Whether Leave or Remain, we must all take a stand against harassment and intimidationby Gina Miller / January 11, 2019 / Leave a comment
Not since Oswald Mosley and the Blackshirts has politics in this country looked quite so ugly and out of control. In the wake of the tragic murder of Jo Cox in 2016, there was a hope that people would begin to take the consequences of violent, abusive political discourse seriously. Sadly, that seems to have not been the case.
My heart went out to the Tory MP Anna Soubry when she found herself called a Nazi this week by a group of burly, middle-aged men who subsequently physically intimidated her on the street after doing an interview on College Green, opposite Parliament. But this is not the first time that this sort of harassment has happened—and she has not been the only victim.
I am not, of course, an elected representative myself, but, as a citizen of a free country, I have a right—as everyone has—to speak out about matters that concern me. There is a small, well-organised and obsessive minority in our midst, however, who do not accept this.
When I was invited on to College Green to talk to Huw Edwards on the BBC just before Christmas, this same mob was shouting “gas Gina Miller” as we tried to speak. Those words would be horrific to anyone with any knowledge of modern history, let alone one married, as I am, to a man of Jewish heritage. Edwards, an experienced journalist who has reported from war zones, looked as shocked as I was.
Irrespective of whether we voted remain or leave or we are on the left or the right, it is essential that we now all agree on one thing: this sort of behaviour can never be tolerated in a healthy, functional democracy. When it is almost always women who are the victims of the most extreme verbal violence and abuse, it is especially repulsive and un-British.
I have had some doubts about the wisdom of the media village on College Green in the run up to this crunch time on Brexit. It seems to be asking for trouble, creating unnecessary risk when there is no practical need for it, certainly as far as our domestic broadcasters are concerned.
The BBC, Sky News, ITV—and most other media outlets—have access to Westminster studios just a few paces away on Millbank: a safer, more controlled environment where all visitors have to go through security and can, in calm, sound-proofed studios, focus on getting across their points on what is obviously an immensely complex subject.
Yet I can also understand the argument that to retreat and dismantle the media village would be giving in to these thugs. There is a principle at stake now. Personally, I made a point of returning to the Green after my own experience to demonstrate that I was not going to be intimidated.
Freedom of speech is a privilege that always has to be fought for and I am in no mood to surrender mine now. I am not prepared to yield any ground at all to these people—on College Green, or anywhere else—and I am always willing to debate with my opponents, so long as they are prepared to do so on the basis of facts rather than mindless words of abuse, or, worse still, threats of violence.
There are those, of course, who maintain that these individuals have as much right as anyone to make their angry voices heard. I say to them that no one has the right to tell someone else to shut up or to seek to frighten them off just because they happen to disagree with their views.
This is not freedom of speech: these are acts that should be judged under the Racial and Religious Hatred Act, the Public Order Act or the Sexual Offences Act.
The Metropolitan Police Service has said that, from now on, its officers will intervene, where appropriate, when things get out of hand. This makes me wonder why it has taken so long, and why it took this incident with Anna Soubry to bring matters to a head when media outlets, demonstrators and campaigners have been publicly expressing concern for several weeks.
Railings have been put up around College Green but, as anyone who has ever visited it will tell you, there is no security to speak of for people entering and leaving it. It is hard not to think that too many in our establishment—not simply the police—have started to take the view that Brexit is somehow a special case where normal rules, tolerance and decency do not apply.
What has happened with Soubry and others must, we hope, spark and awakening. Responsible Leave groups, as much as Remain groups, have made it clear that this harassment is completely unacceptable.
Encouragingly, when I appeared on Newsnight this week and made this point—that Brexit is just another political issue, it is not a matter that some people are simply not allowed to talk about—the pro-Brexit MP Labour Kate Hoey agreed with me. I appreciated that.
As for the intimidation, sadly it is no longer enough simply to complain. It is necessary to stand up to it, to call it out and, where necessary, to confront it. These people are bullies, plain and simple, and bullies always have to be defied.
In the context of a Europe that Steve Bannon reportedly sees as a potential conquest for his sinister alt right ideology, it is timely to remember the words of Benjamin Franklin: “Whoever would overthrow the liberty of a nation must begin by subduing the freeness of speech.”
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