Rees-Mogg scuf­fle is as­sault on free speech

Bri­tain prides it­self on po­lit­i­cal de­bate with­out vi­o­lence. We must en­sure that it is re­spected by all

The Sunday Telegraph - - Sunday Comment - DANIEL HANNAN

Bri­tain has, his­tor­i­cally, been bless­edly free from po­lit­i­cal vi­o­lence. We don’t go in for rev­o­lu­tion­ary mobs, uni­formed stew­ards at party ral­lies, paramil­i­tary brigades or shouty dic­ta­tors. Sure, we have oc­ca­sional brawls, but even these are, by in­ter­na­tional stan­dards, pretty rare. Rarer still are as­saults on our MPs.

Yes, Bri­tain has its share of de­ranged in­di­vid­u­als, some of whom cause tragedies. In 2001, a dis­turbed man at­tacked Nigel Jones, a Lib Dem MP, with a samurai sword, in­jur­ing him and killing the party agent who stood bravely by his side. In 2010, a 21-yearold Is­lamist rad­i­cal called Roshonara Choudhry stabbed Labour’s Stephen Timms dur­ing a con­stituency surgery. And, of course, Jo Cox was hor­ri­bly mur­dered in 2016 by Thomas Mair, an anti-im­mi­grant ex­trem­ist with a his­tory of men­tal health prob­lems.

Next to these mon­strosi­ties, Ja­cob Rees-Mogg’s scuf­fle with Leftist protesters in Bris­tol on Fri­day evening might seem mild.

The Euroscep­tic MP, who is the most cor­rect and cour­te­ous of men, has been typ­i­cally mod­est about the whole af­fair, dur­ing which his at­tempts to qui­eten the ya­hoos led to a bit of shov­ing. In fact, though, this clash mat­ters very much, mark­ing as it does a fur­ther nor­mal­i­sa­tion of phys­i­cal force in our pol­i­tics.

No one tried to jus­tify the men who at­tacked Nigel Jones or Jo Cox, and only one ji­hadi web­site at­tempted to de­fend Roshonara Choudhry. But, in a way that would re­cently have been un­think­able, the “punch a Nazi” ten­dency is be­com­ing main­stream, es­pe­cially on uni­ver­sity cam­puses. Any­one in­volved in the 2017 elec­tion will tell you that they had never seen so many de­faced posters. Can­di­dates had their car tyres let down, their prop­erty sprayed in paint, their meet­ings dis­rupted. The re­spect and or­der­li­ness that had char­ac­terised our elec­tions for a cen­tury is in de­cline.

Ev­ery so­ci­ety, by the law of av­er­ages, con­tains some so­ciopaths. The test is whether those so­ciopaths are get­ting en­cour­age­ment from main­stream politi­cians. For the first time in many decades, Bri­tain is fail­ing that test.

Mo­men­tum, the or­gan­i­sa­tion that got Jeremy Cor­byn elected to the Labour lead­er­ship, is fre­quently ac­cused of threat­en­ing and in­tim­i­dat­ing Labour mod­er­ates, most re­cently on Haringey Coun­cil. In 2016, it for­mally dropped a com­mit­ment to non-vi­o­lence from its code of be­hav­iour.

We don’t yet know whether those who sought to break up Mr ReesMogg’s meet­ing were Mo­men­tum sup­port­ers – early re­ports sug­gest that at least one of them, the loud­est and most bel­li­cose, was – but it is hard to sep­a­rate their be­hav­iour from the gen­eral mood on the far Left, a mood which treats those who dis­agree, not as op­po­nents but as en­e­mies.

Here, for ex­am­ple, is John McDon­nell, the shadow chan­cel­lor: “I want to be in a sit­u­a­tion where no Tory MP can travel any­where in the coun­try, or show their face any­where in pub­lic, with­out be­ing chal­lenged by di­rect ac­tion.” I’d say that’s pretty much what hap­pened in Bris­tol, wouldn’t you?

For the avoid­ance of doubt, Mr McDon­nell loudly backed the Leftwing stu­dents who were ar­rested fol­low­ing an at­tack on Con­ser­va­tive HQ, and re­ferred to such young peo­ple as “the best of our move­ment”.

Now you might protest that Jeremy Cor­byn him­self would never coun­te­nance vi­o­lence, and you’d have a point. There is more than a whiff of Thir­ties paci­fism about the po­lite, san­dal-wear­ing, tee­to­tal, wellinten­tioned old boob.

Still, ideas have con­se­quences. If you spend your ca­reer jus­ti­fy­ing move­ments like Hizbol­lah and the IRA; if the move­ment that elected you for­mally es­chews non-vi­o­lence; if you el­e­vate as your sec­ond-in-com­mand an MP who cheer­fully says of his op­po­nents: “some­times you feel like phys­i­cal force, you feel like giv­ing them a good slap­ping”, then you can hardly be sur­prised when some of your fol­low­ers fol­low your logic to its con­clu­sion.

Do we find bel­li­cose and un­hinged in­di­vid­u­als on the Right, too? Yes, of course. But there is an asym­me­try in our po­lit­i­cal dis­course. Very few Con­ser­va­tives boast of hat­ing the other side in the way that Leftists ha­bit­u­ally do. When you hear words like “evil” used about a po­lit­i­cal op­po­nent, you can usu­ally guess where the speaker is com­ing from.

The be­havioural psy­chol­o­gist Jonathan Haidt has ex­plained why this im­bal­ance ex­ists. Con­ser­va­tives, his sur­veys show, gen­er­ally un­der­stand why Leftists think as they do, even if they don’t share their opin­ions. But the re­verse is not true. A lot of peo­ple on the Left strug­gle to un­der­stand how any­one can dis­agree with them, and so dis­miss their op­po­nents as nasty.

Their think­ing goes some­thing like this: “I’m a nice per­son, I care about op­pressed groups. You are at the op­po­site end of the spec­trum, so you must be driven by ha­tred, and I there­fore hate you.”

This is nec­es­sar­ily a dif­fi­cult phe­nom­e­non to mea­sure em­pir­i­cally, but a sur­vey in the New States­man found that Labour vot­ers were twice as likely as Tories to drop a friend who voted the other way, and 10 times more likely to seek out peo­ple who shared their pol­i­tics.

The far Left is en­gaged in what, in other con­texts, it calls “oth­er­ing” – us­ing la­bels to deny the es­sen­tial hu­man­ity of their op­po­nents.

When protesters shout down even so gen­tle a soul as Mr Rees-Mogg with cries of “Fas­cist!” they are dis­play­ing that pre­cise fail­ure of em­pa­thy that they wrongly imag­ine in their op­po­nents. The irony is so beau­ti­ful that it should hang in Tate Bri­tain.

Very few Con­ser­va­tives boast of hat­ing the other side in the way that Leftists ha­bit­u­ally do

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