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
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