When environmental protestors scaled the Prime Minister’s home earlier this week, a line was not just crossed, it was vaulted.
Officially sanctioned by Greenpeace HQ, the protestors thought it was an acceptable action to further their political goals. They had meetings about it, discussing the approach and working out the logistics. It was calculated. It was a deliberate institutional stratagem.
To them, Rishi Sunak must be akin to a distant celebrity. It clearly didn’t cross their minds that breaching private property, invading a family home and assaulting what should be a place of safety would be anything other than a fine stunt to support their campaigning objectives.
The perceived acceptability of their trespass typifies a deeper malaise in the way which our civic society is conducted.
It shouldn’t need to be said, but politicians are people too. They have insecurities and ambitions, hopes and fears. Irrespective of ideology, they put themselves forward to serve their communities and their country. From nationally elected parliamentarians to locally chosen councillors, all do so with a keenness to fight for their slice of the United Kingdom.
Yet it’s become normalised to abuse those seeking public office. Standing for election isn’t easy, nor should it be. Scrutiny is always to be encouraged. Challenge, welcomed. But intimidation has increased, as one senior MP described, to “epidemic” proportions – and it’s having a corrosive effect on the very fabric of our democracy.
In 2019 the BBC conducted a survey of MPs which found that over 60 per cent had reported threats to the police. The Met have said that between 2017 and 2018, MPs reporting crime had increased by 126 per cent. Some admit to wearing stab-proof vests when they’re holding surgeries. Others have panic alarms installed at their offices and in their homes – just in case.
I’ve been a councillor for close to a decade and a Conservative activist for 15 years, standing for Parliament at the last election. In the middle of the night, when the house is silent, nothing sets my heart racing more than the thought that my home could be invaded, that my sleeping wife and young children might be put in danger by ideological zealots or an aggrieved resident.
I’m suffering no delusions of grandeur, I am clearly not the Prime Minister. But I wish it were an irrational fear. A particularly nasty local blog has published more than 120 pieces of twisted, often beyond the pale ‘content’ featuring me since 2014. I’ve had my home location revealed online. Pictures of my wife and children have been published without consent alongside hostile diatribes. Turds have been left on the doorstep. Our family car has been vandalised. My career has, at times, been impacted by oftentimes fabricated and exaggerated stories generated by obsessed malcontents. Sadly, I know that I am not alone. The Local Government Association reports that seven in 10 councillors reported experiencing abuse and intimidation over the previous 12 months and councillors reported feeling that abuse is becoming more common and increasing in severity.
Female and ethnic minority politicians fare far worse. In a parliamentary debate in 2017, Chelmsford MP Vicky Ford revealed that a candidate standing in the east of England was threatened with rape and murder, with the vile abuser writing: “Shoot her, then pull her teeth out of her jaw while she fades away.” Others report receiving pictures of decapitated corpses, being sent videos secretly recorded as they go about their business, children confronted at school, death threats – the list is depressingly endless.
It is right that the five who scaled the Prime Minister’s family home were arrested and that the government has indefinitely cut engagement with Greenpeace. The illegality of their actions is beyond doubt. That’s not where it should end.
Politicians can certainly play their part in taking the heat out of public discourse, but they cannot do it alone. We all, collectively, should reject this abjectly poisonous assault and others like it. It deters good people from running for office and encourages a superficial, insipid “me, me” populism over passionate, reasoned debate with those you disagree with.
We forget that our democracy is a living, constantly evolving system, and that we each have a role in shaping it with our words and actions that in aggregate can set the political tone for generations to come.
Schadenfreude, particularly if at the expense of a politician, can be deeply satisfying. When misfortune happens to you, not so much.
We get the political representation that we deserve. Politicians are people too. We forget that at our peril.
First published on PoliticsHome on 7th August 2023.