask ourselves the question: what conditions have allowed her death to happen in the first place?

Please note that the following blog post was originally posted on the Crick Centre blog, and is available here.

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