Jesse Norman Hereford Times column: Raising the Standard of Public Debate

Last week in Parliament featured a very unusual debate:  on the abuse and intimidation of parliamentary candidates during the recent General Election.

The air was rank with reports of the ugliest imaginable racism, sexism, homophobia and anti-semitism, directed against candidates of all parties. Worst of all were the stories of the appalling abuse suffered by female candidates, including rape and death threats.

Now the normal argy-bargy of politics is one thing. British political satire has ranged from Defoe and Swift to Private Eye, from the legendary cartoonist James Gillray to Spitting Image and Gerald Scarfe today.

The refusal of the great British public to allow politicians to take themselves too seriously is magnificent, and it is salutary. Anyone fortunate enough to hold public office must expect to be scrutinised, questioned and occasionally called out in the ripest of language.

Politics is a complex and difficult business, but sometimes--perhaps often--politicians deserve the mockery. And they hardly strengthen the case for courtesy with their own behaviour on occasion.

But this is very different. This is often just continuous, coordinated and nasty bullying, made easier by social media and all the nastier for being anonymous.  And it is deeply corrosive to our political process.

I have been fairly lucky myself--so far at least.  The vast majority of Herefordians are polite and measured in their behaviour, whatever their feelings. Many of my colleagues suffer far worse every day.

But if this wide-scale abuse continues, good people will simply turn away from Parliament. When standing for election, you put your head above the parapet. But you don’t sign up to have your staff and family subjected to threats and abuse.

And some may be physically harmed.  The death of Jo Cox last year showed how far hate can go. This was not an isolated incident:  in 2010 the MP for East Ham, Stephen Timms, was stabbed at a constituency surgery. In 2000 it was Nigel Jones, the MP for Cheltenham.

Amazingly, it seems that many people simply don’t see the link between online abuse and physical violence. They retreat behind the idea that it’s just the normal knockabout, or all a bit of fun.

But it isn’t. Tolerance and mutual respect have always been at the core of this country’s values. It’s time for us all, all of us, to raise the standard of public debate, and stamp out this ugly menace.