We’re so lucky to live in a free country. These are all truisms, platitudes and buzzwords which people trot out to pay lip service to the core values that make our society the wonderful place it is. But scratching below the surface, do we really honour those who died to protect our way of life? Do we really recognise how lucky we are, or are we taking it for granted?
Whilst politicians have been mocked, satirised, and even roundly insulted for as long as there have been politicians, there is now a worrying trend of demonising MPs in a way which legitimises them as targets for darker intentions.
A key turning point for this in recent times was the Telegraph’s exposure of the outrageous ways in which some MPs had been abusing the expenses system. Whilst those activities were scandalous and absolutely needed to see the light of day, it intensified public hatred for the entire political system, which has had numerous negative effects. It entrenched a view that all MPs are subhuman scum who are elected purely so they can dip their snouts in the trough of public money.
This ‘scumbag’ image is wildly unfair to the majority of MPs, who work long hours and make huge sacrifices whilst making less money than senior officers at local councils and many professionals, all in the name of public service. Not only is it a slap in the face of those who work hard for all of us, but it also erodes the notion that our politicians deserve the respect and safety that everyone else does.
Following on from this, we have the ongoing issue of how MPs, particularly female MPs and former MPs like Stella Creasy, Louise Mensch and Nusrat Ghani, are treated on social media. The advent of the internet has meant that our MPs are closer to those they represent than ever before, which is a revolutionary development for democracy and voter engagements. But the downside is that this has dispelled the image of MPs as being an untouchable elite, and has emboldened unsavoury characters on the internet to vent their misogyny, political antipathy and what can only be described as pent up sexual frustration in the direction of their elected representatives in a streams of abuse far too vulgar to warrant reproduction here.
Finally we come to the bottom of the barrel. Some disturbed individuals, emboldened by radical politics, enabled by a corrosive culture of political cynicism take advantage of our MPs’ choice to be open and accessible to their constituents. We had the case of Stephen Timms, who was attacked in 2010 whilst at a surgery in a local library by an al Qaeda inspired Islamist with a kitchen knife. He suffered life-threatening wounds, but made a miraculous recovery. Further afield in the US we had the horrifying case of Arizona Representative Gabby Gifford, who was shot in the head at a ‘Congress on your Corner’ event in Tucson, and survived thanks to the valiant efforts and first aid skills of her intern.
Now, today, we have the heartbreaking news that Jo Cox, MP for Batley and Spen, has been shot and reportedly stabbed by a man who left her for dead, bleeding on the pavement. Mrs Cox is a former head of policy at Oxfam, is renowned for her work on modern slavery and even broke the Labour whip to demand that the protection of innocent civilians be put at the heart of the debate on Syria. She is arguably the furthest thing possible from the selfish, nepotistic cumbergrounds we hear MPs portrayed as.
Both Cox and Timms are the victims of terrorism. Targeting legislators is the kind of thing we see in Iraq today, and it has no place in today’s society. But how many people will say ‘our thoughts are with Jo’ today, and then go back to comparing our MPs to cockroaches and paedophiles (both comparisons I have seen and heard first hand) tomorrow?
It’s time for a reality check. We need to detach ourselves from the banter, the sophistry and the rhetoric about our political opponents and keep hold of the fact that these are human beings, they are parents, they have families, they are loved and needed and every last one of them, whether we agree with them or not is entitled to the same respect as a human (even where you don’t respect their views) and protection from harm as anyone else.
Our elected representatives are the physical embodiment of our democracy and we are all responsible for shaping the culture surrounding them. If we continue to treat all MPs universally as criminal scum, whilst creating a culture which demonises them to the point of legitimising them coming to harm, then I have no idea why saints like Jo Cox would even continue to stand for election. Stabbing an MP is stabbing all that brave men and women fought and died for, it is as close as it gets to literally stabbing our freedom. An attack on an MP should be considered as heinous a crime killing a cop in the States. Police in the line of duty wear more than just a flak jacket, they are cloaked in a social armour; killing a cop puts you in the same category as the worst humanity has to offer.
In football, there is a common rule that you play the ball, not the player. It’s common courtesy in sport not to step outside the rules of the game to physically bludgeon your opponent. If we are to find any silver lining in the awful events in Birstall today, let it be that we finally realise the worth of our lawmakers and offer them our social protection. Satire is a wonderful way to have a laugh, whilst keeping our MPs’ feet on the ground, but the outright demonisation of politicians has to stop, or who knows where this will end?