The consequences of language

“The high standards of decency and respect, on which the UK’s democracy is built and so many have taken for granted, now appear to be crumbling.” With today (2 October) marking the UN’s International Day of Non-Violence, Scott Ainslie, Green MEP for London, argues that Boris Johnson’s inflammatory language is sending a dangerous message across the world.

Boris Johnson
Boris Johnson

Flickr / EU2017EE

Scott Ainslie

Do you remember that viral video of a punch-up in the Ukrainian Parliament? Here in Britain, people would regularly share that sort of thing, chuckling in disbelief at how bloody backward some corners of the world still were.

Imperialist hubris, once again. How wrong they were to be so smug. It’s now painfully clear that the stage set of decorum erected around our fragile democracy is constructed of nothing but cardboard. Boris Johnson is at centre stage, blustering through his lines – playing the school bully with a script straight out of Steve Bannon’s playbook.

The high standards of decency and respect, on which the UK’s democracy is built and so many have taken for granted, now appear to be crumbling.

The UK is lumbered with a Prime Minister who actively dismisses the concerns of women receiving death threats, and government officials who have stated on record that they are prepared to break the law. All pretension of respectability is gone. Jacob Rees Mogg – normally the quintessential head prefect – is now lolling around on the benches of the Commons like it was a common room sofa.  

If this was just a question of embarrassment, it would be one thing. But actively putting our politicians and population at risk of harm is quite another.

With a General Election imminent, some of our politicians are genuinely fearful for their safety. Who could blame them? Rather than learning from the tragic murder of Jo Cox, Johnson is prepared to sully her memory to play to his gallery.

I honestly don’t think our Prime Minister cares how much division and hatred he whips up, so long as it helps him to tighten his grip on the UK’s political agenda. After all, protected by his Etonian privilege, he’s not the one who will suffer the consequences. 

And this language does have consequences – both inside and outside the walls of Parliament. Just the other day, Nigel Farage addressed a Brexit Party rally, declaring that he would “take the knife to pen pushers in Whitehall”, and the journalist Brendan O’Neill appeared on the Daily Politics show and actively incited Brexit voters to riot. Senior Tories have also warned of ‘civil unrest’ if Brexit isn’t delivered this month. No incitement to violence is acceptable.

The UK is now in genuinely unprecedented territory. Following the illegal prorogation of Parliament a few weeks ago, members of the Democratic Football Lads Alliance stood on the outskirts of a pro-democracy rally in London singing ‘We love you Boris’. If I am not mistaken, this is the first time that far-right activists have chanted the name of a sitting Prime Minister.

Such toxic rhetoric doesn’t stop at national borders. The car-crash spectacle of Brexit has put the UK’s political institutions, and our new Prime Minister, into the spotlight. Between the summer of 2017 and the summer of this year, viewership of rose by well over 200 per cent. Remarkably, 40 per cent of its viewers in the first three months of 2019 were from outside of the UK.

We are performing our constitutional collapse to a global audience. While the Ukrainian punch-up captured the world’s attention for a brief moment, the UK is streaming its democratic decline around the world, week after week. 

For better or worse, Britain has historically been seen as a benchmark for democracy – a shining example to troubled states worldwide. What message are we sending foreign leaders today? A green light to undermine the rule of law in their own countries and dismiss death threats aimed at colleagues as ‘humbug’?

As a member of the European Parliament’s South Asia delegation, I’ve been pushing the UK Government to lead the way in finding a peaceful solution to the conflict in Kashmir. Yet, it remains to be seen how this message could be taken seriously while our own Prime Minister approaches UK politics with the language of war and violence.

Today, on the UN’s International Day of Non-Violence, it’s time to pause for thought.

The UK’s democracy is in serious need of reform, and our reputation on the world stage lies in tatters. Yet, the most chilling aspect of our current situation is the threat of serious violence being posed by those demanding a clean break with the EU – the voices they are emboldening, and the forces they are unleashing.

We need to reclaim pride in our ‘mother of all parliaments’. It’s now absolutely critical that MPs from across the political spectrum pull this country back from the brink of ‘no deal’, commit to moderating their language, and reaffirm their respect for the rule of law.

If our Prime Minister refuses to mark International Day of Non-Violence in this way, he should resign. Only then can we begin to heal the wounds that have been inflicted by Brexit – both here in Britain, and across the world.

Scott Ainslie is Green MEP for London.