Motion to Regret
My Lords, we all remember where we were when we heard the shocking, shattering news that our parliamentary colleague Jo Cox had been murdered in her constituency. We packed into this Chamber a few days later to pay tribute to her and pledge that politics would be different, less confrontational and more respectful and also, to use her words, focus on the fact that we know we have more in common that unites us than divides us.
Sadly, nearly three years on, little has changed. If anything, our politics is even more divisive and fractured than it was then. Indeed, the number of threats to MPs has rocketed. According to revised figures given yesterday by the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, 151 offences against MPs were recorded in 2017, doubling to 342 in 2018, with 152 crimes against MPs and more than 600 incidents already recorded this year. The Local Government Association reports that councillors are also facing similar levels of harassment, threats and intimidation, so much so as to have an impact on people putting themselves forward for election.
I know of MPs who have been advised by the police that, for their own safety, they must not use any form of public transport. Others have had to scrap public surgeries—again, on police advice. Death threats are frequent. Rape threats against women politicians have become commonplace, with those making them now standing for public office. Homes and offices are attacked and constituency staff intimidated, so much so that some MPs are now limiting what they say on certain issues.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission, in its evidence to the Committee on Standards in Public Life, said that,
“the tone of modern political discourse permeates through society and normalises abusive and occasionally aggressive language when discussing politics”.
Only six weeks ago, the noble Lord, Lord Evans, who unfortunately is not in his place today, warned that intimidation and abuse of MPs and other people in public life has become worse in the current political climate. He said that it was not just a Brexit-related issue, although that had made things particularly acute. Just before Easter, the noble Lord, Lord Bates, stood down as a Minister of State, saying that there was a need to restore our national unity and to rediscover the common ground that we share as a nation. The reason he is not in his place today is that his solution is to walk from Belfast to Brussels. However one might view whether that is the most productive way of making progress on these issues, there is no question that he is raising and highlighting valid issues. Two weeks ago, a poll commissioned by the Daily Mirror found that 82% of people—that is, more than four in five—feel that our country is divided and 76% think that the country is more divided than ever before. What is worse, 79% of the public have lost faith in British politics.
So why is our politics in this state? This is not simply about Brexit and the legacy of the vote on 23 June 2016, although it is true that the very nature of referendums means that complex issues are turned into a simplistic yes/no division, and that inevitably leads to a polarisation in society when the issues themselves are contentious. Moreover, referendums certainly undermine the principle of a deliberative democracy, where the public elect representatives to Parliament to exercise their judgment as to what is best for society as a whole.
There is no doubt that polarisation can lead to more and more extreme viewpoints being expressed and a focus, increasingly personalised, on those who might take a contradictory view. That was the case during the referendum on Scottish independence in 2014, when there were outbreaks of indyref violence at football matches and elsewhere, and vicious online intimidation. The EU referendum two years later saw a similar pattern of increasingly bitter debate and more and more personalised attacks, and, just a few days before the referendum, the dreadful murder of Jo Cox. Interestingly, the referendum on the alternative vote did not have the same effect, perhaps because so few people had strong views on the subject or even cared either way.
However, the process of polarisation has continued and, indeed, deepened and intensified in the last three years, not just about Brexit but about all sorts of other matters. One has only to think, for example, about the discussion on trans rights and how vitriolic that has become. This is not just a British phenomenon. A few days ago, the President of Germany gave an impassioned speech about the impact of political debates on social media that, he said, so often tend to be toxic.
Is this a consequence of the advent of social media? That, too, is simplistic. I have no doubt that similar concerns were expressed about the advent of the printing press and the scurrilous contributions to political debate permitted by that dangerous invention, which enabled all those views to be more widely disseminated. However, social media has taken it to a new level. Short-form communications necessarily lead to simplification. Competing to be heard requires more extreme and eye-catching formulations. It is a medium that is, above all, automatically delivered into our hands, and the ability to be anonymous absolves the poster of responsibility.
The echo-chamber effect means that we will tend to hear only the views of those with whom we agree and contrary views will be less likely to reach us. This is made worse by the presence of fake news. Research shows that the more eye-catching and the more extreme the lie, the more likely it is to be shared. Clickbait is there to drive business to a site, and people are more likely to click the more dramatic the message.
The algorithms of the internet sites serve up to us more of the same and lead us into further and often harder-line variants. Guillaume Chaslot, a former programmer for YouTube designing its algorithms, has said that the site in practice encourages the most extreme and divisive content because that is what drives the most traffic. According to him, conspiracy theory content was a particularly effective way to increase “watch time”, so the algorithms recommend other conspiracy videos billions of times over.
Then you have the information warfare promoted by some state actors. The premise is simple: the more you doubt, the less you trust. If you can undermine faith in democratic states and their structures, that is a gain for such Governments. If you are Russia, a Ukraine that becomes part of NATO is a threat. So too is a stronger EU. To weaken NATO, to weaken the EU and to undermine the legitimacy of democracy becomes an objective. This is set out in the 2010 military doctrine of the Russian Federation, where the aim is,
“to achieve political objectives without the utilisation of military force”.
by seeking to plant seeds of doubt and distrust, to confuse, distract, polarise and demoralise. But what the Russians, and no doubt other states, do and sponsor does not absolve any of us from a responsibility, first, to be aware of that background and, secondly, to confront and address what is happening.
A lie can be halfway around the world before the truth has got its boots on—a comment variously attributed to Mark Twain, Jonathan Swift or even Winston Churchill. Who said it first does not really matter. The central message is clear: lies must be confronted early, quickly and authoritatively. So too must extremism. This applies whether it is on the internet, on conventional media or on the streets. So if we are concerned about the increasing toxicity of our public discourse, we must all take responsibility both for not propagating it and for not normalising it—for not condoning it and for combating it wherever it occurs.
A failure to do so does not bode well for the health of our democracy. Certainly, a weakened centre and an increasingly polarised politics give legitimacy to more extreme views. In the context of extremism becoming violent extremism, violent extremists often have a narrative of victimhood which they use to persuade others to follow them. Such a narrative provides a simple, ready-made alternative to complex problems. It provides a would-be extremist thug, as it were, with an alternative to a life of perceived discrimination and a lack of self-worth—offering them instead an opportunity, by becoming a violent and destructive extremist, to star as the hero in their own favourite movie.
Different ends of the extremist spectrum have a symbiotic relationship with each other. If there is an incidence of violence against one group, that reinforces the group’s narrative of victimhood. It may reinforce its message to more moderate elements who share some of the same outlook. The actions of one incite the other, which then incites the first. This is exacerbated if those in public life—politicians and commentators especially—fail to confront and answer extremist arguments. Indeed, to ignore is to condone. Worse still is to echo and pander to such views.
As Policy Exchange pointed out at the end of last year, language that brands opponents as “traitors”, “Nazis” or “enemies of the people”, or ascribes madness or stupidity to those with alternative views, is hardly helpful. I suspect that, if we were all to search our consciences, we could think of occasions when perhaps we have called those we have disagreed with stupid or even mentally ill. That is something we should all stop because it does not help.
A failure to talk meaningfully about, for example, the impact of immigration on our economy and society is one step away from legitimising the stirring up of hatred against migrants and asylum seekers. Ignoring a problem allows extremists to own it. Demonising one minority leads to the isolation and exclusion of other minorities—a slippery path that has led elsewhere to pogroms and genocide. Let us remember how quickly norms broke down in Kosovo and Rwanda. True political leadership is not about following the basest instincts of those whose support you seek. Instead, it should be about educating, persuading and inspiring. It is about confronting intolerance and calling out the bigots. It is about answering the extremists and contesting their views.
A first step in this country is for our political parties to put their own houses in order. It is shameful that the Labour Party is likely to be the subject of a formal investigation by the EHRC into its institutional racism. It is long overdue for us as a party to end the denial and prevarication so as to eliminate the stench of anti-Semitism emanating from some in senior positions within our ranks. Similarly, the Conservatives must take effective action against those in their ranks who are bigoted against Muslims. Only then can either party claim the moral authority to address the wider problems in society.
The Government’s role must be to combat extremism both by confronting its expression and by addressing the underlying issues that lead to the alienation breeding extremism in the first place. The Government have acknowledged that they have a role—I welcome that—in respect of what is happening on social media. The White Paper on online harms is a useful step in requiring online providers to take some responsibility for what takes place on their platforms. Imposing a duty of care on them will help, but let us not delude ourselves: it is not sufficient. And where is the counterpart for the more traditional media? Should they too not have a duty of care to their readers and viewers? Surely they should have a responsibility not to legitimise or normalise extremism, prejudice or hatred. How can they be incentivised to move away from a sensationalism that mirrors the prejudices of their readers? Where is the strategy to combat fake news, intimidation and misinformation? The Swedish Government have produced a handbook on countering what they call “information influence activities”, which is, in essence, a toolkit for public agencies. Where is the UK equivalent? How are we equipping our citizens and, above all, educating our young people to recognise fake news and reject extremist ideology?
Here, the Government have set up the Commission for Countering Extremism which, despite some interesting pieces of work, is still largely silent. Where is the work on the school curriculum to get children to seek out real facts and real news? What are we doing to equip our young people with critical thinking skills to identify manipulative language and distorted facts, and give them the courage to question everything and everyone? We can no longer simply tut about the toxicity that is now rife in our public debate and discourse. We have to accept that toxicity is corrosive, and not only to the quality of that debate and to the achievement of rational policy; it also undermines the very foundations of our democracy.
