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Monday, September 20, 2021

Of course politicians like Anna Soubry should be safe from violence, but we cannot stop free speech however nasty

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Recent intimidating verbal attacks outside parliament – including those against Tory MP Anna Soubry yesterday – have hit the headlines. More than 60 MPs have now written to the Metropolitan Police demanding action be taken. Ms Soubry being called a “Nazi” seems to have been the catalyst for these calls to the police.

Yet the strange thing about this outcry is that there is nothing new about protestors and political activists behaving in such an unacceptable way. Indeed, their general conduct has deteriorated markedly in the past few years. I should know this better than any other person alive as I have been subjected to enormous amounts of abuse year on year, day on day, week on week.

In my case, it has come from those who support open borders and believe we are all global citizens now, as well as from those who back Britain’s continued membership of the European Union. The litany of attacks, assaults and threats against me are very difficult to describe, but one or two clear examples stand out. 

The first was in 2014 when I went to Edinburgh to question whether the Scottish National Party was really campaigning for true independence in the Scottish referendum. Given that the SNP is a strong advocate of the country remaining a member of the EU at all costs, this seemed to me a perfectly legitimate point to raise in the context of a referendum campaign.

Amazingly, I was met in Edinburgh by 80 ranting, screaming protestors. The words “Nazi” and “racist” were among the more polite terms bellowed at me as I was subjected to an open display of anti-English, racist xenophobia. Worse still, when the First Minister of Scotland, Alex Salmond, was asked whether he would denounce the action of these pro-separatists, he refused. I even found myself, for the first and only time in my political career, putting down the phone on a BBC Scotland interviewer whose line of questioning was, in essence: “You’ve come north of the border so you basically deserve what you get.

Looking back, however, the Edinburgh incident was nothing compared with the attack launched upon me and my family, including two of my children, one Sunday lunchtime in a Kent pub in 2015. About 60 protestors turned up and, acting like a pack of wolves, threatened and intimidated us to such a degree that my children ran off and hid in a local graveyard.

At the same time my then-wife and I were forced to escape to our car. The four of us had been separated. Horribly, the nightmare continued. As we tried to drive away, the thugs pounded and smashed the car’s doors in and, ultimately, wrote it off. Some even took photos of themselves jumping on the bonnet and sent them to journalists. The upshot? On that occasion, the Met Police did not prosecute a single individual. And, since 2014, I have had to employ security for every public engagement I have undertaken.

I don’t recall a single MP standing up – as they have done this week – to say that my right to free speech should be defended, just as Anna Soubry’s ought to be. Am I alone in thinking the difference between the two experiences described above and the incident involving Anna Soubry is that she is a member of the Establishment, located in Westminster, who was subjected to verbal and physical intimidation, whereas I am not?

Of course, the situation is worse in Germany. Yesterday, AfD politician Frank Magnitz was beaten so badly in Bremen it is not clear if he will survive his injuries.

The group of people who have been causing trouble in the streets of Westminster recently are what I would call the ‘Tommy Robinson Fringe’. I have also been abused by them down on College Green, outside the Houses of Parliament. They are loutish and yobbish and they are the reason, given their recently formalised links to my former party, that I decided I had to leave Ukip. Equally unpleasant are those activists of the Corbynista Left. The casual anti-Semitism they promote is beyond the pale. And who can forget the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, repeating in 2014 a comedian’s call for Tory MP Esther McVey to be “lynched” and calling her a “bastard”?

It goes without saying that I do not support physical violence of any kind.  My concern, though, is that we are within weeks of the greatest political betrayal of modern times. If Article 50 is suspended or revoked, I anticipate sustained anger erupting all over middle England. Such a situation could quickly turn toxic and perhaps even dangerous. The prospect of many more thuggish, violent types on the streets attacking MPs is real.

The question is, what do we do? Anna Soubry seems to think the police should act just because someone shouted at her that she’s a Nazi. This may be unpleasant, it may not be nice in anyway at all, but a line must be drawn between abuse being shouted at public figures and threats of physical intimidation. These are two completely different things. 

I think everyone in public life must accept that unpleasant things will be said about them online and on the street. Any attempt by Parliament to change the law, or by the Metropolitan Police to protect elected public officials from receiving abuse, would inflame things. It would drive the narrative that the political class is above criticism. Any attempts to physically intimidate or threaten the safety of an individual just for speaking their mind should, of course, be a police matter.  

The police must define the line between free speech, even if it’s abusive, and actual physical intimidation. As a long standing free democracy, the state has a duty to protect the right of those on all sides of the argument to speak their minds.

So I would urge those 60 MPs  who have written to the Metropolitan Police because Anna Soubry has been abused to rethink their motives and work out a better way forward. It’s vital police and court time is not wasted on those shouting abuse as opposed to those who threaten or intimidate violence.

If we don’t get this distinction clear, we risk getting into the kind of situation that the AfD faces in Germany. That is just too awful to contemplate. 

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