Should politicians be somehow exempt from forthright criticism and abuse by members of the public? They certainly seem to think so, given the recent anger of the political classes over the mocking of Conservative MP Anna Soubry and the piling on of MeTooing politicians and journalists who are all eager to share their tales of being called rude names online. Being a politician or highly paid and influential newspaper columnist is not all gravy, it seems – sometimes, you have to face the vocal (or at least Tweeted) wrath of those who disagree with you. That this is now being hyped as thoroughly unacceptable perhaps says more about how detached they are from the rest of us than any of their previous arrogance ever could.
You might reasonably believe that by default, most – if not practically all – politicians are power-hungry narcissists with a deluded belief in their own importance and infallibility, driven by ego (the idea that they, above all others, have all the answers) and the sort of people who will score highly on the Psychopath Test, which includes such markers as being glib and superficial, insincere and shallow, having a grandiose estimation of self, pathological lying, being cunning and manipulative and having a callous lack of empathy – traits that seem almost like a character sketch of your average MP . You might also believe that our MPs are generally people of little actual ability who mistakenly believe that their elevation to power is somehow due to their own innate talent and charm, rather than being entirely down to the colour of rosette worn in a country still widely driven by generational tribal politics. You might even question why a politician who is elected to represent the people of his or her constituency but who then shamelessly boasts that they would never vote against their party – the political equivalent of ‘my country, right or wrong’ – is surprised to find that people think them unworthy of even the mildest levels of respect. The truth is that these are people who represent everything wrong with society, and (to paraphrase Groucho Marx) that anyone who wants to join their club is almost certainly unsuitable to be a member. In a democratic society, elected politicians are a necessary evil – we need them, but we certainly shouldn’t trust or respect them.
But it seems that we are wrong to hold such cynical views. Apparently, criticising politicians is nothing less than hate speech, and these elected officials, who think nothing of offering us the moon on a stick when they want our votes and then turning around and breaking every promise the minute they gain power, are actually victims, bullied and abused by an ungrateful public. Politicians are delicate little flowers who only want to serve the nation, and certainly don’t deserve the ungracious brickbats of the great unwashed. While they can bray and heckle at each other like spoiled brats in the House of Commons, the rest of us should pipe down and know our place. Who are we to question their superior knowledge of everything or their elevated position in society? Shut up and tug your forelock, peasant.
Anna Soubry is that rarest of things, a Tory Remainer, and has been pretty forthright about her desire to thwart the will of her constituents – at least the 54.6% who voted to leave the EU – by any means possible. Fair enough. That’s her choice and many will admire her for it, especially as she only had a 839 majority at the last election and so is probably not long for Parliament. If there is anything close to high-minded politics, then throwing away your career by alienating your voters is probably it. But of course, not everyone will find her stance to be one of defiant principle, and she should understand that those who believe that she is attempting to undo the democratic will of the very people she is supposed to represent might not feel especially deferential towards her. When she was heckled a couple of weeks ago during a live BBC interview, you might have thought that it would be the least she could expect, given that Brexit seems to bring out the absolute worst in everyone, regardless of how they voted. The assembled masses were heckling her with chants of “Anna Soubry is a Nazi”, which if nothing else shows just how ludicrous a term of abuse ‘Nazi’ has become, used these days to describe anyone who you don’t agree with.
It’s not particularly nice to be called a Nazi, of course, particularly by the far right. But the reaction to this name-calling has been a tad extreme. MPs were quick to condemn this, and the ‘jostling’ she received outside Parliament (and just to be clear: once you engage in physical contact, no matter how mild, you lose the argument immediately). But most of the complaints centered more on the verbal abuse than the physical threat, and demanded that the police step in to arrest the people who were being so unpleasant. Several condemned the ‘misogynistic’ abuse of Soubry, though I was unaware that ‘Nazi’ was a gendered insult, and emphasised how female MPs are regularly singled out for abuse – an unproven claim that is now routinely accepted as fact. The call went out that ‘something must be done’, often accompanied with the weasel words that “I’m not against free speech, but…” from various complainants who then explained how they very much wanted free speech curtailing when it came to criticising MPs.