This is a responsibility not just for the Government, political parties or media companies but for all of us in public life. It requires an understanding of why so many feel alienated from our current politics, and the addressing of the underlying causes that feed and breed that alienation. Let us not delude ourselves: democracy is a fragile flower. Our institutions may too easily turn out to have foundations based on sand, and the so-called civilised values on which we pride ourselves may turn out to be as transitory as a summer’s day. Ultimately, we all have a responsibility to defend the core values that have shaped our country over the last 75 years. Failure to do so will see the very fabric of our democracy wither and decay. It is a challenge we must not shirk. I beg to move.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Harris, for initiating and introducing this important debate. But do we not all wish that there was no need to debate such a depressing topic? In the past few years, debate and public discourse have descended into fake news—or lies, as I prefer to call them—and it has become commonplace if you disagree with someone, particularly if they are in public life, to threaten them with abuse. The situation has become toxic. As the noble Lord said, with the advent of social media this behaviour is now far more widespread.
Just today, Danny Baker—a veteran BBC broadcaster, we are told—was, rightly, sacked for portraying the new royal baby as a chimpanzee. He published a photograph on his Twitter page yesterday of a couple with a chimpanzee leaving hospital, and then claimed it was all a big joke and a mistake. This week we heard that police are investigating comments by Carl Benjamin, a UKIP candidate in the European elections, speculating about whether he would rape the Labour MP Jess Phillips. That is just this week—and it is only Thursday. There are many examples of this kind of intolerable behaviour. The Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Cressida Dick, has said that there is an “unprecedented” number of threats against MPs as misogyny, racism and divisive issues such as Brexit fuel online trolls.
It is apparent that the first victims of hate-filled bigots are women and those from minorities. The mainstreaming of extreme views and the politics of hate often mean rage against women, migrants, black people, Muslims, Jews and LGBT people. Racism, Islamophobia and misogyny are multiplied and spread by social media, often with impunity. This reflects in part a political discourse that has become coarser and more vicious.
So how did we get here? I know that many do not like Brexit, which has already been mentioned, but it has surely become a factor in the country becoming more divided and polarised. The advent of Trump and Farage, with their intolerance and sweeping statements about migrants, women and Muslims, blaming “the other” for all society’s ills, is another major factor. They seek to exploit people’s fears about the so-called elites while seeking to take power themselves.
When Lord Nolan devised his seven principles, I cannot imagine that he considered that someone selected for an election in this country by a registered political party would publicly behave in the way that we have seen this week. Those principles—selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership—should apply also to those seeking public office, those selected as candidates. I ask the Minister what action will be taken to ensure that those seeking public office cannot threaten violent and criminal behaviour. This should come with immediate disqualification.
Men threaten rape for one reason: to intimidate and silence women. I have had Muslim women tell me that they are frightened when they go out. One woman said to me that she removed her headscarf to protect her children when she goes out with them. We know that attacks on Muslim communities have spiked. What steps are being taken to address this issue? Many of us may have experienced nasty threats; I personally have. I do not react particularly well to threats and never have, but they are nevertheless intimidating and unsettling, particularly when they are to your family. Our politics has changed. So too must our response. We must be firm, and we must not be naive about the effect that this is having on our public life and our democracy.
Last year the chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life warned that a wave of intimidation and abuse directed at parliamentary candidates had taken British politics to a “tipping point” and risked driving politicians out of public life in future, following the enormous amount of racist abuse suffered by Diane Abbott. That was last year and the situation has now escalated. How many of us here have spent many years, as I and others have done, encouraging women and underrepresented BAME groups to come forward and seek public office? How can we do that now, when people feel so unsafe that it is preventing people from those underrepresented groups coming forward?
Those who seek to hide behind freedom of speech must understand that free speech is not an unqualified right. If free speech intimidates, threatens or silences others, their rights have been denied altogether. Free speech cannot and is not to tolerate racist, misogynistic threats, and certainly not threats of violence and criminality.
The noble Lord, Lord Harris, touched on the media and I want to touch on that issue too because I feel quite strongly about it. The BBC and other media must take more responsibility and show leadership on this. They frequently provide a public platform for these abusive, toxic views, often in the name of balance or, as they say, “populism”. Last week I heard on the “Today” programme—I could have wept—the leader of UKIP saying that Muslims in this country are seeking to take over and change the legal system because they want sharia law. That was not challenged; it was just left hanging there as if it were a fact.
We must show leadership and commitment to stop tolerating this appalling slide into a society where women and minorities no longer feel safe. We hear talk about “British values” but common ground, decency and kindness are the sorts of values that I think we must fight for, and to promote them we must all work together to combat extremism.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord on his Motion and the noble Baroness on her comments. Both speakers made many points with which I strongly agree.
Of course furious debate, passion and rage are nothing new in a democracy. In the Commons, the two sides are two swords’ lengths apart to stop them from striking each other. Over the years there has been protest, militancy and outrage. I understand that during the rage around the Great Reform Bill, at Trinity College, Cambridge—where the noble Lord went, as did my noble kinsman Lord Hunt of Chesterton—the fellows voted unanimously to reject the pro-reform Times from their combination room, disgusted by its violent and unprincipled language and doctrines.
Over the years we have had many more such examples. My early years were surrounded by the race riots; I was chair of the juvenile court at the time of the Brixton riots and was very involved with Scarman. This seemed appalling. I also spent many years as chairman of the juvenile court dealing with football hooligans. There were all sorts of uncontrolled groups, anger and rage, and we have seen that time and again. We have had real aggression from the Militant tendency, and other examples. Many of us have had colleagues murdered by bombs and mortars. My own daughter’s early years saw her always running around the corner so that, if there was a bomb under the car, my husband, the carer or I would be blown up and not her. That was the fear with which we all lived for many years: “Never go out without looking under your car”, and many other examples.
In a way we have to analyse what is new. What is new and different is that with mass education, effectively very low unemployment, opportunities and effectively a good health service—however much we argue about it—many of us thought that values such as enlightenment, civilised debate, balance, reason and consensus would spread and become ever more common. Many of us fear that they are in fact diminishing, and we are perplexed.
I request to the Minister that the recent speech by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, which he made at the Temple Church on the debate around Brexit, be placed in the Library. In it, without declaring his own position, he describes the way in which the argument is emotional, irrational and not evidence-based. There is no attempt to achieve consensus or reach a middle ground. This is an extraordinary way for a grown-up democracy to resolve issues, and we have to analyse why that is.
Perhaps the most eminent judge in this country of recent times, Lord Bingham, Master of the Rolls, Lord Chief Justice and senior Law Lord, said:
“In a world divided by differences of nationality, race, colour, religion and wealth”,
the rule of law,
“is one of the greatest unifying factors, perhaps the greatest, the nearest we are likely to approach to a universal secular religion”.
In his book The Rule of Law in 2010, he says:
“In a modern democracy where the ultimate decisions rest with the people, it is the more important that they should be fully informed and empowered to choose between conflicting opinions and alternative courses of action. The media, of course, have a crucial role to play … ‘The proper functioning of a modern participatory democracy requires that the media be free, active, professional and inquiring’”.
What has happened? Many of us had thought that the more information the better. When I was Culture Secretary, so long as we had diversity of ownership and plurality of voice we all thought that we were on the forward march. It is of course the development of social media, which had initially felt so exciting and such an opportunity to connect, integrate and communicate with constituents and to be responsive. We have seen how, with Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat, it has vulgarised society. It is not accountable. In the press you can ultimately have some redress from inaccurate reporting, but these are people without bounds who are not accessible. I am delighted that the Culture Secretary and the Home Secretary are bringing online harms measures for us to consider to give social media operators a duty of care. It will be a lot more complex than people think.
The way the world operates like an echo chamber reinforcing people’s views has been mentioned. The great thing about parliamentary meetings such as those my noble friend Lord Baker and I used to go to on many occasions in Surrey was that people would come to them. You could argue and debate. You knew that in the end most decisions would be 6:4, 7:3, or probably 5.5:4.5. Social media is about assertion and emotion, with no evidence base and no balance. It has become a sort of online game, like a television show. It is almost part of entertainment. It is totally without responsibility.
I echo the points about becoming more siloed. Gillian Tett’s book about the silo effect in modern society is all too true. Politicians do not know academics. This, again, is a sinister feature. I also take to heart David Goodhart’s point about anywhere or somewhere and the emotion around Brexit if you were left behind and had not had the proceeds of globalisation. It is wonderful that 600 million have come out of poverty in China but, if you are in Hull, where I have been chancellor of its university for 11 years, it is not how it feels. You feel out of London, out of the central area, alienated without power and effect.
I agree with those who have said that women are often the butt of this. Women are either deified or vilified. Yesterday Caroline Slocock gave a wonderful address to the Speaker’s Art Fund reception about the way Mrs Thatcher was perceived, and so also Julia Gillard or maybe Hillary Clinton.
What is the answer? It is to follow through the measures to protect politicians and to do everything we can to create a more united society, in exactly the words the Prime Minister used when she came to Downing Street. I am sure she more than anybody hopes that this Schleswig-Holstein question of Brexit will be resolved— although in that case one went mad, one died and one forgot the answer. I hope we can find the answer. I believe that we are a much more united nation than is often argued. We have to cope with social media and resolve this dilemma, but we should be proud of ourselves as a civilised, liberal and enlightened nation.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Bottomley. It is also a great pleasure to take part in a debate initiated so ably by my noble friend Lord Harris of Haringey.
I think we all agree that there is a spirit of intolerance and aggression in our public life. Death threats have been made against public figures. Their property has been vandalised. Obnoxious language has been used to refer to what they are doing. Their past lives have been dug up and all sorts of silly things are talked about. They have been mocked, hounded and put in a situation where, inevitably, they make mistakes and once they do they become the subject of further acts of mocking. The result is a vicious cycle, which we have witnessed in the case of Brexit. Mistake after mistake has been made, not only by individuals, but by individuals in the context of the criticism and mocking that has gone on around them.
