Nick Cohen Nick Cohen

Violence is corrupting our democracy

Threats against MPs cannot be made to look successful

Credit: Getty Images

Fascism begins with political violence on the streets. In 1922, Benito Mussolini ordered his supporters to march on Rome and threaten to overthrow the democratic government. In the early 1930s gangs of Nazis and communists fought for control of Berlin’s streets. In 1999, a mysterious bombing campaign, that killed dozens of people and destroyed apartment blocks in Moscow and Volgodonsk, allowed Vladimir Putin to take power by posing as a strongman who could keep Russians safe.

The UK is experiencing its own version of fascistic violence. As befits the modesty of this country we have a quintessentially British version of it. Nothing too grand or showy is on display. Nevertheless, violence and the threat of violence is successfully perverting the course of democratic life.

In the chaos of yesterday’s attempt by parliament to pass a motion on the war in Gaza it became clear that MPs were not frightened of the party leaders and whips, but of Islamist terrorism and mobs at their homes and offices.

For example, Paul Bristow, the Conservative MP for Peterborough, wanted to back a motion from the Scottish National party, which was the most pro-Palestinian motion on offer. But procedural infighting led to it being withdrawn. It sounded as if he wanted to support the SNP motion because of a desire to divert men making rape and death threats.  

People had misrepresented his position, he said. ‘Someone suggested on social media that they would show my wife a real man. Someone else suggested that they would attack me and my family. Already today, Labour councillors in my patch are tweeting that I have not supported a ceasefire’.

He wanted to vote for the SNP motion on a ceasefire but could not. He asked the Speaker: ‘Can you advise me how I can make my constituents clear of my views, given that I was not able to vote?’

There’s a saying knocking about in the Jewish community: ‘It starts with the Jews but it never ends with the Jews’. It’s the modern version of Pastor Martin Niemöller’s refrain that ‘first they came for…’

It ought to be possible in theory to deplore the brutality of the Israeli assault on Gaza without bringing anti-Jewish racism and violence to the UK. But as the Jewish self-defence group the Community Security Trust pointed out there was an upsurge of anti-Semitic attacks within hours of the Hamas attack on Israel on 7 October. They weren’t protests against the Israeli invasion of Gaza. It had not then begun. They were a celebration of a pogrom.

Inevitably, the first UK politician to suffer was Mike Freer, the pro-Israel Conservative MP for Finchley and Golders Green. He has said he is resigning from politics at the next election because of ‘a constant string of incidents’ including death threats. He revealed that, before the Gaza conflict, Ali Harbi Ali, the Islamist who was to go on to murder the Southend West MP Sir David Amess in 2021, had tried to find him.

But if people thought hatred would be confined to Jews, they did not understand the reach of anti-Semitic conspiracy theory.

As I and other veterans of the wars on the Labour left can tell you, the concept of Jewishness is now unmoored from reality. It can’t be contained. Step away from left-wing orthodoxy and the gentile becomes a Jew and is denounced as a ‘Zionist’, even if they have never visited a synagogue in their life.

Anyone can be Jewish these days, and anyone can be marked as a target of conspiratorially driven violence.

The reason why Labour broke with all precedent and forced the Speaker to allow its motion was that it was frightened for its politicians. If Labour MPs did not have a motion they could support, the left, the SNP, and political Islam could paint them as standing by and abstaining as the body counted mounted in Gaza.

There have been demonstrations outside the offices of the London Labour MPs Vicky Foxcroft and Rushanara Ali. On the Tory side, protestors targeted the home of Tobias Elwood while his children were in the house.

Lethal political violence is real

I don’t want to be melodramatic. Compared to fascist marches on Rome and bombs in Russian apartment blocks, the violence in the genteel UK is not much to look at.

But it is not nothing. When the British public see the results of votes on Gaza, should they believe that their politicians are voting out of conviction or out of fear?

Lucy Powell, the Labour leader of the House of Commons, spoke in parliament today of the ‘long shadow’ of violence being cast over political life.

MPs do not like talking about it for fear of attracting attention to themselves and their families, she continued. They do not want to come across as whingers. But they worry about the targeting of their homes, and believe the intimidation will get worse during the election campaign.

Lethal political violence is real. It comes not just from the Islamists who killed Sir David Amess but from the far right, which killed Jo Cox in 2016.Yet until they turn lethal, the initial threats that so alarm politicians can seem trivial.

We have the right to protest. Demonstrating outside a politician’s home on a public highway is barely a crime: it is a breach of the peace if it is anything at all. Meanwhile everyone in public life experiences foul abuse on social media.

But do not diminish it. A little fear goes a long way, and as Lucy Powell told the Commons: ‘Unfortunately, it is starting to affect people’s decisions and their behaviour.’

Unless the police and courts become considerably more authoritarian than they are today we will see two consequences.

Sensitive people will back out of politics. You might want to say that MPs should butch-up and grow a pair, but be careful what you wish for. Do we really want to be represented by a succession of preening tough guys (most would be guys) who don’t care about the safety of their families or even have families?

The other consequence is perfectly obvious. It won’t just be Islamists and their allies who use the threat of violence. If the threats work, and they clearly do, why should not others follow fascistic tactics?