One Saturday some years ago, while cycling over Wearmouth Bridge in the centre of Sunderland, my young daughters and I got mixed up with the football crowd. ‘There’s that MP,’ someone sneered. ‘Gas him,’ someone else responded. Not ‘Kill him’ or ‘Throw him in the river,’ but ‘Gas him.’ I don’t mind admitting we speeded up. There was no gas available, but it is a very long drop from the bridge to the river.
Threats and abuse against MPs are not new. I probably attracted more than my share during my 23 years in Parliament as a result of my occasionally raising my head above the parapet to make the point that innocent people had been convicted of the Birmingham, Guildford, Woolwich and M62 bombings. I kept a box in my office labelled A & A (Anonymous and Abuse) in which such missives were deposited. Even now, ten years after my retirement and nearly thirty years after the release of the Birmingham Six, I continue to receive a steady trickle of abusive tweets and emails relating to the case. Earlier this year, while giving evidence at the much-delayed inquest into the Birmingham pub bombings, I had to be escorted to and from the court by three court-appointed bodyguards.
There were other, more mundane occupational hazards. Not long before I retired my wife and I were woken up at around 1 a.m. by a man hammering on our front door. It seems that on his way home from the pub he decided he urgently needed to talk to his MP. I didn’t open the door. He was eventually removed by the police. On several occasions, also late at night, a man who lodged nearby stood in the street outside my house ranting and raving. It turned out that he had been released on licence from a life sentence for murder. One can’t be too careful. Eventually a public-spirited neighbour saw him off. One constituent, a man who believed he was owed a little pot of public money which I had failed to secure for him, haunted me on and off for 14 years. He never actually threatened me, but the women in my office were afraid of him: he had served a prison sentence for severely beating a former partner.
My office windows were broken once by a constituent I had spent a lot of time trying to help, but who had remained dissatisfied. Earlier this year, when a woman MP had her office windows smashed, it was national news. People were sending her flowers and messages of sympathy. In my case the police quickly arrested the culprit and then released him without charge, leaving me – or rather the taxpayer – to pick up the bill for the broken windows. The local newspaper then gave the culprit space to set out his version of events unchallenged and without contacting me.
These incidents were few and far between and I didn’t consider myself a victim. I was never physically assaulted. Most of my constituents, whatever their politics, were courteous and some of my colleagues had it much worse. In 2010 while holding a surgery, the MP for East Ham, Stephen Timms, was knifed to within an inch of his life by a crazed Islamist. Ten years earlier, again while conducting a surgery, the Cheltenham MP Nigel Jones was seriously injured by a sword-wielding constituent. His assistant was killed. All this was long before Brexit poisoned the well of British politics.
Has it got worse? Yes, it has. Brexit has released a nasty strain of chauvinism which has always lurked not far beneath the surface. But Brexit is not the only factor. Ironically, the increasing diversity of the British political class has presented people with an expanded range of targets for their anger. After decades in which Parliament was overwhelmingly a boys’ club, a record number of MPs are women – 211 in the outgoing parliament. Women politicians, especially younger ones, seem to attract a disproportionate level of abuse, much of it Brexit-related. There are reports of women MPs being deluged with threats of death and rape. And the mere fact of being black or Jewish and a woman is enough to induce apoplexy in some quarters. Diane Abbott is said to attract a high percentage of all threatening and abusive emails on the parliamentary account and so far six people have been convicted of threatening Luciana Berger – more prosecutions are said to be in the pipeline. In 2016 the West Yorkshire MP Jo Cox was murdered by a man shouting ‘Britain First’. No prizes for guessing where he was coming from.
But Remainers shouldn’t be too smug. Although it is fair to note that most of the violence and abuse emanates from the political right, some of the more prominent Brexiteers have also been on the receiving end. The sight of so-called ‘activists’ outside Jacob Rees-Mogg’s home, saying ‘Your daddy is a horrible man’ to his children, was not edifying. Neither was the sight of Rees-Mogg and his young son being escorted by a phalanx of police officers through a mob of baying Remainers. An indelible experience, one imagines, for young Rees-Mogg. In a mature democracy it ought to be possible for people with diametrically opposed views to rub along together without wanting to shout down, let alone physically eliminate, their opponents.
Although Brexit and the prominence of digital media have undoubtedly added a new dimension to the hazards of political life, there is a more traditional culprit – our ‘free’ press. It has for decades been an unspoken feature of political life in Britain that there is a large constituency of people at the disposal of our most loathsome tabloids who can be unleashed at the flick of a switch and targeted at whoever happens to be the bogeyman of the hour. In the 1970s and early 1980s my old friend Tony Benn was on the receiving end of a prolonged tabloid hate campaign. The Daily Express once printed a photograph of Benn daubed with a Hitler moustache. The Daily Mail – at the time engaged in one of its periodic mugging scare campaigns – ran an editorial headed ‘Benn the demon “mugger” unmasked’. And there was more, much more. There is nothing like the prospect of war to mobilise ultra patriots. The brave handful of MPs who, in defiance of tabloid wrath, voted against the war in the Falklands or the 1991 war in the Gulf or the invasion of Iraq in 2003, were all denounced as traitors, often with mugshots and captions urging readers to let the individuals concerned know what they thought of them.
In the run-up to the invasion of Iraq the Sun published what it called ‘A Traitors’ Dartboard’, inviting readers to ‘open fire’ on the political figures who opposed the war, prominent among them Robin Cook, Clare Short, Charles Kennedy and the UN secretary-general Kofi Annan. The accompanying text read: ‘You can aim your own missiles at the cowards and traitors who opted to support Saddam Hussein rather than the brave troops who laid down their lives for freedom.’ At about the same time the Sun printed a mugshot of Charles Kennedy alongside a photograph of a snake under the heading ‘Spot the Difference: one is a spineless reptile that spits venom, the other’s a poisonous snake.’ It is a fair bet that those at the receiving end of this treatment were deluged with threats and abuse.
In 1982 following a strike by train drivers, Ray Buckton, general secretary of the drivers’ union, Aslef, invited me to inspect the nine thick files of hate mail and worse (excreta, razor blades) that came through the union’s letterbox during the strike. ‘How does it feel to be the most hated man in Britain?’ one letter writer asked: ‘I think you and your drivers are the most selfish, traitorous, despicable, opportunistic bastards in the community. I know what you look like and I am going to wait outside your union office and when you emerge I am going to smash your face in.’
Although almost all this stuff was anonymous, there was no mystery about what precisely had provoked it: many of the authors had enclosed the newspaper cuttings that inspired their rage. It was the usual suspects – the Mail, the Express, the Sun, but there was a smattering of clippings from the Telegraph, too. The envelopes mainly bore Home Counties postmarks – Surrey, Sussex, Berkshire. Early on in the strike the Mail and the Sun printed pictures of Buckton’s thatched cottage in Essex. ‘What a lovely little swallow’s nest for a petrol bomb,’ wrote one Daily Mail reader. ‘Won’t this thatch burn,’ he had scribbled across the cutting. Many of the arson threats were delivered directly to the cottage because the Mail had thoughtfully provided its readers with the address.
I mention all this merely to show that there is nothing new about fear, loathing and threats of violence in British politics. It has been a feature of political life for decades. The reason we haven’t heard much about it in the past is partly that there was no one to complain to and partly that, until Brexit, Tories were rarely on the receiving end of a tabloid monstering and so it was an issue that mainly affected left-of-centre politicians, who treated it as an occupational hazard. What has changed is no doubt the rise of social media – but also the arrival of a new generation of women MPs who aren’t prepared to put up with it.