Why is this happening and what can we do about it? That is what this debate is about. I will concentrate on why, rather than what we can do about it. Obviously social media has played an important part but cannot by itself explain what has happened. Social media simply reflects a certain cultural consciousness, a certain way of thinking. It is the deeper way of thinking that we need to understand. This is what I want briefly to talk about: the way the deeper undercurrents of our public life are manifested on social media and, more importantly, through the offensive language in which our public discourse is conducted. We must remember that language is the cultural capital of a community. It is the repository of its ideas and aspirations. If that language gets corrupted, people’s thinking gets corrupted. It is very important to be a custodian and to recognise the integrity and importance of the language of public discourse.
Why has there been this decline and corruption of the language of public discourse? There are two kinds of politics at work here, which I will talk briefly about. One is the politics of identity and the other is the politics of marginality. I will start with the politics of identity. If somebody were to ask, “What is our biggest problem?” in the aftermath of the financial crisis, in any western society the response would immediately be inequality. A large number of people have found their income frozen and are unable to see any rise. People are suffering as a result of great inequality. These are the issues crying out for attention. Obviously, if you start raising those issues you upset vested interests who would rather not have attention concentrated on them. The result therefore is to bring up a substitute issue and to concentrate attention on that, which is the issue of identity.
National identity or nationalism is the battleground, the site on which our differences are played out. National identity is ultimately about who we are, where we belong and what our place in this world is. Ultimately, with those questions Europe becomes extremely important—the Europe that we joined reluctantly and that we have been a part of all these years, yet from which we want to withdraw. People have a strong feeling that the very soul and identity of their country, of who they are, is at stake.
It is in that context that the debate taking place in our country has to be seen. On the one hand, there are people who are the custodians of the national soul, the national identity, and on the other there are those who disagree. They are dismissed as traitors or as people who do not care for the well-being of the country. In other words, it is a process of demonisation. The other is always a demon: “I am right. I bring light, the other person brings darkness. I bring life, he brings death”. I think my noble friend Lord Harris called this kind of demonisation “polarisation”. I would go even further, because it is not just a polar opposite; it is the demonisation of the other. Once you demonise the other, the only way you can live with him is to eliminate him. It is either you or him. You cannot both inhabit a common earth. This is the politics of identity.
The other important issue I want to talk about is the politics of marginality. Our public life is dominated, so the analysis goes, by a metropolitan elite, which is basically liberal, cosmopolitan, has no national sentiments of any kind and is elitist and technocratic. This elite has been governing our country for the past 50-odd years and has got us into this mess. Therefore, this elite has to be fought by the “real people”.
The “real people” is quite an important expression. They are the people whose voice cannot be represented by the elite. They are the people who speak in their own language and whose aspirations are not articulated by the elite. Therefore, a kind of war is postulated at the very heart of our society between the “People” and the “Elite”. The war between the elite and the people can be fought at many different levels in different countries in different ways, but in western democracies it is fought in one way: this war obviously has to be fought to the end, but we, the people, as a majority, should rule in a democracy, and the elite should have no commanding say at all. The argument is that in this war between the people and the elite, the people are the legitimate winners because they are the supreme majority in a democracy. Therefore, once you begin to speak in the name of the people, you say that the people feel alienated and unrepresented and hence that the whole representative framework which brings the elite to power should be dismantled.
Therefore, I suggest that these two kinds of politics—the politics of identity, which brings self-righteousness, and the politics of marginality, which brings anger and passion—are at work in contemporary British culture. Unless we identify how they manifest themselves and learn to cope with them or get rid of them, we will continue to have this problem, again and again.
My Lords, I join other noble Lords in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Harris, for bringing forward this debate and for his characteristically robust, thoughtful, clear and evidenced introduction. I also thank other noble Lords for their contributions. I look forward to reading in the Official Report what the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, has just said, because there is a lot to reflect on.
Others have spoken from these Benches in recent months on this and related matters, referencing a number of scenarios which have given rise to language and expression that cause hurt and offence and do no credit to our public life. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leeds will, I understand, speak later in this debate about the power and importance of language in our public discourse. My contribution, which I hope will be brief, is to raise a question about one part of the context in which such harmful, toxic, destructive and even violent expression may come to flourish.
The phrase attributed to Aristotle about nature abhorring a vacuum has many applications. I suggest that one of the reasons for this flourishing of destructive and harmful conduct and debate may be that these things are rushing in to fill a vacuum. The Motion put down by the noble Lord, Lord Harris, asks the Government to address the consequent divisions, which is very difficult indeed. One approach—already suggested—might be an entirely understandable effort to control and restrict through legislation, regulation or other methods. In some instances—not least where lives are at risk—that is absolutely right, proper and necessary. However, my question to myself and to this House is whether part of our response might be to fill that vacuum with something rather more wholesome, so that what is not wholesome is less able to flourish in that space.
Might part of this vacuum be the absence of, or at least the difficulty in articulating, a coherent, inclusive, overarching and compelling national narrative which helps us to understand who and what we are, what our place is in the world and how we might shape our common life for now and for the future in ways that are both visionary and realistic? I am aware of all the dangers and difficulties around that, not least that it can end up as a rather esoteric exercise with lots of nice-sounding words, although words have power. What we do not want is anything overly nostalgic and rose-tinted in relation to some perceived national past or unrealistically utopian about a hopeful future. I am not against holding out and expressing hope—some might say that is what people like me are meant to be about—but if it is to have meaning and reality, hope must, if you will allow me a few words from my world, be like that biblical ladder which connects earth and heaven, both visionary and realistic. It is based in the everyday, but looks beyond it.
Could we find some way to shape a national conversation which might have some chance of offering us the unifying and enriching narrative which I suggest we currently lack? This is in large part about identity and connects with some of what the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, has just said on that theme. Identity is complex and difficult for each of us, let alone for nations or, in our case, a nation of nations. I am resident in England, was born in Germany, have Irish and Scots heritage and various other bits and pieces make up who I am. What is the story which helps me to know who I am? It needs to encompass and value all my various identities, and the same needs to be true of our national story. It must therefore be a story which affirms the richness of our diversity, be that historical, religious, ethnic, economic, educational, cultural, geographical or one of many other dimensions. It must be a story that helps us to recognise and express the value we see in one another and can articulate that which is shared in our common life.
Parts of our national being, including, importantly, the constituent nations of our United Kingdom and some of our faith communities, already have coherent and compelling stories that shape their understanding and affirm their identity. My question is more around the narrative that applies to the whole of this United Kingdom, which, as others have indicated, is sadly not as sure of its unity and identity as we might wish. The story needs to enable us to have a proper pride in who we are and what we stand for and give us the language and desire to affirm that positively and confidently, not least in the face of those who would attack it. I do not underestimate the difficulty of this when, as a nation or nations, we are so clearly not of common mind or intention on so many things. However, I fear for our future if we do not make some attempt to do something of this kind. I wonder whether there could be some opportunity for your Lordships’ House, given its peculiar nature—peculiar in the proper sense—to be instrumental in suggesting and shaping such a conversation. Perhaps this debate is part of that.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Harris for his introduction to this very useful debate, and also acknowledge what the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Rochester has just said about the role of the House of Lords, which I want to address in this speech.
Social media has been outlined as a big problem, and certainly there is no question that we have now reduced debate to mere assertion. This is an increasing problem, as a result of the issue in our education system. I do not want to pre-empt what my noble friend Lady Morris may say, but I am sure she would agree that it is very clear that the real problem we have is the failure to teach debate, particularly in primary school. No doubt she will talk about some of these issues.
I want to return to the issue of Parliament. My second speech in the House of Lords was on higher education and a piece of chemistry I was rather proud to know something about. I talked very volubly, asserting various things; then, as soon as I could, I decided I needed to let my pulse rate settle and my blood pressure come down, and so went through the voting corridor and to the bar to get a stiff whisky. Behind me, I heard an elderly voice say: “Lord Winston, that was a very interesting speech”. I turned around—it was Lord Porter, the Nobel prize winner for that piece of chemistry. I then had to spend a lot more on the whisky than I had intended, and we subsequently became friends. He was a remarkable man—though his use of the word “interesting” I will come back to.
One of the issues in our society now is the need to get attention—the love of celebrity. If I may say, we see this so often in the conduct of the House of Commons. It is astonishing that Prime Minister’s Question Time has been a showpiece for Parliament. It is absolutely unacceptable that that is how we judge our political measures in this country; it does us a great disservice. Unfortunately, it is generally copied; not just the arguments but somebody on one side making strident assertions and somebody on the other doing nothing but reading a prepared answer. That is not debate. In fact, it is quite destructive to proper debate, and we have to consider that.
If I may be impertinent, in 24 years in the House of Lords, I have never spoken on issues of conduct; I have avoided it. However, far too often, people come into the Chamber to give a prepared speech with no intention of debating or interpreting what has been said before, of putting some flavour on what is being said, or of speaking without notes. I think that is very derogatory.
There is competition to speak. We jump up together at Question Time and now lack the courtesy to give way to each other. That courtesy, now lacking, was an important part of that role model which was very impressive when I first came into the House of Lords. The acerbity in debate which we sometimes see has become political rather than rational, as we in the House of Lords should be as an advisory Chamber. This goes back to an Act of Parliament in the 1630s, when I think it was suggested that that should not be part of our business. Truncated business in the House of Lords is not always a good idea. Very short speeches do not always allow Members to give an adequate view of sometimes quite important topics. But I accept that I have only six minutes and am halfway through that already, and I do not want to disturb the order of the House.
