Traitors, betrayal, surrender. No – you’ve not just tuned into the Prime Minister’s latest Commons statement. These are words lifted directly from the last ten years of transcripts in the European parliament by a certain well-known MEP.
Last week, MPs sat on the green benches were stunned as Boris Johnson’s inflammatory language was dialled up to 11. Member after Member made impassioned pleas for the PM to moderate his speech in light of the heated political climate. For him, it was all part of the strategy, no doubt devised in the dark corners of Number 10 to stir up the more nefarious parts of the right-wing psyche. But for me and many of my colleagues in Brussels, it’s nothing new.
I’ve been an MEP for three terms and I’m proud to represent the West Midlands in the European Parliament. I was first elected in 1999, the year that a formerly unknown city commodities trader from Kent was elected as a South East MEP. For 20 years, Nigel Farage and his provocative band of political followers have been weaponising the language of war, subversion and treachery to convince the public that we’re a country on the brink.
He has told us in the hemicycle that we are in the midst of a “slow motion betrayal”, and he compared the withdrawal agreement to “more like a surrender document”. His former UKIP colleague Gerard Batten went even further, saying the British were ruled by “traitors, quislings and collaborators”.
At the time, this was viewed in Brussels as a pub-bore type quirk thrown up by British politics, egged on at home by a media that thrives on confrontation. To those paying attention, it was just the start of a new acceptance of dangerous language that Boris Johnson has catapulted into the mainstream.
I’ve had first-hand experience of this. After my successful re-election in May this year, I was abused and heckled with shouts of “go home” by Brexit Party supporters at my count in Birmingham. It exposed the ugly truth of where a discourse framed by stoking hate and division will lead.
Those who say the language politicians use is irrelevant, and doesn’t impact everyday life, forget our recent history. Colleagues in Westminster are right to invoke the memory of the tragic loss of Jo Cox in the run up to the referendum only three years ago. It was a landmark moment when the worst elements of the British right decided that accountability for what they say wasn’t part of their political world.
Of course, there are parliamentarians from all sides of the house who have rightly denounced the Prime Minister’s descent into the political gutter, and they should be commended. Yet speaking to friends in Westminster, it’s clear that the feeling of sinister forces bubbling within the heart of our politics persists.
Last week, the pot boiled over. On Friday, a man in Birmingham was charged for a public order offence, after shouting abuse and banging the windows outside of Jess Phillip’s constituency office. We need to ensure as a country that this does not become the norm. It’s time to dial back the rhetoric, starting today.