THE wisest words of all in last week’s marathon Brexit debate in the House of Lords came from the Bishop of Leeds when he cautioned against “unbridled tribalism” in political discourse “where the first casualty is too often the dignity of the other”.
Though the Right Reverend Nick Baines was speaking in the context of Britain’s departure from the EU, and a need for “informed and respectful argument that chooses to eschew personalised or generalised vindictiveness or violence”, he’s been vindicated by subsequent events.
Claire Kober, the Labour leader of Haringey Council in London, has quit because of alleged bullying and threats; a fracas broke out at an university debate being attended by Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg and Theresa May feels a need to propose a new law to stop the intimidating of political candidates to coincide with the centenary of women winning the right to vote.
It can’t go on like this. Nothing appears to have been learned from the murder of Batley & Spen MP Jo Cox – it had been hoped, forlornly, that her death would lead to politics becoming more conciliatory. It has not. Brexit has brought about a new generation of activists, fuelled by social media, who disregard old-fashioned courtesies and it will require a concerted effort by all to detoxify the current tone of debate.
However, as Friday’s unedifying scenes at the University of West of England showed, it’s also about freedom of speech. To their credit, Labour opponents of Mr Rees-Mogg, shocked by this behaviour, backed the Eurosceptic’s right to defend his views. Yet, given university campuses should be places for informed debate, vice-chancellors will be failing the country if they don’t remind the students that the most persuasive arguments don’t bring politics into disrepute. Perhaps they should begin by circulating the speech made by Mr Baines.