In some respects, one thing that we in the Labour Party did in 1999 was rather derogatory. In the reform of the House of Lords, there was something that we forgot. Surprisingly, the presence of the hereditary Peers gave the House a kind of dignitas. I know we decided that we had to be much more ecumenical and popular in what we did, but we lost the wig on the Speaker’s head and the hats that we raised to the Speaker, and we stopped kneeling to the Speaker when we were admitted in introductions. That courteous and remarkable panoply of traditional respect was quite important in many ways. We still of course have the State Opening of Parliament, but we lost something with the loss of the traditions.
I am not a Tory but I am a conservative; I believe in conserving what we have of value and remembering why it is important. I am reminded of the novel by Tomasi di Lampedusa, Il Gattopardo or The Leopard, in which that character sees the gradual change that needs to happen in society. As a great aristocrat in Sicily, the Leopard recognises that he has to give way, but it is of immense interest that he gives way with courtesy and always sees the other side of the argument, even finally, when he recognises the need to give way to the new aspect of the Risorgimento. That brings me back to Lord Porter, who used a particular word when he approached me from behind in that voting corridor. He said, “Lord Winston, that was a very interesting speech”. He did not say anything pejorative, although he obviously felt quite angry about it.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to listen to the noble Lord, Lord Winston, particularly his thoughts about how things used to be in this Chamber. That was in what some would think of as the good old times, when the Whips’ Office would send something round when they wanted you to attend and vote which said, “Your Lordship’s attendance is most earnestly requested”. That is very different from the sort of threats about being there on the night for a three-line Whip, or else. The noble Lord also said that he would like people to speak without notes. I will do my best in my remaining five minutes.
This is the best of times and the worst of times for the debate tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Haringey. Why is it the best of times? It is because he has put a stake in the ground, so we have to do some serious stuff in thinking about turning back the rising tide of vitriol and toxicity that surrounds debate. It is the worst of times because, for the next 14 days, we are going to get all that vitriol and toxicity in the run-up to the elections on 23 May. May we and people in those elections be protected from violent threats and excoriation, and from physical violence and death, which we have seen in the past. I would never have thought 20 years ago that we would be thinking in that kind of way. When it is all over and the results have come out, then it will be the best of times again for us to continue down the road that the noble Lord has set for us today.
It is interesting to reflect, since the elections on the 23rd are about Europe, that very hard words were used in the run-up to the Second World War about Europe and our attitudes to it. There were people accused of being traitors or collaborators. The country and the nation were split very much between 1938 and 1940, but then it really was serious. It was not about changes in trading relationships and the free movement of people, or changes in statutory provisions and the way in which justice is run between different countries in Europe. It was actually about matters of life and death. One of the first things that we need to do is to try to get people to reflect, as I think the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Rochester was saying, about whether matters are serious or not. Our next step should be to try to promote more of a discussion in this country that might reflect a slowing down of the frenetic pace that will be there for the next two weeks. It would try to reclaim the Twittersphere and, following the slow food movement, perhaps there would be a slow debate movement.
I propose to your Lordships that we should all think very hard about trying to get together a group of sensible people, who would be widely recognised as that but also as not being politicians. Broadly speaking, we politicians are thought to be the cause of the problem in the first place. I mean a bunch of people who might be chaired by some acceptable celeb—perhaps someone from the entertainment world who is instantly recognised but perhaps someone from the medical world, from environmental protection or whatever. She or he should be readily recognised not as being a politician in any way but as a free-thinking person who, with a group of other free-thinking people, would say “Enough’s enough, so let’s spend time talking in some place”. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Rochester suggested your Lordships’ Chamber but perhaps it should be in a less partisan place than the Palace of Westminster. The group should talk for a few hours—perhaps half a day—and say, “It’s got to stop, and this is why”. They would need the advice of people who think spiritually such as the humanist associations, who have valuable insights into all this, and those in minority communities, such as the Muslims or the Jews. The Jews rightly feel threatened and afeared, just as they felt in 1939 when those vicious arguments were used.
We would certainly need someone such as the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury to be there. Doubtless, the right reverend Prelates from Rochester and Leeds would have some other brother or sister bishop whom they would like to see there on the day. I will probably get into terrible trouble in the confessional, as I have not consulted him, but I would also like to propose and volunteer the services of his eminence the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster, firmly rooted as he is in Merseyside and Liverpool. Your Lordships might think, “That isn’t the right cast”; there are people such as the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, who understand about casting and perhaps they would have a better cast of people to do it. However, a bunch of such people on a stage, talking slowly, rationally and reasonably—following the lead we have had from the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Haringey—might well begin to turn the tide. We might just see an ebbing of the tide of the vitriol and toxicity that we have seen so much of in the last decade.
My Lords, I welcome this debate about how government and Parliament can improve public debate on the critical issues affecting public organisations, communities and specialist groups, such as immigration, relations between religious groups, social and economic interests and private organisations working in the public sphere. We need to know what has caused the great deterioration of interrelations involving members of these groups, especially over the past three years, although the noble Baroness, Lady Bottomley, was quite right in her remarks about many of the big problems occurring 30 or 40 years ago.
It may be because the UK’s controversial national vote, with its huge numbers voting, involved a large proportion of the whole community, on one side and the other, in debate about the European Union. There may be long-term differences between societal and community groups, and the problems are growing to significant levels—for example, leading to disturbances in local areas and involving thousands of people in city centres. Many of these involve tensions between religious groups. At some of these events, political parties and groups have not always played their traditional role of calming social conflict and, in fact, have sometimes stirred it up. Even groups within the Labour Party have exacerbated, rather than calmed, social and religious conflicts, as mentioned by other colleagues.
An equally important role for Parliament and government is to improve understanding about the processes of public debate and involve schoolchildren, students and political societies. We may hear later about this from the noble Baroness. It is also important to hear how the public debate influences public decisions about crime or funding for schools, for example. It is not just abstract debate; it leads to decisions that affect lives.
At the international level, the United Nations Association has been influential in the UK and other countries. My grandfather was secretary of the United Nations Association in the 1930s, so we used to hear a lot about this. The number of young people involved in similar organisations is perhaps less now than in the past. In the 1930s, as we have already heard and may hear more about, millions were involved. Now, we need to think of how we can expand the involvement of pupils and students. We have seen that this year, most recently with the bold invasion into businesses’ and politicians’ debates by the Swedish pupil campaigning here in London and elsewhere. It is interesting that the individual campaigning was working with non-governmental organisations and public media, so we perhaps begin to see a new way in which different communities can influence decisions.
We have also seen conflict within social organisations, including universities and schools, which should be centres for reasoned debate and provide welfare and comfort to affected students. Sometimes, the TV, media and internet have amplified conflicts between social groups and warring parties, particularly those affected by people coming from abroad. That has led to groups in the UK being far from welcoming, but hostile to these incoming groups, as we heard earlier. Government could do more to monitor and assist UK and international social and political groups that are sensitive to adverse debate and criticism. There is a new role for government and the organisations it sponsors for this purpose.
Other organisations have played a different role in improving and calming society. In advanced countries, the debates of industrial, governmental and commercial organisations have steadily improved management methods. Again, I refer to the noble Baroness, Lady Bottomley, whose father ran the Industrial Society when I was head of the Met Office. We had an extraordinary visit from Garnett in the 1990s, discussing how dealing with complex issues in a business or governmental organisation can be effective. It is noticeable how little conflict there is within many of these large business and governmental organisations, so perhaps we should learn more about them. They have had to deal with difficult organisational problems, and I believe we should think about that.
I am an engineer, a former chief executive and member of the Hazards Forum. Another aspect of this is that staff can be frustrated if there is no internal debate about critical issues and decisions. At present, several hugely important technical debates are ongoing around the world. Examples include the recent situation with Boeing—I worked with Airbus and can see this issue is of great importance—people dealing with the combustible behaviour of tall blocks of flats, and the factory workers of Bangladesh. These critical social issues are being debated.
Given the general experience of Members of Parliament and of committees of both Houses, we should be well placed to investigate different organisations dealing with controversial issues, general and technical, in important debates. I add the caveat that physical, natural and medical scientists and engineers make an important contribution to the role of Parliament, and we should hear more about that.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Harris, for securing this debate and for the clarity of his and other speeches. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Patten, that if such a cast were assembled, some of the people who need to be there simply would not turn up. If they did, they would see it as their job to disrupt it, so I suspect it will be more complex.
We still admire Benjamin Disraeli for telling Parliament that half the Cabinet were asses and, on being ordered to withdraw the comment, responding, “Mr Speaker, I withdraw. Half the cabinet are not asses”. Political invective is not new and it must have a place in a free society, but words matter. I speak as a former professional linguist. Language is never neutral, and the ad hominem abuse we increasingly witness now simply encourages wider public expression of violent hatred. It is incrementally corrosive.
If the conduct of debate in public life has become toxic, it is only because it has been in the interests of some people to allow it to be so. I have already spoken in this House of the corruption of the public discourse and the consequences of normalising lying and misrepresentation. I add that reducing people to categories might reinforce tribal identity, but it demonises and dehumanises everyone else. As Viktor Klemperer recognised from 1930s Germany, a million repetitions of single words, idioms, and sentence structures or slanders become unconsciously assumed to be normal. Think of Rwanda and “cockroaches”.
Jo Cox MP was murdered only 10 miles from where I live and I was there within the hour. Her attacker shouted slogans about “Britain first” while killing her. Do we think this is just unfortunate, or do we admit the link between language, motivation and action? I doubt if there was much analysis of the meaninglessness of the phrase “Britain first” and the assumptions that underlie it, but there was clearly a dynamic between language, motivation and action—language free from social inhibition and language that legitimises violence in the minds of some people.
