As CNN anchors were forced to evacuate their studio while live on air, a chilling pattern was coming together. They had been reporting on the news that pipe bombs had been sent to the homes of both the Clintons and the Obamas, following the discovery of a similar device at the residence of liberal financier George Soros earlier in the week. Over the following days, more packages would be intercepted, their intended recipients ranging from former Vice President Joe Biden to actor Robert De Niro. What connected all these targets was clear, and the motivation for the attack even clearer once the suspect Cesar Sayoc had been found. The near miss prompted an overdue conversation in the United States about the responsibility figures in power have for their rhetoric and the actions it may inspire.
However, those of us in the UK cannot look on with blanket condemnation without considering the extent to which our own political climate has been similarly poisoned. The EU referendum uniquely split the country in two. As a result, British politics has been polarised in a way that goes beyond party loyalties. In his book, ‘Unleashing Demons: The Inside Story of Brexit’, Craig Oliver, David Cameron’s Director of Communications, said that when asked for one good reason why there shouldn’t be a referendum, the then Prime Minister replied, “you could unleash demons of which ye know not.” Looking at the current state of British politics, Cameron’s legacy could be for doing exactly that.
"Enemies of the people" is how Trump referred to CNN and indeed much of the mainstream media. In response, soundbites and tweets containing that phrase were used as examples of how he himself had inspired this act of terrorism. While not directly connected to Brexit, Tommy Robinson most recently referred to our press in the same way when addressing his followers outside the Old Bailey, after his contempt of court case had been referred to the Attorney General. This attitude towards the media might surprise those who argue that it has been instrumental in his rise to prominence. The emergence of right-wing populism has represented a challenge to media organisations, as they are accused of being both a liberal elite and complicit in the normalisation of extreme views. Steve Bannon, the media-savvy operator who helped Trump to the White House, levelled a charge of elitism towards LBC while supporting Tommy Robinson, calling him “the backbone of this country.”
That being said, the press is not innocent here. They too have used the phrase ‘enemies of the people’ but in reference to our judiciary. Who can forget that infamous Daily Mail front page, which displayed the faces, names and personal details of the Supreme Court judges who ruled that the government could not use the royal prerogative to trigger Article 50? Had the worst happened to any of them, the paper would have been as culpable, just as Trump and his media outriders are for Cesar Sayoc’s attempted attacks. Indeed Gina Miller, who led the campaign to take the question to court, has faced death threats ever since. Rhodri Phillips, the 4th Viscount of St David’s, was jailed after offering a bounty of £5,000 for the first person to “run over this bloody troublesome first generation immigrant.”
Meanwhile, leading figures across the political spectrum are tacitly, if not explicitly, legitimising violence should there be a reversal of the Brexit vote. Nigel Farage said that he would “don khaki, pick up a rifle and head for the front lines” if Brexit wasn’t delivered to his liking. This is particularly alarming language; even if Britain were to fulfil the referendum mandate it’s hard to see it being on terms that Nigel Farage would approve of.
Such warnings have also been made regarding a second referendum. Labour’s Shadow Trade Secretary Barry Gardiner believes that “it would lead to civil disobedience” and cause voters to turn to “more socially disruptive ways of expressing their views.” Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell backed Gardiner, using demonstrations against the imprisonment of Tommy Robinson as an example of far-right violence that has already occurred on our streets. None of this takes into account the violence that could happen if Brexit is delivered, particularly in a way that is palatable to Nigel Farage. Stanley Johnson, the father of Boris, recklessly said that “if the Irish want to shoot each other, they will shoot each other” in response to a question about the possibility of a hard border in Ireland.
People will say that the sort of attempted assassinations we’ve just seen in America wouldn’t happen here. But it already has. Let us not forget the barbaric murder of Jo Cox, an act of violence against an elected official that, unlike Sayoc’s pipe bombs, succeeded in its aim. Right-wing terrorist Thomas Mair killed her during the EU referendum campaign itself. He was said to have shouted “this is for Britain,” “keep Britain independent” and “Britain first.” This was just hours after Nigel Farage had unveiled UKIP’s controversial ‘Breaking Point’ poster, which was reported to the police on complaints that it incited racial hatred.
Given the dialogue and divisiveness we have seen since Jo Cox’s murder, can we claim to have learnt its lessons? If not, then what will it take for politicians to recognise the power of their words and acknowledge their responsibility as influencers of public discourse? Perhaps this failed terrorist attack across the pond can act as another wake up call. Be under no illusion. Britain’s politics is just as polarised and poisonous as America’s. It is up to all of us who engage in politics, whether activists, journalists or politicians, to maintain a degree of civility and not indulge in the sort of incendiary rhetoric that impedes progress and inspires acts of violence. As we head towards crunch time in negotiations and ever closer to the Article 50 deadline, everybody needs to be mindful of the tone they are setting.