6 June 2024

Political violence is no laughing matter

By Theo Zenou & Sam Bidwell

It is unprecedented in British politics.

For the first time, PoliticsHome revealed on Monday, all candidates in the general election are being offered security. It ranges from guidance and briefings to protective details for high-risk individuals. Such drastic measures have never been taken before – not even in the 1970s and 1980s, when the IRA went after British politicians.

On Tuesday, Reform UK leader Nigel Farage was targeted on the campaign trail when a young woman threw a milkshake at him. Some commentators dismissed the incident as an innocuous prank, but any attack – physical or verbal – on a politician is unacceptable. It should never be a laughing matter. Next time a politician is assaulted, the cost might be considerably higher than a dry cleaning bill.

The threat of violence looms over the general election. Authorities are fearing the worst. Our research shows why.

In an upcoming report for the Henry Jackson Society, we examine the rise of political violence across Western democracies, including the UK. We define political violence as politically motivated acts of violence directed towards politicians. It exists along a sliding scale – from outright murder and death threats to stalking, intimidation and violent language on social media. No ideology has a monopoly on the use of political violence. Extremists of all stripes wield it. Their goal: to advance – or thwart – a political cause, shut down debate and divide society.

British politics is increasingly plagued by political violence. Two MPs were murdered in the last decade: Jo Cox by a white supremacist terrorist in 2016 and Sir David Amess by an Islamist terrorist in 2021. Politicians from all parties are on the receiving end of a torrent of threats and abuse. Between 2015-16 and 2022-23, the yearly budget spent by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority to keep MPs safe has gone from £171,000 to £3.3 million, according to IPSA data analysed by the Institute for Government – an almost 20-fold increase.

MPs have been subjected to abuse which is often racist and misogynistic. They have received a huge quantity of death and rape threats. They have been harangued in the street by constituents. Their offices have been vandalised. At times, their families have been threatened. In a few cases, protesters have even shown up outside MPs’ homes.

‘Threats of violence and intimidation are alien to our way of doing things, they must be resisted at all times,’ said Prime Minister Rishi Sunak in March.

In response, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer issued a statement in support of Sunak. ‘The Prime Minister is right to advocate unity and to condemn the unacceptable and intimidatory behaviour that we have seen recently,’ said Starmer, adding that ‘elected representatives should be able to do their jobs and cast their votes without fear or favour. This is something agreed across the parties and which we should all defend.’

And yet we run the risk of political violence becoming normalised. According to the Electoral Commission, only 61% of British adults say it is ‘totally unacceptable’ when MPs are verbally threatened in public. Strikingly, that figure collapses to just 31% for 18 to 24-year-olds.

Such figures make it necessary to explain why political violence is dangerous. The short of it: political violence is fundamentally anti-democratic. As Abraham Lincoln wrote in 1863, ‘Among free men, there can be no successful appeal from the ballot to the bullet.’

No democracy can function when its elected officials are under duress and policy disputes are resolved with baseball bats. Political opponents are not sworn enemies. The ability to disagree peacefully is the prerequisite for a free society.

But it is not enough to denounce political violence. We must also collectively come up with solutions to stem it. 

Authorities are right to beef up security for politicians, but more ought to be done. Protests outside MP’s homes should be banned. Intimidating a political figure should be made an aggravated offence. And groups which employ political violence should be prosecuted.

But make no mistake: the genie won’t be put back in the bottle through punitive measures only. To truly solve the problem of political violence, we are going to need to be bold. We must accomplish nothing less than a democratic renewal.

Now is the time to take decisive action. Or else, political violence will keep rising. If we do not act, it risks becoming a permanent feature of British political life.

Theo Zenou and Sam Bidwell are the authors of ‘From the Ballot to the Bullet,’ a report on political violence that will be published by the Henry Jackson Society later this month.

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Dr Theo Zenou is a Research Fellow at the Henry Jackson Society

Sam Bidwell is an Associate Fellow of the Henry Jackson Society and Director of the Next Generation Centre at the Adam Smith Institute

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.