What is going on here? Was the violent bile there already and did the referendum of 2016 simply open a valve, or has the lack of any legal or political restraint sanctioned or legitimised the sort of language we hear and read now? This is not about hand-wringing wimpishness about robust debate; rather, it now sees MPs fearing for their safety. As we have heard, Jess Phillips MP was openly spoken of in terms of when rape might be deemed okay. People are voicing violence that would have been deemed unacceptable three or four years ago, but which now is normal. This poses a danger to our democracy and corrupts the nature of our common life. It is not neutral and it is not trivial.
Classic populist language, of left or right, uses simple slogans, divisive negativity and visceral emotional pull. The accuracy, factuality or truth of what is said is irrelevant. Such language is powerful and effective: it works. It is also apparently unaccountable. What are Nigel Farage’s policies for the construction of a post-Brexit United Kingdom? Where is there even a hint of any responsibility for the future, other than a rejection of the past? It is just one simple message supported by a whole set of angry assumptions, and the language is all of betrayal. The culprits, the enemies, are those who are not them. This is viscerally emotional and not rational. Reality, truth and factuality are of no concern. Complex questions are reduced to simplistic binary choices. And it works.
We are witnessing a trading in the language of victimhood. Everybody, it seems, is now a victim. All sides of the Brexit shouting match claim to have been betrayed: hard Brexiters by soft Brexiters; remainers by leavers and leavers by remainers; “the people”—whoever they are—by the “elites” and the establishment by the people; and apparently everyone by the BBC. The ninth commandment is there for a purpose: do not bear false witness against your neighbour. Surely only satire could see old Etonian, Oxbridge-educated, senior multimillionaire politicians complaining about “establishment elites” as if this term of abuse referred to someone else. But no one laughs, and they get away with it. It is not a great leap from this to the sort of conspiracy theories that have brought anti-Semitism back into polite conversation.
When politicians speak of the Prime Minister entering “the killing zone” and taking “her own noose” to a meeting, we are in trouble. The German philosopher, Peter Sloterdijk, writes that the nature of our public discourse matters because,
“moral and political aberrations almost always start with linguistic neglect”.
Edmund Burke understood the powerful influence of abstract terms such as “liberty” or “equality”, which have the power to move people without enlightening them.
We might be entering a dark age in these matters, but we can put our own house in order and lead by example; for instance, by promoting a greater sense of responsibility among institutional and political figures who influence the public discourse; by making people who use such speech publicly accountable, and by offering counter-narratives that ensure that our children hear something good and witness a discourse that is respectful. We need strategies for addressing this, and we need to start here, with politicians, in Parliament.
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Harris on organising this debate and on his outstanding introduction to the issues. What made me decide to speak was the fact that I had had a pretty rough time on the doorstep in the local elections running up to 2 May. I have done a lot of this in my life, for getting on for 55 years. I know what the voters are like; some people slam the door in your face and others say, “Oh, you’re all the same. You’re only in it for yourselves”. But I sensed that there was a much more aggressive tone towards politicians in this set of elections than I had ever seen before—and Wigton has such a nice local community.
I think that it is a direct consequence of the 2016 referendum. People feel that they were offered a clear choice: in or out. They just cannot understand why “out” has not happened, given that they voted for it. What the bitterness on the doorstep brought home to me was the great risk involved in going down this road of direct democracy, offering people simple choices when issues are becoming ever more complex as time goes on. Part of the answer to these problems is to restore faith in representative democracy, and I will make four points about how we try to do that.
The first point is one with which I know a lot of colleagues on my side of the House will not agree, but it is a view that I have held for a long time: namely, that if we had electoral reform and a system of proportional representation, it would lead to a wider representation of views in Parliament. I cannot stand Nigel Farage’s views, but he represents a sufficient group of people for his party to be in Parliament. The main political parties have ceased to be effective vehicles for representing a much more fragmented nation. That is true of the Conservative Party, which is bitterly split between nationalist populists and the traditional one-nation and pro-business Conservatives. It is arguably true of the Labour Party as well. So I favour electoral reform, which would bring a wider range of views into Parliament and force on our political system a culture of compromise. That is what the post-war Federal Republic of Germany is so good at. When we see the shouting match of Prime Minister’s Questions, the contrast with the political culture of the Federal Republic could not be greater.
Secondly, we have to foster more political education and debate in society. That should start in schools. I am very keen on Gordon Brown’s ideas for citizens’ assemblies, which have been shown to work in getting people to understand some of the complexities that we face. The way in which the Irish handled their second referendum on the Lisbon treaty in 2009 was a model of how to involve people in a proper debate about the issues that is not extreme and polarising.
Thirdly, we need reform of the media, on which I will make two points. First, social media companies have to accept much greater responsibility for rooting out unacceptable language from their platforms. That should become a legal obligation. Secondly, we had a wonderful Speaker’s Lecture from Tony Hall—the noble Lord, Lord Hall of Birkenhead—as director-general of the BBC, in which he spoke about the BBC’s mission to counter fake news and to put news as its top priority. This will not happen unless we stop trying to use the BBC as a social security policy to help over-75 year-olds with the cost of their licence fee and fund it properly to do the job that it should be doing in promoting objectivity and debate. I shall stand up for the BBC. I know that some of my colleagues and closest friends attack the way in which it behaves, but I do not support that.
Fourthly, we have a responsibility to provide political leadership. I am not satisfied that in the Labour Party, for instance, we have taken the necessary steps to deal with anti-Semites. The leadership has not defended Members of Parliament who have come under vicious attack. This is not good enough and it has to change.
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Harris, for making this debate possible. It is timely and it certainly is important.
Almost 49 years ago, I travelled to Heidelberg to meet Albert Speer, Hitler’s former architect and Armaments Minister, who had recently been released after 21 years in Spandau prison. I had audaciously put in a bid to buy the film rights to his then best-selling book, Inside the Third Reich. Like many born during wartime, I was desperately eager for a better understanding of how Hitler came to power, with consequences that dominated the lives of my parents’ generation.
By some miracle of luck and timing, my partner and I won the rights to the book, which led to our spending many hours probing and questioning Speer’s motivations, with the opportunity to go well beyond what was actually in the book. One story in particular stands out. He said that he was walking in Berlin a day or two after Kristallnacht, surveying the damage done to Jewish property and shops. He claimed to have been appalled by what was going on, but by now his principal concern was that the glass was cleared away before any child fell and cut themselves. He made the point that it is quite shocking how quickly the unthinkable becomes thinkable, then normalised, and, eventually, in the final phase of populism, brutally enforced.
In chapter 2 of his book, he writes:
“I did see a couple of rough spots in the Party doctrine. But I assumed they would be polished in time …The crucial fact appeared to me to be that I personally had to choose between a future Communist Germany or a future National Socialist Germany, since the political center between these antipodes had melted away. Moreover in 1931 I had reason to believe that Hitler was moving in a more moderate direction … Hitler was trying to appear respectable in order to seem qualified to enter the government”.
In other words, he was seeking to legitimise himself and his party in order to take back control. Does any of that sound remotely familiar? In the event, we produced two documentaries. The first, entitled “Double-Headed Eagle”, covered the years 1918 to 1933, and the second, “Swastika”, took the story from 1933 to 1945.
I have always believed that this narrative ought to be compulsory viewing for anyone attracted to the simplistic rants of Nigel Farage or his venomous counterpart, Stephen Yaxley-Lennon—or “Tommy Robinson”, as he prefers to be called. When I was growing up, the term “nationalistic” was synonymous with a particularly pernicious form of authoritarian government. Somehow, the debates in this country around Brexit have allowed it to become somewhat re-legitimised. Nationalism is not the same as patriotism and they should never, ever be confused. This drift is a process that we in this House should be doing everything possible to overcome. To better inform that opposition, I thoroughly recommend an excellent new book by the young historian Tim Bouverie, entitled Appeasing Hitler.
Last Friday, the Labour MP Lisa Nandy gave the Clement Attlee Memorial Lecture at University College Oxford. It was a wonderful lecture and I can do no better than quote directly from it. She said:
“The problems of a deeply divided nation, and the many heartfelt views on Brexit, and the things Brexit has come to symbolise, are not going to vanish. They are complex, demanding of nuance and will not be wished or voted away”.
She went on to say:
“Never think that ‘the blood-dimmed tide’ is a threat only to immigrants and minorities. It is a threat to all of us. We all need constitutional protection, we need a centre that holds. Those who believe in civil discourse, who respect the truth, must be willing to find a common cause”.
I cannot top that, other than to remember that, in the final chapter of what was to be his last book, the late Lord Clarke—Kenneth Clarke—asks himself which of all human qualities he most values. It would be reasonable to assume that, as our foremost art historian, he would opt for some cultural reference. Instead he offers just one word: “civility”.
Civility will not be regained by accident. It is my belief that every Member of your Lordships’ House has an absolute obligation to ensure that civility once again becomes the watchword in the practice of politics in this country. When he replies, I sincerely hope that the Minister will offer the Government’s determination not to allow extremism in its many forms to undermine what all noble Lords seem to realise is a dangerously fragile democracy.
My Lords, it is a real pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam. I agree with what he has said. My profound thanks go to the noble Lord, Lord Harris, for securing this important debate on a subject which goes to the very heart of our democracy. It impinges on the right to free speech, the right to challenge decision makers and freedom of association, and concerns issues such as treating people with respect, no matter what their views, and conducting public discourse in a civil manner.
