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As debate sours, is there any hope for return to reasonable politics in UK?

PUBLISHED: 05:30 03 October 2019

Boris Johnson was challenged about his language by Andrew Marr, Picture:: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

Boris Johnson was challenged about his language by Andrew Marr, Picture:: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

Anyone who has seen my column over the last couple of years will know of my concerns about the violent language that is increasingly being used in political debates in this country.

Over the last week this concern has been rising as the standard of debate has diminished.

Parliament last week made very uncomfortable watching - and the party conferences (never the epitome of reasoned debate or temperate language) have been no better.

This criticism is not reserved for one side or the other - both are equally to blame for the poisonous atmosphere that has been developing. And all parties and all factions of parties seem to be offering sanctuaries to hotheads who seem incapable of exercising self control when they are being wound up.

Chief among these is the Prime Minister. He's clearly a highly intelligent man - but why does he say such stupid things when he's flustered?

A couple of weeks ago he was ambushed by the father of a very sick young child (who happened to be a Labour Party activist).

"You're just here for a press opportunity!" The father told him. "There are no press here," said Mr Johnson looking straight into a bank of cameras and journalists with notebooks. It was palpable nonsense on his behalf and he ended up looking very stupid.

Then last week when he angered Labour MP Paula Sherriff over his references to her murdered friend Jo Cox he dismissed all her concerns as "humbug."

I'm sorry but that was an appalling thing to say to someone whose friend had been assassinated by a deranged political extremist. He seemed to accept that, somewhat grudgingly, on the Marr Show on Sunday - but he really should have controlled himself in the first place.

Personally I'm not convinced that expressions like the "The Surrender Act" or saying MPs are "betraying the people" by trying to prevent Brexit are particularly dangerous.

But describing your political opponents of "being a traitor" or accusing someone who you disagree with of "foreign collusion" really is stoking the flames of extremism.

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Mr Johnson should know better, as should Labour MP Barry Shearman who appeared to lose all self-control in the House of Commons (as did Attorney General Geoffrey Cox who did a brilliant impression of an over-hammy amateur actor determined to steal the show at the Village Hall pantomime).

Of course social media has fanned all this invective. We can all see these incendiary performances anytime we want thanks to Youtube and Twitter.

Threats can be made anonymously - and the overwhelming majority can be safely ignored as the intemperate ramblings of keyboard warriors.

But after what happened to Jo Cox, and the case of Burnley MP Rosie Cooper where members of a far-right group were convicted of conspiracy to murder her, there is widespread and understandable concern.

Local politicians here in Suffolk have tweeted recently about how they had had violent language thrown at them in the council chamber.

That's clearly unpleasant. But it came before Jo Cox's murder which really did prove a wake-up call for politicians at every level.

People now know it's not all right to shout "I could kill you" across a debating chamber - or make action like cutting someone's throat across the debating hall.

Politics these days really has a violent edge to it. There are real fears, expressed by some cabinet ministers, that there could violent riots if we don't leave the EU on October 31.

Those anxious to avoid No Deal fear there could violent riots later in the winter or the spring if we do leave the EU suddenly because of food and drug shortages.

And one last thing. I do find it amusing that my Twitter feed has recently become full of tweets from Ipswich councillors (or wannabe Ipswich councillors) hurling abuse at national political figures to whom they are opposed.

I'm sorry, but I really don't think Jess Phillips, Jacob Rees Mogg, David Lammy or Nigel Farage give a tinker's cuss about what Mr or Ms Ipswich Councillor thinks of them - all it does is drag political debate into the gutter.

I've sometimes thought I should give up Twitter because many contributions to it do make me uneasy - but it is a useful tool and I know it can be a safety valve for political debate. But it does have to be handled with care if it isn't going to fan the flames of extremism.

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