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Boris Johnson’s controversial language has emerged as the latest divisive Brexit sub-plot.
The Prime Minister stands accused of using inflammatory, military-like language — for example, repeatedly describing the anti-no-deal Benn Act as a “surrender bill” — which opponents say is leading to an increase in the volume and strength of abuse aimed at MPs.
The anger peaked in the House of Commons recently when the Prime Minister was widely criticised for using the word “humbug” when reacting to an impassioned speech from Labour MP Paula Sherriff urging the PM to show greater restraint.
Why there’s debate
The issue of abuse is a particular problem for female MPs, with several outlining their experiences during a debate about Brexit recently. Some explicitly said Mr Johnson’s language encourages abuse.
There has been a spike in the number of reported crimes against MPs with 242 complaints in 2018, up from 111 the previous year. And the abuse is overwhelmingly tied to those who are perceived to have an anti-Brexit stance.
One Labour MP, Jess Philips, shared a picture of a death threat that directly quoted the Prime Minister’s words. It read: “It was rather prophetic that Boris Johnson should say: ‘I would rather be found dead in a ditch’. That is what will happen to those who do not deliver Brexit.”
Ellie Cooper, the young daughter of Labour MP Yvette Cooper, also spoke out, describing Mr Johnson’s language as “simply beyond words”, adding: “That the head of our government is using language which helps incite violence toward MPs is so dangerous that I can’t even comprehend it in a modern society.”
Although the testimonies are predominantly from Labour MPs, it also impacts Conservative MPs such as Nicky Morgan, Change UK’s Anna Soubry, and the Lib Dem leader, Jo Swinson.
In response, supporters of Mr Johnson have employed the “sticks and stones” defence, saying such language is little more than words. Mr Johnson himself has defended the use of military metaphors and insisted he has been a “model of restraint”.
They also say that both sides of the Brexit debate have used provocative language.
The Conservative Leader of the House, Jacob Rees-Mogg, has recently cited Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell calling for Tory MP Esther McVey to be “lynched” several years ago.
“That is not saying the Surrender Act, that is calling for physical violence,” he said.
The context hanging over this debate is the death of Jo Cox, the Labour MP who was murdered while on the EU referendum campaign trail in 2016.
Three years later, Brexit is showing no signs of being any less toxic. There have already been high-profile confrontations on the street, with pro-Remain figures such as Soubry being targeted by far-right protesters outside parliament. Meanwhile, Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage and hard-right figurehead Tommy Robinson have had milkshakes thrown at them.
With a general election expected in the coming months, there are fears as to whether tensions could escalate further.
Language needs to change — despite Brexit.
“What we need now is a prime minister who can stand up and say ‘Yes I want to deliver Brexit, but regardless of my position, this inflammatory and aggressive language needs to stop. We need to treat each other with humanity and respect.’” — Ellie Cooper, The New Statesman
Hateful rhetoric is being used to win support.
“The polarisation of the debate is intensified by the prime minister all the better to mobilise his own “base” of support: increasingly embittered and frustrated Leavers. He wants them to turn out and vote for him on some dank evening in November. He wants to get them angry.” — Sean O’Grady, The Independent
Threatening language is now part of everyday dialogue.
“Emails or messages on social media from members of the public, instead of simply expressing an opinion or drawing our attention to an important campaign, now sometimes end with barely disguised threats of violence and insults.” — Tracy Brabin and Jack Dromey, The Guardian
MPs are simply doing what they feel is the right thing for the country.
“Brexit is challenging and complicated to deliver, the country is divided by it and what we needed was an explanation of why we are where we are. MPs from across the House of Commons have been receiving hate mail and death threats just for doing what they think to be the right course of action.” — Sam Gyimah, Huffington Post
Politicians are abused for doing their job.
“When I was called a traitor to my face exiting my place of work recently, I was just scared. I wasn’t an MP in that moment. I was just vulnerable. I shouldn’t have to feel this way to do my job. No one should. And I know that many others out there are facing similar things as the febrile atmosphere in parliament seems to give permission to those who seek to bully and intimidate.” — Layla Moran, Independent Voices
Death threats have ‘become a source of performative victimhood’.
“No doubt it must be distressing to receive a death threat and those that seem plausible should, of course, be taken seriously and reported to the police. However, there is a huge difference between a credible threat from someone who claims to know where you live or has a weapon and a more general, hyperbolic expression of anger from an exasperated constituent.” — Joanna Williams, Spiked
Angry language is simply exercising free speech.
“The redefinition of political anger as trolling, and messaging MPs as bullying, is utterly unacceptable. It is a stab at sanitising political life. It’s about ring-fencing our leaders from the plebs. No way. Democracy doesn’t just mean putting an X in a box once every four years — it also means allowing everyone to express their opinion, however rough and ugly it might be.” — Brendan O’Neill, The Daily Telegraph
Brexit has made death threats more common.
“I've constantly had threats. Brexit has heightened it. Any MP of colour, you are subject to different threats that others not of colour are not. That happens as soon as you're elected. But Brexit has changed everything." — Chukka Umunna, BuzzFeed
Language is taken too seriously — and only criticised when it is from a political opponent.
“This used to be a serious country. If we are intending to be one again at any time soon then we might start by stopping such language games. An easy place to start would be to try to maintain some consistency in our attitude towards the proximity of violence and language.” — Douglas Murray, The Spectator
Boris’ language is “reprehensible”.
"My brother is using words like 'surrender' and 'capitulation' as if the people standing in the way of the blessed will of the people, as defined by the 17.4 million votes in 2016, should be hung, drawn, quartered, tarred, and feathered. I think that is highly reprehensible. I hope today in the Commons there will be some sort of deal on all sides that this sort of thing is utterly dialled down. It serves no purpose." — Rachel Johnson, Sky News
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Cover thumbnail: Associated Press