The Guardian view on language in politics: playing with fire | Editorial

With his contemptuous dismissal of colleagues’ fears of violence, the prime minister has sunk to a new low

The risk that politicians, other public figures or ordinary people taking part in political activities could be physically attacked is the most urgent but not the only reason to be alarmed by the divisive stance adopted by the prime minister following the supreme court ruling against him. With every contemptuous act or incendiary choice of words, Boris Johnson inflicts further damage on our democracy and makes it harder to see how the divisions of Brexit can ever be healed.

He and his party have now sunk to a new low. Care must always be taken in linking words with actions. But the murder of Jo Cox in 2016, police warnings about the rising far-right threat, and the huge increase in online and other abuse, would lead any responsible leader to treat people’s fears with respect. Anti-Brexit lawyer Jolyon Maugham revealed on Thursday that, on police advice, he has installed a panic button and bought a stab vest. Yet Mr Johnson appears intent on sowing further discord, repeatedly referring to the Brexit extension sought by parliament as a “surrender bill” – a phrase that appears calculated to provoke English nationalists to fury. When MPs urged him to moderate his language, pointing out that such phrases appear in the death threats and abuse they receive, he dismissed their concerns as “humbug”. On Thursday he failed to turn up to answer questions about these exchanges.

The difficulties now confronting the UK are enormous, and disagreements about the best way forward are fierce. But to reject Mr Johnson’s demagoguery, as MPs including his former cabinet colleague Justine Greening did on Thursday, is not to place style over substance. It is to recognise that rhetoric can be dangerous, and one of a prime minister’s tasks is to set the tone.

Politicians of all parties, commentators and others have their part to play. Prorogation was an outrage, but it was not a coup, and Mr Johnson is not a dictator. In such conflicted times, metaphors such as “drive-by shooting”, “pull the trigger” or “decapitation” can take on disturbing connotations. At the extreme, abuse and threats, online and in real life, come from the left as well as the Brexit-supporting right.

Given the political and constitutional impasse, with the Queen and supreme court drawn into politics in a way that few people would have imagined, it is not hard to see how things could get worse. Mr Johnson’s populist posture, and particularly his embrace of a strongman persona that is toxic to many female parliamentarians, makes comparisons with President Trump inevitable. We don’t yet know how the public views the reversal of the prorogation, but we know how the prime minister is trying to portray it. Thankfully, British broadcasters bear little resemblance to the highly partisan US networks.

Britain is in the midst of a crisis. The vote for Brexit exposed and deepened social divisions, but also revealed flaws in our institutions. Electoral reformers have long argued for changes that would see us move towards a more consensual and less tribal politics, as well as introducing democracy to the House of Lords. Female politicians in particular have argued that the adversarial, debating-society aspect of the House of Commons is out of date, and contributes to the sense of alienation from Westminster by sections of the public.

Consideration of such questions lies in the future. For now, the priority must be to stop Mr Johnson from causing more harm. Those Conservative colleagues who have stood by him so far must now speak up against a slide into antagonism that appears as calculated as it is reckless.

Contributor

Editorial

The GuardianTramp

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