I have every sympathy for those poor people who have been subjected to internet shaming, false accusations and witch hunts. Lives can be destroyed by internet (and real life) bullying, and I’d happily support moves to make it easier for ordinary people to gain redress against their attackers, be that a levelling of the libel playing fields to make taking action against outrageous lies (often by the powerful and insulated) affordable, while also curtailing the ways the dubiously wealthy use the laws to shut down investigations into their dodgy dealings. But politicians, I believe, should be fair game for almost any insult and attack (verbally, not physically). These are, after all, people who make decisions that affect all of us, and do so for arbitrary and ideological reasons, ignoring research and evidence in favour of personal belief; or to please the cynical campaigns of a mass media ever keen to flex its muscles and set the agenda; or to go with the flow of the party whips, choosing political point scoring over what they actually believe. With little debate and little research beyond confirmation bias, MPs routinely pass laws that see lives and careers destroyed, lying, twisting and exaggerating along the way. They ride the gravy train of expenses and subsidised restaurants – something barely reigned in years after the outrage several years ago – and award themselves whopping pay increases while demanding that the rest of us tighten our belts in the face of rising prices. And they treat their voters like an inconvenience, to be placated with false promises every few years but otherwise viewed with barely concealed contempt. These are, almost to a man and woman, ruthlessly ambitious, arrogant, self-absorbed individuals who only care about their constituents, and the nation as whole, when there is something in it for them.
To suggest that these people need special protection from criticism is outrageous. No one has forced them to climb the greasy pole of ambition, and no one has forced them to worm their way around giving straight answers to questions, to drag the nation into the gutter because of self-interest, or to sneer at those who they should be engaging with. Frankly, if you are a politician and have reached the point where the BBC wants to interview you outside Parliament, then you are probably someone who has ruthlessly clawed their way to that level of importance. You’ve wanted it so badly that it probably hurts. To then suggest that the public shut up and do as you tell them is the very height of arrogance.
We might say that politicians should enjoy the same protections as the rest of us – that someone shouting abuse at an MP should be treated in exactly the same way as they would be if shouting abuse at anyone else. And to a degree, that’s true. But let’s not forget that MPs are happy to use Parliamentary privilege to make statements that would be illegal if said elsewhere, be it breaking injunctions, making potentially libellous accusations or whatever. If they want that right, then equally, we should be free to say whatever the hell we want about them, no matter how personal, offensive and upsetting that might be. By all means take action against people making blatantly false, criminal accusations against MPs, just as we would in any other case. But otherwise, all bets should be off. Let’s be blunt – nothing some gobshite outside Parliament might say can ever have the same effect on people as a single misbegotten speech by an ill-informed, cynical and ambitious politician. They generally deserve every insult thrown at them, even if the reasoning in any individual instance might be dubious.
I don’t want to defend the British Yellow Vests, who were at the centre of the Soubry insults, and who seem to be a misbegotten collective of far right copycats, football hooligans and conspiracy loons trying to cash in on the French anti-Macron protests, but if we take away their right to criticise MPs, then we’ll find that we can’t do it either, and that would be a dangerous move. I’m sure a lot of MPs would secretly love to outlaw all levels of sedition, but even the most sympathetic political observer should realise that such a move is a stepping stone to dictatorship. If we are to start arresting people for calling someone a Nazi,where does that end? Do we then arrest everyone on Twitter who has used the word to attack everyone from Donald Trump to Brexiteers to newspaper columnists to anyone who doesn’t seem suitably Woke, or will there be selective use of the law to enforce the new taboo? All this to protect the feelings of politicians who hate you? It seems a very slippery slope that we really don’t want to step onto.