In a democracy we need plurality of voices, but, critically, we also need skills, experience and knowledge to gauge the veracity of those voices. However, the conduct of public debate has become aggressive and uncivil. Healthy, open debate is thwarted by intolerance and lack of respect for differing views. The tone of bitterness and aggression that has entered our public debate is very worrying. The scale and intensity of intimidation shaping our public life is a matter of serious concern. We are all aware of the worst incidents, ranging from verbal abuse, intimidation and death threats sent to MPs for the way they voted, to the most horrendous murder of Jo Cox in 2016. Nothing appears to be off limits with the Wild West, cavalier attitude that we find in public life these days.
There are a number of contributing factors to this toxic environment. One area of great concern that has already been mentioned is social media. It has become a fertile ground for attacking those in public life, especially women and the LGBT and BAME communities. Emboldened by the mask of anonymity, people feel free to say what they like, no matter how harmful or distressing. Furthermore, the echo chambers of social media leave people unprepared to deal with views other than their own. The result is a political culture that is unable to accommodate differing opinions or form broad alliances. While the internet has brought many freedoms and an unprecedented ability to communicate, it also carries the insidious ability to distort, mislead and produce hatred and instability.
The Government’s global initiative to tackle online harms and address the negative consequences of social media is really welcome. We must use technology for positive purposes—to free our minds—and use regulation to restore accountability. Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google not only dominate market positions but exercise control over public debate, which undermines both economic competition and democracy. An effective regulatory regime is therefore much needed, as is digital literacy. The Government’s strong emphasis on digital literacy and their assertion that it should be a fourth pillar of education, alongside reading, writing and maths, is truly welcome. It is also encouraging that the Government are taking an international lead: we need to ensure that other countries are with us, so that perpetrators are not able to hide behind other jurisdictions.
This toxic atmosphere is discouraging people from getting involved in public life. If no action is taken, this will further diminish the quality of our politics and have dire consequences for our democracy. It is right that the Government are taking this issue seriously and looking at ways of dealing with these problems. However, trust in the Government and in politicians is at an all-time low. According to the Edelman Trust Barometer 2019, the trust deficit in our core institutions has never been bigger, and there has been a steady decline over several decades. More and more people feel disfranchised and not listened to. A decade of financial disruption, austerity and weakening civic ties have left many feeling dispossessed and insecure. The consequences of this have been poignantly unmasked by Brexit.
The National Centre for Social Research points out that, between 1986 and 2013, the proportion of those who trusted the Government to place the needs of the nation above those of the party nearly halved, from 38% to 18%. These feelings found expression in the Brexit debate and have fuelled populism, which we have all seen being manipulated. All this feeds cynicism and destroys trust. These divisions and the lack of trust in politics create an environment where intimidation in public life is more likely. Collective effort is needed to address the divisions in society. Everyone must take responsibility for turning this around; business, civil society and government. We all need to uphold ethical standards, so that we do not undermine the institutions we are part of: it cannot be only a government-led solution.
There are organisations that can help. I was pleased to hear the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, mention Germany, because I have recently become a chairman of Cumberland Lodge, an educational charity set up 71 years ago by Amy Buller, who wrote the book Darkness Over Germany. I see that organisation as a laboratory that teaches children how to disagree well and how to develop critical thinking, and such initiatives need to be scaled up, along with efforts to promote digital literacy.
We also need to look at ourselves and ask whether our behaviour and the way we conduct ourselves set the standard that we expect from others, or whether our behaviour is contributing to the very toxic atmosphere we are debating today. How to conduct respectful debate, how to disagree well and how to treat others and listen to differing views with respect are fundamental to a vibrant democracy. We need to hold a mirror to ourselves.
Recently, both Houses have had to strengthen their codes of conduct. In my view, it is a very sad reflection that this had to happen. Yes, we need to regulate; yes, we need better digital literacy and better education; but we also need to improve the culture of our institutions and model the behaviour we expect of others. We live in very troubled times. A sense of anger and bewilderment is spreading. Fractious behaviour is on the increase, both within and without. It is high time for us to come together and work to nurture fraternity, not fractiousness.
My Lords, when I was a student I used to play in curtain-raiser rugby league matches for the local team. We got a bit of money to cover our expenses, but this was docked for bad behaviour. Bad behaviour was “playing the man, not the ball”. I do not wish to trivialise this subject, but I was reminded of this when my noble friend introduced the debate—on which I congratulate him—because it is playing the man, not the ball, that introduces toxicity into public life.
You do not have to be a visitor to the United States to be appalled at the way the President has made personal insults a firm substitute for political argument—the noble Baroness, Lady Hussein-Ece, mentioned this. Of course, because it comes from the President, this practice is legitimised and copied. As the Guardian pointed out, we had a good example of this here recently, when Greta Thunberg came from Sweden. Instead of dealing with her arguments and evidence, many commentators just called her weird, privileged, inexperienced or irrelevant. It is this disparaging of a person, rather than dealing with the argument or the evidence, that is one of the causes of toxicity in our public life.
As my noble friend Lord Harris and others have explained, social media thrives on this. Social media platforms are set up to reward people’s engagement: people are encouraged to feed off each other in a continuous cycle that enables the amassing of data. This data then enables people to target microgroups with messages that nobody else sees—angry messages of an extreme nature that would otherwise never be published—all adding to toxicity. The internet is a wonderful medium for knowledge and information, but as the noble Baroness, Lady Bottomley, and other noble Lords have said, paradoxically, it has degraded debate.
What can we do about this anger and frustration? This tendency towards extremism has been apparent for some years. Like my noble friend Lord Parekh, I think it is due to rising inequality: in wealth, income and the standard of living, as well as regional inequality. My noble friend told us in his introduction of a poll that found that 82% of the public now feels that the country is more divided than ever. A cause of this inequality is the hollowing out of the economic middle. At the same time, we have a polarisation of the generations, as shown by the FCA study, and the unfairness of the generation divide, as shown by your Lordships’ own Select Committee. This hollowing out and polarisation is not the inevitable result of automation and new technology but the result of bad government and bad management—economic and social. Much of this automation is taking place without increases in productivity, resulting in unequal distribution of the benefits. If we do not do anything about it, new artificial intelligence and robotics will continue the process and widen the gap even more. This hollowing out of the economy is a direct cause of the hollowing out of our politics, somehow legitimising extreme views and language. As somebody famous said, bad economics always result in bad politics.
Yes, there are efforts in reskilling, apprenticeships and lifelong learning, and there is a minimum wage, but it is not working. The “just about managing”, who so concerned the Prime Minister when she came to office, are still there. Reports from various welfare charities, food banks and the children’s organisations that support the “just about managing” tell us that their number is increasing rapidly.
The problem that my noble friend has set us is about turning round society, and part of that turnaround is economic—economic reform that stops the hollowing out and produces a more equal distribution of wealth and of income so that all of us feel included. Public services are part of this turnaround. Hardly a day goes by without reports of the impact that austerity is having on our public services, particularly those provided by local authorities, which have had cuts to their grants of 30% to 40%. The cumulative effect of all of this—a political choice, not an economic one—has been to increase inequality. In this turnaround, citizenship and identity matter. After all, we are a community of citizens. As part of this turnaround, let us clearly define what is owed to and expected from each citizen. Add this to less inequality and we will have a more sustainable and successful democracy.
My Lords, I join other noble Lords in thanking my noble friend Lord Harris for tabling this debate. It is the sort of conversation we have in the Tea Room and when we meet in corridors; it is good to hear it in the Chamber of the House, and I hope that we can take things forward from here. I also acknowledge that I have learned something and have been made to think by every speaker who has come before me in this debate. I thank your Lordships for that, because we need to do a lot of thinking if we are to find an answer to the issues we are talking about. Inevitably, at this stage of the debate I will try to add weight to certain arguments rather than bringing forward anything new.
I share everyone’s concerns about the number of MPs who have been attacked, the nature of the language, and the way some candidates think they can behave and excuse it as a joke. I do not want to concentrate much on that area of our discussion but I worry sometimes that the debate might give the impression that that behaviour is excused because other things are wrong, and it is not. Standing by themselves, those things are illegal and should not happen, the people who commit them are responsible for them, and action should be taken. Having said that, what has brought that about or allowed that to happen is wider than that and not illegal; the police will not take it up, and it is our responsibility to do something about it. When the Committee on Standards in Public Life looked at intimidation, it said:
“Intimidation also reflects broader issues with our public political culture”.
I start with the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Bottomley, which was where my thinking started, although I went in a slightly different direction. When I look back over the years that I have been a grown-up in politics and think about the changes that have happened in the lifetime of most people sitting here, those are things that should have strengthened democracy; they should have meant that we were a stronger representative democracy than we were when I was a child.
I think of communication, the ability to exchange ideas, to listen, to explain, to understand and to engage. All those opportunities are better now than they were 50 years ago and should have enhanced democracy. If we think of the improvements in education, more children are in education for longer, there are more qualified teachers and a better curriculum. All that should have strengthened democracy. There are genuine improvements in society. I know that it is not perfect, but I know that I have better life chances than my parents’, which are a million miles away from those of my grandparents. Nearly everything that has brought about a better life chance for me was driven by politics. There is a story to tell about how politics has benefited people over the past 30 or 40 years.
If we put that together—better communication and a better education system—there is a good story to tell about what politics can do. We should not be having this debate. We should be talking about how our democracy has improved over recent years. We have not seized those three things as a way to enhance democracy, and not doing that over the years is in part responsible for and has led to the chasm that the right reverend Prelate mentioned in which we are today.
I agree with everything that has been said about social media but, in truth, the relationship between politicians and the media has not been right for a very long time. They have had a relationship which has been about them, which does not mean anything unless it is also a relationship with the public. Over the years, in the mainstream media, with some honourable exceptions, the way that each has built up a relationship with the other has not been in the best interests of the voter, the citizen or the electorate.
