The plague of toxicity within UK political culture
By LUCY FERRIBY-STOCKS
When Rishi Sunak entered Downing Street for the first time as Prime Minister, he promised his government would have “integrity, professionalism and accountability at every level”. The actions of Sir Gavin Williamson, however, suggest that not everyone is singing from the same hymn sheet.
The allegations against the former minister first emerged when the Sunday Times published text messages he sent last month to the then-Chief Whip Wendy Morton. In a series of expletive messages, Williamson complained about not being invited to the Queen’s funeral and warned Morton “not to push him about”, claiming “there is a price for everything”. Complaints have also been made against him from a civil servant, who claims Williamson told him to “jump out of the window” and “slit your throat” when they worked for him in the Ministry of Defence.
It is unsurprising that this has led to Williamson’s resignation. This sort of behaviour would be unacceptable in any workplace and is not what is expected of a serving Member of Parliament or Minister. The Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, Kathryn Stone, has refused to comment on the bullying claims against the MP due to the risk of producing a possible enquiry, meaning this is not the end of the story. Issues of bullying also seem to be following Rishi Sunak’s government, with Dominic Raab his Deputy Prime Minister and Justice Secretary being accused of being “abrasive” and “demeaning” to staff when he was Foreign Secretary.
It would be easy to say that this is just a Conservative Party problem, but individuals have faced similar allegations within the Labour party, along with anti-Semitism complaints. Naz Shah and Ken Livingstone were suspended in 2014 and 2016 respectively after making anti-Semitic comments, leading to the then party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, to establish the Chakrabarti enquiry. Since then, the party has had to go through a rebranding process under the leadership of Keir Starmer who has been keen to distance himself from his predecessor.
These instances within both parties are symptomatic of how toxic UK political culture has become. Over the past ten years we have seen an increasingly polarised political discourse within the UK, both fuelled by and monopolised upon by the political parties to try and ensure electability. Under Corbyn, the Labour Party moved distinctly to the left, signalling a distinct end to the New Labour centre ground. Similarly, the election of Boris Johnson as Conservative Party leader showed a shift to the right for the party and inevitably the country, considering the manifesto the campaign ran on.
Inevitably, with polarisation comes extremes - and with extremes comes a lack of conversation, tolerance, and compromise. This is applicable both within the party system and wider societal culture. A telling effect is the loss of the middle ground where the former New Labour and one-nationist Conservative governments once dominated discussion and won elections.
Whilst political parties do need to tow the party line and act unified, this has been done at the expense of the national interest. The parties have become so internalised that they are solely focused on their internal affairs, manifestos and being able to one-up the other or show weaknesses within their opponents. Showing your opponent’s flaws is necessary in politics, but this has been done at the expense of common human decency and respect. The danger of this is how it filters down into political discussion outside of the Westminster bubble, within society and the lives of everyday people.
All the major political parties need to lead by example both internally and when interacting with one another. It is hard for an electorate to have faith in a government if they are consistently tearing themselves apart or are seen to lack the basic human quality of respect. Neither of the major parties has a clean record in this discussion. There is a real danger of the public disassociating themselves and disengaging with politics if conduct of elected officials is poor. If an individual is elected to public office, they do not have the moral high ground. They should govern with respect, consideration and understanding, regardless of the political climate they find themselves in.
With these bullying allegations taking over the headlines, the Conservatives will be conducting damage limitation to minimise self-destruction. However, the question should not be how this affects Rishi Sunak’s first few weeks in office; rather, how do we clean up British politics?
Image: Flickr/ Number 10 Downing Street