Nazi. Traitor. Scum. Political debate today

Abuse: Some protesters wear Trump hats and yellow vests (inspired by protests in France).

The insults hurled at politicians outside Parliament this week have been condemned by MPs. But where does the nastiness come from? And when should free speech become a crime?

Tune into the TV news and you will often see journalists standing on College Green — just outside the Houses of Parliament — to report on the day’s political drama. Since Brexit, seemingly permanent news tents have been set up there by mainstream media outlets.

But this week, the park itself became the story.

It started on Monday when the remain-voting Conservative MP Anna Soubry was giving an interview on College Green. She was interrupted by a group of pro-Brexit campaigners who chanted that she was a “Nazi”.

“This is astonishing. This is what has happened to our country,” she said.

Later, protesters surrounded and jostled her as she was making her way back to Parliament, calling her “scum” and a “traitor”.

The incident shocked many, but abuse of politicians is increasingly common — both online and off. Journalists are targeted too; this week The Guardian’s Owen Jones posted a video of himself being followed and called a “liar” and a “traitor”. Kay Burley from Sky News said that “vile, aggressive and intimidating” abuse has forced her to hire security.

A group of 115 MPs wrote a letter urging police to deal with the “deteriorating public order” outside Parliament. In his own letter, House of Commons speaker John Bercow said that the “regular coterie of burly white men” was particularly targeting women and ethnic minorities.

The Metropolitan Police says it is ready to “deal robustly” with any criminal incidents.

But when does protesting become a crime?

The 1986 Public Order Act states that “threatening or abusive words or behaviour, or disorderly behaviour,” can be a crime. Monday’s incident would certainly count as disorderly and abusive.

But Britain also protects free speech and the right to protest through the European Convention on Human Rights. Soubry herself has said she has “no problem with people protesting”. It is a normal and healthy part of democracy.

What is not healthy is when politicians are threatened with violence for their views. In 2016, the Labour MP Jo Cox was murdered by an extremist who used the word “traitors” in court.

Public disorder

How much of this is our fault? It has become normal for politicians, newspapers and social media users to accuse others of betrayal and inhumanity. Social media is designed to create bubbles of people who agree with each other, who are then rewarded for vilifying their enemies. Now some of that abuse is appearing in real life. Are we all complicit?

And what of free speech? The protesters were careful not to physically hurt Soubry. Should words ever be illegal? Is it about the way they are said? What counts as a reasonable protest, and what is simply a crime?

You Decide

  1. Should some speech be illegal?
  2. Does social media make politics better or worse?

Activities

  1. Abuse often comes when people cannot understand their opponent’s point of view. So take one of our You Decide questions to the left — and then challenge yourself by writing an argument for the side you disagree with.
  2. Imagine you have been tasked with writing your country’s free speech laws from scratch. Should some things be banned? If so, what? And where would you draw the line? Write a summary of what you decide.

Some People Say...

“If the freedom of speech is taken away, then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.”

George Washington

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
The incident with Anna Soubry captured attention on Monday, but MPs and journalists report that this particular group of protesters has been causing trouble outside Parliament since December. But anger and abuse towards politicians online have been rising for years. In August last year, a report found that abusive tweets about politicians had more than doubled between 2015 and 2017.
What do we not know?
Whether any of the protesters will be arrested or charged with a crime for abusing Soubry. We also do not know when, or how, political tensions will ease. The UK is due to leave the EU in 78 days, on March 29, but how that will happen is still unclear; MPs are currently debating the withdrawal bill that was negotiated by Prime Minister Theresa May, and will vote next week.

Word Watch

Protesters
At least one has been identified as the far-right campaigner James Goddard. His Facebook page and PayPal account (which crowdfunded his protests) have since been closed down.
Speaker
The MP in charge of running the House of Commons. The position has been held by John Bercow (who is not a member of a political party) since 2009.
Metropolitan Police
London’s police force.
Public Order Act
The act was introduced by Margaret Thatcher’s government after several years of protest and disorder. The most significant incidents involved striking miners fighting with police. The law strengthened police powers to arrest people for rioting and disorder.
European Convention on Human Rights
Article 10 (the right to freedom of expression) and Article 11 (the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and to freedom of association) allow peaceful protests.
Jo Cox
The Labour MP was murdered in June 2016, one week before the EU referendum took place. She was against leaving. In court, her killer declared his name was “death to traitors, freedom for Britain”. He has been jailed for life.