For all those educational opportunities, we worry about illiteracy and people who cannot add up or multiply when they leave school. We ought to worry an awful lot more about the political illiteracy that still exists when youngsters leave our compulsory education system. We do not even have citizenship education on the curriculum any longer, let alone what my noble friend Lord Winston referred to: skills of debate and learning to grow up to be an engaged member of a democracy.
I had hoped that we might have moved from the age of deference to an age of engagement and healthy scepticism, but we have not; we have fallen into this dark place. Perhaps we can go back to think about what we are meant to be doing in politics. Essentially, politics is a battle of ideas. The need to be robust as a politician should not be to withstand onslaught from people who abuse you but to withstand people questioning and challenging your ideas and ideals.
Some of us have been in politics as a profession for years; some have come in from other areas. Over the past 40 or 50 years, every time somebody calls someone else’s idea “treacherous”, every time someone undermines someone else’s patriotism, every time we use language that abuses people rather than celebrates what they have to offer, every time we claim that something has been successful rather than explaining how we had to compromise to get it through, every time, in an interview, we fail to answer a question but continue with the lines to take and ensure that the listener hears what we want them to hear, not what they want to hear, we lose an opportunity to strengthen democracy.
In truth, we talk about Brexit and say that Brexit is toxic, but people out there are not listening to all the things we are worrying about. If we had had a strong political culture and strong foundations on which to have this Brexit debate, people would have stayed with us and listened to the argument, but it was too fragile a representative democracy, not because it will be overturned but in its ability to communicate with the electorate. That has led us into the problems we have now.
I will finish with this: people often ask me and others in this Chamber, “If you were young again, would you go into politics?”. I love politics. It has been my life. It has brought about all the changes I cherish and made them available for my family, my friends, my country and the world in which I live. I have never thought of saying that I would not go into politics again but, increasingly over the past few months, when people ask that question, I have begun to ask myself too. Representative democracy is in real crisis the minute we stop engaging and inviting other people to do the job that some of us have been doing for 50 years. It is in our power to change that and I believe that we have a contribution to make.
My Lords, we all agree that we are in a crisis of the sort just described by the noble Baroness, Lady Morris.
I recall talking to a good friend, a young female MP, some weeks ago. She said, “Do you know, as I was going through the Lobbies the other week, I thought for the first time since I came here that I was perhaps in the wrong sort of job in the wrong sort of place”. That is the level of toxicity the Commons has reached. She and some of her young female colleagues have also talked about the intimidation they face through email, social media and so on. I fear for them; all I have faced are the shouts of “Traitor!” that we get every now and again as we walk in and out of here. It is a real problem and will of course affect how many people come into or stay in politics. Things are very different from what it was like when I first started out as a political candidate, when the old sense of deference was there and people were glad to see you when you met.
We all accept that we face the major problem of maintaining democracy. Violent language by established politicians and columnists in national newspapers, as well as across social media, affects the quality of debate. Violent language encourages actual violence. Behind that, a deep distrust of the so-called political class has been growing over the years; the expenses scandal and the way we are portrayed in the media have contributed to that. The increasing professionalisation of politics means that we rank down there with bankers among those who are the least trusted by the rest of our community. There is therefore a disillusionment with politics as such. I find that the widening of the gap between the public and the professional political class results partly from a decline in party membership; again, when I started out in politics, the Conservative Party had more than a million members. Those grass-roots numbers, feeding back to the leadership, are now down to something like 100,000.
The decline in local democracy and local government is also a major problem because it increases the gap between the governed and those who govern. If your local school has been taken over by an academy with its headquarters 50 miles away, your social services and children’s services are being cut and much of what used to be your public services have been outsourced, not surprisingly, you fear that politics is remote and that you are losing control.
In the past few years, we have seen the rejection of evidence on global warming, vaccinations, international trade, regulation and everything to do with the European Union. We have seen that not just in Britain; we must recognise that it is part of a wider trend towards what Viktor Orbán calls “illiberal democracy”—the politics of feeling and guts and nationalism against these silly liberals who muck about with evidence and detail. So, we have to be nice to each other. That intolerance is marked by President Trump’s violent rhetoric, as well as by Viktor Orbán, the Polish Government and others.
What should our response be? We have to defend the principles of liberal democracy—all of us across all parties and outside the parties. As the noble Lord, Lord Harris, said, we have to defend the politics of reason, evidence, negotiation, tolerance of opposition and different views, the rule of law and respect for minorities who are so easily demonised by populists. I also agree strongly with the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, and others who have said that you cannot have too great a degree of inequality and maintain the sense of a national community. The social contract about which Locke and others have written is a contract between the governed and the governing, and those who are governed expect the state to give them security and a degree of welfare in return. We are in danger of allowing economic change, deregulation and the shrinking of government, which is very much what the Conservative Party has been pushing for through austerity, to widen the gap too much between what the Government do and what the governed receive. That, indeed, undermines democracy.
Several speakers, including the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, and the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, have also talked about the importance of educating our citizens. The failure of political education in this country is appalling. It is an issue that we have debated in this House. While we have to push at it, the problem is that it is a political football that easily becomes partisan and is perhaps the sort of thing on which this House could form a Select Committee—that is, on how to promote citizenship education in our schools. That involves an understanding of our national history, having respect for evidence and fostering an understanding of government and governance. Moreover, we need the teaching of citizenship to mean talking about not just rights but the obligations of citizenship—a term that, sadly, has gone from popular debate. I often hear on the doorstep, “I’ve got my rights”, but I never hear, “I should be doing something about my obligations”. Political education in all our schools should therefore be much higher up the agenda of all parties.
Who should respond to this problem? The Committee on Standards in Public Life has said that political parties should take the lead. Political leaders set the tone of public debate and our political leaders have failed. I do not mean just our current political leaders. David Cameron failed in many ways regarding his respect for evidence. I felt that in particular when we were dealing with European issues in the coalition Government. Tony Blair cultivated the press and refused to stand up to it when he thought that aspects of it were peddling other issues. As I say, it is not just the current Government, but when the Prime Minister fails to call out those in the European Research Group who come close to threatening violence if we do not accept a hard Brexit, she is failing in her role as a political leader. When she talks about how citizens of somewhere are much better than citizens of nowhere, she is dismissing explicitly, if one accepts David Goodhart’s terms, the educated half of the population. Incidentally, looking at the contenders to succeed her as leader, I think that Andrea Leadsom is the only one of those to have announced so far who would qualify as a citizen of somewhere rather than of nowhere, and will no doubt therefore receive the support of the noble Baroness, Lady Bottomley. Jeremy Corbyn, as the leader of the Labour Party, shares in the responsibilities of political leadership. As some on his own Benches have said, he has also failed to exercise that.
The media have responsibilities, and the extent to which we have to listen to highly paid journalists who went to public school arguing that the liberal elite is refusing to recognise the will of the people, whom they understand and represent, is part of the nonsense of the situation we are now in—not to mention the calls for a more robust assertion of national sovereignty from people writing in newspapers owned by American citizens of Australian origin or British citizens who live in a tax haven in the Channel Islands. Business and finance also have responsibilities to wider society and the national community, which they fail to meet. Moreover, perhaps I may say to our two bishops present that the Church shares in the responsibility to talk about the moral dimension of markets, society and government. The Church ought to be saying that more loudly and clearly. I know that it will be sharply criticised by the media for doing so, but that is what you are there for and that is what you should be doing.
In the long run, we need political reform: restoration of local democracy, as I have talked about; devolution from Westminster back to the regions of England; and more open political recruitment and competition. Of course, that means changing the voting system; we have to remember that the referendum in 2011 was masterminded by the same team that led the Brexit campaign, and to win they promised the same nonsense about spending money on the NHS instead. Perhaps we might even consider building a semi-circular Parliament Chamber as our temporary Chamber to begin to change the atmosphere.
Lastly, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Rochester talked about a new national narrative, and I could not agree more. I spent some time on the Government’s advisory committee on the commemoration of the First World War, on which we fought a number of battles about how far we should represent this as more than just Britain beating Germany but as a wider conflict with wider responsibilities. I suggest again that we might consider a sessional committee on the teaching of national history in England. Mrs Thatcher attempted to address the question in her last year in government and intensely disliked what the committee she appointed came up with. Michael Gove is about to tackle it again. Let us do it on a non-partisan, cross-party basis and see how far we can get. There is a lot to do; our democracy is in serious crisis, and we should work together across the parties.
A non-partisan plea from someone who has attacked every party except the Lib Dems—you could not make it up. I am sorry; I said I would resist doing that, but it was just too much of an open goal. Apologies.
My Lords, I also thank my noble friend Lord Harris for tabling this timely—indeed, all too topical—debate. It is sad that we need it but, as he said, we need to detoxify political debate and heal divisions being fostered within society. The dual contributions from our Bishops were noteworthy—I was about to say “interesting” but, having heard from my noble friend Lord Winston, I think “noteworthy” is a better word to use—but when the churches witness the depth and effect of what is going on, I think we should take heed. Acknowledging the scale of the problem is a necessary start to addressing it.
As we have heard, evidence to the Committee on Standards in Public Life put it starkly:
“The tone of modern political discourse permeates through society and normalises abusive and … aggressive language”.
As my noble friend Lord Harris said, the Met Police chief revealed that abuse of MPs is hitting unprecedented levels, with near-daily reports of crimes. It is not just MPs, as he also said. Our brilliant—and mostly unpaid and unsung—local councillors are in the firing line too, with worrying long-term consequences. If fewer start a political career there in local government because of abuse, our pool of talent and experience, from which we draw future MPs and Ministers, diminishes.
