Politicians, just like everyone else, need to mind their language


Parliament has exploded back into business this week. You may have noticed that emotions have been heated on all sides, stoked by the Supreme Court's unanimous judgement of unlawful prorogation, and reflecting immense frustration at the seemingly unbreakable gridlock over Brexit.

Matters came to a head when the Labour MP for Dewsbury, Paula Sheriff, appealed to the memory of her friend, the murdered MP Jo Cox. Some of the phrases used by Jo's killer had been popularised by politicians and, Paula reminded the Prime Minister, phrases used by those making death threats to MPs today bear striking similarity to those parroted by him and his colleagues. Boris Johnson shrugged off these comments as "humbug".

This is a culmination of months of anger in both Parliament and the country at the way in which the Brexit debate has been conducted. Divisions have been stoked by newspapers displaying headlines that portray Supreme Court judges as "enemies of the people" and MPs who voted Remain as "traitors".

Respected figures such as vicar Giles Fraser claim on Twitter that "the establishment will do everything in its power to frustrate the will of the people", and the Prime Minister himself has been portraying the current situation as "the people versus Parliament".

And on the other side, Johnson's prorogation of Parliament was described as an autocratic power grab; Remain-leaning newspapers have called him a liar and a felon; there has been talk of coups and dictatorships.

Passionate debate is part of what politics is all about. But the language that we throw around, of 'treason', 'surrender' and 'dictatorship', has direct consequences. MPs, especially female and ethnic minority MPs, have been receiving death threats that have directly quoted terms used by politicians. Many have had to install panic buttons in their homes and offices. My party leader Jo Swinson has stated in the Commons that she has had to report a threat against her five year old child.

More thoughtful Members on both sides of the debate have long been calling for the Commons to look at the way we address one another. In the wake of this week's vitriol, their voices are increasingly being given air time, but will they make a difference?

We can all be guilty of an angry or provocative comment on Twitter when we are particularly fired up on an issue – I hold up my own hands to this from time to time.

The danger is that we all shake our heads in sadness and each vow to do our best in future, while spouting the platitude that 'there's fault on both sides'. We shouldn't fall for this lie, though. Let's be clear: there is a reckless use of language on both sides. But the deliberate strategy of using incendiary language to incite hatred comes from one side only.

At some point in the last few months, Dominic Cummings and Boris Johnson have sat down together and drawn up a plan. They made a strategic choice to deploy this repeated language. A choice has been made to exploit and inflame the rift that has been growing across the UK. This is dangerous and unprecedented in recent times.

I look at the world through the lens of the gospel that tells me to treat everyone equally and with dignity, and to value everyone. But I am not commanded to be neutral in the face of a calculated strategy to take our politics into the gutter.

Where we do need to share responsibility and blame, though, is in recognizing that on all sides we seem to be falling into the belief that the world is divided into "us versus them"; a theme of human storytelling from ancient myths right through to the Star Wars franchise. We seek to understand the world in terms of black and white, bad and good. We gather in our tribes to reassure each other that we are right and 'they' are wrong. It helps us to feel like we belong.

This approach leads us to view other human beings as fundamentally different to ourselves. Whether this is through colour, race, language, or on the basis of whether someone voted Remain or Leave, it becomes easier to believe that they are 'other' than us, and somehow less human or deserving of reduced levels of respect and compassion. After that, it is only a small step to justifying treatment of them that we would never tolerate towards our own family or friends.

But Jesus rejected the notion of "us" and "them". He stated that he came to save the whole world, and called us to love our neighbour as ourselves. In His parable of the Good Samaritan, it was the 'enemy' who came to the man's rescue on the road, and not one of his own people.

All the same, we shouldn't lose hope and assume that everyone has submitted to these base instincts. I was encouraged by an example this week from the Labour MP Emily Thornberry, who had compared the Lib Dems to the Taliban in a speech last week. Yesterday she stood up in the House of Commons and apologized. This is so rare because our culture has made contrition into a weakness. It is politically unacceptable to admit that we sometimes get it wrong in our tone, in our language and sometimes even in our viewpoint. Emily set an example that more should follow.

We are in a time of political crisis, where our nation seems hopelessly divided. But it is not too late. As individuals, both as members of the public and as MPs, we must begin to discover empathy for opinions we genuinely find hard to understand. We must deploy self-control to deny ourselves the temptation to reach for language and messages which may or may not win us a few votes, but then leave our country deeply wounded. We need to make efforts to seek forgiveness from those we have offended and to forgive those who have hurt us.

As Ed Miliband has pointed out, we are not at war with the EU or with one another. There is no "us" versus "them". We are all "us"; we are all human beings made in the image of God; and we should treat one another as we would wish to be treated. Laws must be enforced, but there must be compassion and humanity in their application. And I begin to hope that the inflammatory nature of this week's debates have so shocked and shamed those responsible among our political class, that the tide will start to be turned. Nobody is exempt from this call: from the keyboard warrior on Twitter right up to the Prime Minister himself.

Tim Farron is the Liberal Democrat MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale, and former leader of the Liberal Democrats.