I have felt increasingly disenfranchised in recent years. Undoubtedly this stems from the policies of successive governments since June 2016, none of which speak for me.
Yet there is more to it than that. There is no desire for unity and peace; quite the opposite in fact. The attitude and behaviours of those elected to represent us come down to this: either you are with us, or you are our enemy, worthy of nothing but our disdain. One of the vehicles for the expression of this disdain is name-calling.
Resorting to name-calling sends out several messages. It reduces the other person, or indeed whole class of people, to a single ‘fault’. When used by a person in a position of authority, this is bullying or at the very least disrespectful. Used publicly by those in power, it is both symptomatic and an endorsement of hatred, division and a culture of blame. Worryingly, the way it is used now by senior politicians seems designed to undermine institutions whose role in a healthy democracy is to provide checks and balances.
Checks and balances in a healthy democracy
The existence of checks and balances on the government is one of the fundamental elements of a constitutional democracy. They exist to ensure a limit on unconstrained power, and a balance of views and interests in decision making.
In the UK, the key institutions providing such checks and balances on the government are Parliament, the courts and impartial officials. The media and the people complete the picture. The deliberate weakening of these restraints is an indication of democratic backsliding, by which a state becomes gradually less democratic. For some of our elected Members of Parliament, government ministers and even Prime Ministers, the undermining of these essential bodies and individuals through name-calling has become commonplace.
Undermining the experts, civil servants and judiciary
Often name-calling is aimed at civil servants, acknowledged experts and other public bodies. There is a clear message: don’t trust the experts; trust us instead. We are on your side. Michael Gove set the scene for this in 2016 when he said: “I think the people in this country have had enough of experts from organisations with acronyms saying that they know what is best and getting it consistently wrong.”
More recently, there have been increasing attacks on the impartiality of officials. Last May, Jacob Rees-Mogg publicly blamed “snowflakey, work-shy civil servants” for undermining government policy when the decision to scrap over 4000 pieces of EU law was halted; while recently, Suella Braverman blamed “an activist blob of leftwing lawyers, civil servants and the Labour party” for the government’s failure to stop Channel crossings.
Right-wing tabloid, and Conservative party supporter, the Daily Mail took the blame game to potentially dangerous extremes when, on 4 November 2016, it ran with a front-page headline of ‘Enemies of the People’. This followed the ruling by three High Court judges that parliamentary consent was required before the government could trigger Article 50 to commence the formal exit from the European Union. Yet such rulings on constitutional matters, by highly experienced and respected judges, are essential checks provided by the courts in our democracy. It’s how the law works.
Ridicule and culture wars
A whole new lexicon has appeared to describe anyone who disapproves of or otherwise gets in the way of the increasingly right-wing policies of the government. In addition to ‘blob’ and ‘snowflake’, other regular insults from ministers and various senior Conservatives include ‘woke’, ‘metropolitan elites’ and ‘liberal elites’, the latter two referring to any opposing politicians and voters with high level education and salaries.
It is not clear whether such people are more ‘elite’ than Jacob Rees-Mogg. As a new MP in 2006, he compared the majority of voters who, unlike himself, were not privately educated and did not go to Oxford or Cambridge, to ‘potted plants’.
Undoubtedly, though, Suella Braverman reached new heights in 2022, when she lashed out at the “Guardian-reading, tofu-eating wokerati”. This turned out to be anyone and everyone supporting Labour or Lib Dem, all apparently equally culpable for road disruption brought about by Just Stop Oil campaigners.
Sometimes the name-calling is personal and abusive. Astonishingly, Nadine Dorries was Secretary of State for culture, media and sport with a ministerial remit to present the Online Safety Bill to Parliament, when she posted many of the tweets deemed so toxic and abusive that they were presented as rebuttal of her own allegations of bullying via that network by the SNP’s John Nicholson.
If government ministers normalise such behaviour, they embolden other MPs, like Jonathan Gullis who, last February, published a video in which he called some of his constituents scumbags, “scroats” and savages.
Perhaps the strangest and most unexpected damning reference to ‘Lefties’ was in the title of former Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s second article in the Daily Mail: “Lefties sneer. But those brave souls on the submarine died in a cause…that’s typically British and that fills me with pride.” The death of five people on board the OceanGate Titan sub had just been confirmed. How very un-prime ministerial to attempt to stoke division at the time of such a tragedy.
Even Prime Minister Sunak has stooped to unfounded abuse when he recently tweeted: “The Labour party, a subset of lawyers, the criminal gangs – they’re all on the same side.”
High expectations of those elected to serve
In his victory speech in 1988, US President elect George HW Bush stressed that he wanted “a kinder, gentler nation… And I mean to be a President of all the people.” Though not a Republican sympathiser, these words touched me then and do now. They speak of respect, strength in unity, weakness in division and an understanding of the honour and privilege of high office.
If, regardless of political affiliation, we accept President Bush senior’s intentions for the tone of his presidency as worthy aspirations, then we can agree that a good political leader requires a commitment to unity, integrity, trust and the treating of people with dignity and respect.
However, in the present political climate, where ministers have created an environment of name-calling and demonising as a means of undermining the people and institutions whose role is essential to the operation and reputation of our political system, this is no longer only about the qualities of the statesperson. It is an attack on our very democracy.