Brexit, off the back of a referendum won on small margins and huge regional differences, is naturally polarising. The question posed to the electorate back in 2016 oversimplified a highly complex issue, that has revealed itself to be more and more nuanced three premierships in. And two weeks from now, we reach yet another ‘deadline’, only this time with a prime minister committed to our exit from the EU, on that day, with or without a deal. Tensions are understandably high, tempers perhaps higher, and Parliament has descended into chaos, where respectful and reasoned debate has been even more so than usual transplanted by point-scoring and name-calling. Obviously exactly what this country needs at this trying and difficult time…
The current discussion of unparliamentary language centres around PM Boris Johnson’s thoughts on the European Union (Withdrawal) (No. 2) Act. The Benn Act, as it is also called, is, in short, legislation that any deal, no-deal proposal, or departure date extension must be brought to and agreed upon by Parliament no later than 19 October. Despite acting as a democratic failsafe, the PM has been referring to it repeatedly and despite immense criticism, as a bill or act of “Surrender”, speaking of its proponents in terms of their “betrayal” to the country.
Such unparliamentary language, whichever way the PM attempts to defends it – as “old” and “standard” military metaphors” - does not excuse the danger it may pose. Labour MP Paula Sherriff’s speech in a House of Commons debate on 25 September raised issue with the PM and cabinet ministers’ language. She drew attention to death and rape threats particularly female MPs and their families as Jo Swinson and other MPs later expanded have been receiving that often cite this language. The language, while inflammatory in nature, is not in and of itself the problem. The problem is the real consequences it is having. If in adherence with The Code of Conduct and the Guide to the Rules relating to the conduct of Members (2018), MPs should be free to passionately voice their beliefs and those of their constituents. But, they should also be respectful enough to acknowledge the impact any repeated language is having, and refrain from persisting in its usage when, as Sherriff demonstrated by reminding the PM and MPs of the devastating assassination of Labour MP Jo Cox by a right-wing extremist ahead of the 2016 EU Referendum, that impact could be genuinely life-threatening.
Yet, the PM continues to dismiss these concerns. First, he denounces them as “humbug.” Then, in the same interview with the BBC’s Andrew Marr where he condemned such threats as “deplorable,” he refused to stop using the very language potentially endangering MPs. Even while his government’s Chief Whip Mark Spencer along with the Speaker John Bercow and senior MPs representing almost every party in the Commons were signing a pledge recognising their “responsibility to try to use moderate language” when debating plans for Brexit, the PM and cabinet ministers Nicky Morgan and Matt Hancock doubled down on the language of “surrender” and war at the 2019 Conservative Party Conference in Manchester.
Beyond being careless and dangerous, this dismissal reveals the weakness, or even the non-existence, of the PM’s Brexit Plan. At the party conference, neither the Leader of the House of Commons, Jacob Rees-Mogg or International Trade Secretary, Liz Truss, seemed to know any details of Johnson’s Brexit proposal. Former cabinet minister and now independent MP Justine Greening put it perfectly by noting that the PMs “offensive and incendiary language” is intended to “distract Parliament and Britain” from the fact that “he and his government have produced no detailed plan whatsoever.” We should care that MPs representing us maybe in harm's way, and that their expression of our interests may be affected by fear for themselves and their families, but we cannot allow it to cloud our ability to critically assess of the PM’s work towards Brexit.
However, as John Bercow noted in his speech in the Commons in response to this matter, “inflamed angry words were uttered... on both sides.” This toxicity in Parliament, that Bercow described as the worst he’s known in his “twenty-two years in the House,” only breeds further, and possibly irreparable, divisions across this nation. Sherriff’s speech in the Commons did not help the disunified and aggressive atmosphere in Parliament by villainising the PM over poor word choices. Neither does resorting to hurling insults and making debate exclusively about personal offense. And through the near constant dismissal of MPs’ worries and the people they represent, the PM is neglecting and pushing to the margins the views of vast swathes of the country who did not want Brexit in the first place or who did not want to crash out of the EU without a deal. Turning the future of this country in a party-political matter, into a veritable pissing-contest between MPs, is why according to a Sky Data Poll, “nearly nine in 10 people think political leaders do not care about the public” and “three quarters of Britons surveyed believe the UK is divided.”
This unparliamentary language, whether considered dangerous, distracting and/or divisive needs to stop in favour of the country’s best interest ahead of and post-Brexit. Otherwise, if, when and how Brexit happens, I don’t know how we come back from this.