One grew up in Tottenham, but moved out of London to sing as a child chorister in Peterborough Cathedral. The other was born in Kent, but was educated in the capital at Dulwich College. One studied at Harvard Law School, the other didn’t pursue higher education, and is hostile to “PPE bollocks”. One sits for one of two big monopoly political parties; the other left the other one, and has all but created two parties himself. One is inconsistent, at least in terms of character and worldview, having turned recently from a fairly conventional ex-Minister to a ranting wild man; the other is consistent in terms of outlook and disposition – having left the Conservatives in the early 1990s and not looked back since.
So it is with David Lammy and Nigel Farage. Both are accused, as the week begins, of acting irresponsibly. The latter spoke at the launch of the Brexit Party of putting “the fear of God” into MPs. The former was more specific about people of whom he disapproves. Earlier this month, he accused the European Research Group of being like apartheid governments in South Africa. Not content with that, he went on to risk invoking Godwin’s Law, and compared them to nazis. Not satisfied with that, either, he yesterday doubled down on this line of thinking – if what passes through Lammy’s mind can be dignified by that term – by saying that the comparison is “not strong enough”.
Now for politicians on the Left to compare those on the Right to nazis is nothing new. During the 1970 general election campaign, Tony Benn said that “the flag of racialism which has been hoisted in Wolverhampton is beginning to look like the one that fluttered 25 years ago over Dachau and Belsen”. The barb was aimed at Enoch Powell (who pointed out in reply that he has returned to Britain at the start of the Second World War to fight against Hitler’s Germany).
But the context has changed – as has that in which one can speak of putting the fear of God into MPs. The to-and-fro between Benn and Powell took place almost 50 years ago. There were no gates outside Downing Street. Entering the Palace of Wesminster required less exacting ID. Politicians might occasionally be egged, but they had a status unknown today. Between then and now, they certainly risked murder, at least if they were fast for the Union. Airey Neave, Robert Bradford, Anthony Berry, Ian Gow – all four were killed by Irish republican terrorists. None the less, your ordinary common-and-garden MP was usually safe enough.
Thirty or so years on, the culture has changed. Consider the women MPs who have taken themselves off Twitter – such as Victoria Atkins, a rising Government Minister. Read Nadine Dorries’ account of death threats, abuse and stalking. Mull Joy Morrisey’s tale, as a Conservative candidate at the last election, of being “insulted, spat at and intimidated in public”. She was right to point out thuggery, abuse and intimidation is disproportionately targeted at Conservatives, writing of Labour that “the victims in their party are small in number and, almost without exception, high profile. The victims in the Conservative Party are vast in number and of high profile, low profile and no profile at all”. Though a footnote is necessary: the only MP recently to have been murdered was a Labour one, Jo Cox.
Your instinct might well be, then, to muzzle Farage, Lammy or both – or try to. If you speak of putting the fear of God into MPs, is not violence the most effective means of doing so? If you compare ERG members to South African apartheid enforcers, isn’t that an invitation to race-based attacks on them? And there is a wider context. Britain has seen Islamist and fascist violence recently: the attack at London Bridge or on Finsbury Park mosque. Some will try to take the politics out of one or the other or both, pointing to a record of drug taking, troubled upbringings or mental illness among the perpetrators. But this won’t quite do. People can’t commit terror acts without having evil ideas, however ill they may be. The same applies to the Tree of Life murders in America or the mosque slaughter in Christchurch.
Amidst a culture this fragile, in which people are more likely to live in their own social media-inflated bubbles, there is a need to watch words that wasn’t present even 25 years ago. But seeking to silence angry voices is likely to be counter-productive – as well as wrong in itself. Anger is sometimes justified. It is not even, on the old list of virtues and vices, one of the latter (necessarily). The God of the Old Testament gets angry. So sometimes does Jesus of Nazareth in the new one.
One should be angry at injustice – at, say, what the state can do to children in care; at the soft bigotry that condemns poorer ones to failing schools; at bureaucratic indifference to anti-social behaviour; at a jailbird MP from Peterborough voting on Brexit – or indeed on anything at all. That detail might not mean all that much at Westminster. We promise those who work there that, to those outside, no incident has conveyed more about Brexit, and how it has been bungled. Never mind the backstop, the Customs Union, indicative votes, and all that. What will have stuck with the public is Fiona Onasanya.
Come to think of it, what has Lammy got to complain about, if Brexit is the measure? His side is winning. That Boris Johnson is not “hanging out with Steve Bannon”; that Jacob Rees-Mogg doesn’t collaborate with the AfD; that Bernard Jenkin, say, is not a Grand Wizard (nor has compared himself to one); that Mark Francois doesn’t hide beneath a white hood – all this is obvious. Perhaps Lammy is losing his grip on reality. More likely, this once moderate candidate for Labour’s London mayoralty nomination, who failed in that ambition, now sees an opening to the Left amidst our polarising politics.
Either way, he is losing the plot, assuming that he had a grip on it in the first place. True, the ERG has helped to block Theresa May’s deal. But it couldn’t do so on its own. For that, it has needed the help of her new partner – Jeremy Corbyn. Elsewhere, it is not succeeding. It failed to depose the Prime Minister last December. Its previous launch of a push to get rid of her collapsed. It is now split altogether. The politicians who set out to smother Brexit altogether have been more successful. No wonder a mass of voters are angry with them – unremarkable, decent, run-of-the-mill voters, who wouldn’t consider violence even for a moment.