Perhaps more than this is what this toxicity means for our democratic systems and assumptions. A Daily Mirror poll showed that three-quarters of the public feel that the country is more divided than ever before, with four in five having lost faith in British politics. This arises from more than just the tenor of debate, of course, but our very language, the lack of respect for the other and simplistic promises of quick fixes for complex problems—described by my noble friend Lord Liddle—all diminish trust in the political class. Both sides lose: the politicians and their families at the receiving end of some of the vilest material I have seen, but also the public, for whom a stable political world—albeit with its democratic swings between parties—forms part of the comfort blanket of our “common life”; I think those were the words used by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Rochester.
Political parties of left or right, which strive to represent their communities, heed problems, find solutions and act with honesty and integrity, are part of the fabric of life that gives people some grip over their futures, a say in how they are governed, some shared values and an understanding of how things can change. Politics has, as my noble friend Lady Morris said, improved life immensely and should have strengthened democracy.
However, of late we have witnessed, from activists seeking votes as well as from anonymous, unaccountable bloggers, in addition to the evidence-free assertions mentioned by my noble friend Lord Winston, a level of abuse, vehemence and spite that has undermined faith in politicians. That is the “danger to our democracy” in the words of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leeds.
As we have heard, female politicians are more often the target, with vile misogyny and sexual aggression displayed in horrific detail. For ethnic minority targets, the abuse is similarly distasteful, alarming and shocking, with particular fears for our Jewish community with its echoes of earlier and, we had thought, long-forgotten pogroms, or Kristallnacht, as mentioned by my noble friend Lord Puttnam, whose film “Swastika” I recommend.
It behoves all of us—activists, Governments, parties, faith bodies, broadcasters, press and social media companies, as well as schools and universities—to face up to what is happening to public discourse, and examine our own role in it, even if it is simply by turning a blind eye or doubting its scale, and to prioritise action to end the harm. As my noble friend Lord Haskel reminded us, this is not just about what is said, but why it is said. What causes these feelings of alienation, of being dispossessed or marginalised? My noble friend Lord Parekh identified inequality. For my noble friend Lord Haskel, the hollowing out of the economy is a direct cause of the hollowing out of our politics and we will need a more equal distribution of wealth and of income so that people feel included. On this, we look to the Government to act.
More widely, though, on the question of language and tone, as my noble friend Lord Harris said, we must start by putting our own House and political parties in order—a plea with which I concur. More is needed from all of us. We should look to the Government to take a lead and use their influence, whether over education, electoral law, the BBC, company regulations in the digital world, police training or myriad other ways to get every part of our life to face up to the challenge facing us. The noble Lord, Lord Patten, quoted from A Tale of Two Cities, which is how this country sometimes feels. But I think of the longer quote:
“it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness”.
How well that former Hansard writer, Charles Dickens, somehow understood our century.
My noble friend Lord Harris reminded us how we all vowed “never again” after Jo Cox’s tragic death. But it will be never again only if each of us is willing to play our part in putting an end to the corrosive atmosphere that has invaded the political sphere. On that, I am sure the whole House would concur.
My Lords, I have wound up many debates in my time but I find this the most difficult of all, not least because we have had some great speeches which it will be very difficult to match but also because some of the issues that we have been discussing—what sort of country we are, how our institutions are letting the country down and how our political parties are not working properly—have no easy answers. But noble Lords have been good enough to identify some ways forward, so let us have a go.
The noble Lord, Lord Harris, was quite right to raise this serious issue, and I commend the speech that he made in introducing the debate. He made some very moving references to Jo Cox, also referred to by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leeds and others. The noble Lord cares passionately about our democracy. He articulated the threats that he sees, including the loss of confidence in democratic institutions, and identified some potential solutions. One theme that has run through the debate is the need for strong political leadership—a point he mentioned with which I agree. That was picked up by others, including the noble Lord, Lord Liddle. He also mentioned the need for political parties to put their own house in order, and again I endorse what he said.
I am grateful to all noble Lords who participated in the debate with some very thoughtful and thought-provoking interventions. They discussed how best to restore confidence in the institutions of our country, asking how we can promote good conduct and healthy political debate, alongside respect for those with a different view—the tolerance that the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, mentioned—and what both government and those of us in active politics can do as individuals to heal the divisions. A theme developed by the noble Lord, Lord Harris, the noble Baroness, Lady Prashar, and others was that it is not just up to the Government. The noble Lord, Lord Parekh, mentioned the importance of the language that we use, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leeds was, rightly, concerned about the normalisation of violence in our language.
The noble Lord, Lord Harris, referred to my noble friend Lord Bates—an unerringly friendly, courteous and popular Minister, who took stock of the vitriol, anger and intolerance in British politics and resigned, calling for reflection and change. He has decided to make his contribution by talking to people on his journey from Belfast to Brussels, to get a deeper insight into the current malaise and how we might restore national unity. We hope to hear from him on his return.
Picking up a theme from the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, and others, next week I am going to do something which many noble Lords have done. I shall be addressing a masterclass for year 12 at a secondary school, where those representing different career options will be making their pitch to school leavers. Listening to the debate this afternoon has brought home to me the challenge of persuading teenagers to opt for elective office when there are so many other careers that offer greater job security, less media intrusion, less risk of personal harm, and better pay, and which enjoy higher prestige in the public eye—and there is not even an estate agent coming with whom I could compete on equal terms.
I also remember recently addressing a roomful of university students on the Upper Committee Corridor. They were in their last year of a politics course. At the end, I asked how many would consider becoming an MP. Not one hand went up—a point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Prashar, who talked about the difficulty of engaging. Yet I was struck by a point that the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, made: never have young people had more reason to become engaged in public life and shape their future. We saw last month how strongly young people feel about climate change.
In fact, we have a good story to tell about politics and democracy. In many ways, becoming an MP is more attractive now than when I started 45 years ago. MPs have better working conditions in Portcullis House, more generous pay and realistic allowances, proper staff, civilised working hours and, through technology, an increased facility to communicate with their constituents.
My noble friend Lady Bottomley put in a broader context the violence in society and asked what was different this time. I shall certainly read the speech of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, as she recommended, and I will come on to the theme of social media, which she touched on, in a moment.
As part of the response to the issues that have been raised, I will explain what the Government have tried to do to remove some of the barriers to public life, to mitigate online abuse—one of our themes today—to tackle hate crime and hate speech, to prevent parliamentary intimidation and to promote democratic engagement, and I shall answer some of the questions raised.
This is a timely debate because, over the weekend, the Government announced plans to safeguard our democracy, addressing the mounting need to protect public debate and the integrity of our elections. In recent years, we have witnessed rising levels of violence and abuse directed towards those taking part in that debate. This increased prevalence of intimidation in public life risks stopping talented people from standing for public service and putting voters off politics.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hussein-Ece, mentioned the independent Committee on Standards in Public Life. It was asked by the Prime Minister to look at this very issue of the intimidation of parliamentary candidates, MPs and other public officeholders following the 2017 general election. It looked at the nature of intimidatory behaviour and considered what measures might protect the integrity of public service effectively, especially given the rise of social media. As I said, we published a response last weekend, entitled Protecting the Debate: Intimidation, Influence, and Information. Additionally, the Minister for the Constitution announced that the Government will legislate for a new electoral offence of intimidatory behaviour—a matter raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Hussein-Ece. Those found guilty of intimidating a candidate or campaigner during the run-up to an election will be stripped of their right to run for elected office for five years.
Passions run high in politics and political debate, and it is right that we should care about how we govern or are governed. However, there is absolutely no excuse for anyone, no matter who they are, to threaten or abuse a candidate or campaigner whose views they do not agree with. Neither do individuals have the right to impose their views on others. I deplore, as others have done, the comments made about Jess Phillips by a UKIP candidate; that candidate’s feet would not have touched the floor had he been standing for any party represented in our debate today.
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Rochester raised the need for a conversation about national identity, asking questions about who we are, to try to fill the vacuum—the “dark place” referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Morris. He referred to the hostile emotions that have filled that vacuum and then sketched out how it might be done. This theme was developed by my noble friend Lord Patten, who suggested the possibility of a forum which might do some lateral thinking to work out the agenda for a way ahead. The noble Lord, Lord Hunt, suggested a new role for the Government in reassuring minority groups—I would like to reflect on that—as well as the idea of a parliamentary committee looking at how outside bodies deal with the sort of conflicts that we have been wrestling with this afternoon.
Brexit was one of the themes that ran through our debate; a large number of noble Lords mentioned it. A referendum has the potential to set people against Parliament when the people vote for a proposition with which the majority of parliamentarians disagree, and are then frustrated—as the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, mentioned—when three years later the result they voted for has not been delivered. We have seen a sort of polarisation of leave versus remain, which is beginning to replace the traditional right/left divisions that we have seen in our politics. The noble Lord, Lord Parekh, referred to the polarisation of a metropolitan elite on the one side and the rest of the country on the other.
I have reservations about referendums. I think it is legitimate to have a referendum to see whether Scotland or Northern Ireland wants to remain part of the UK, but I have reservations otherwise. I happen to believe that democracy is a conversation between people and Parliament, rather than a one-off instruction from one to the other. But, whatever one’s views, nothing can excuse the hatred and violence that we have recently witnessed.
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leeds developed the themes by referring to the language of betrayal that has been used by some of those currently campaigning. I deplore the language that has been used—in some cases by my party—to talk about politicians. But the whole House welcomed the two memorable thoughts for the day offered by the two right reverend Prelates.
To the noble Lords, Lord Liddle and Lord Wallace, I say that we have had a look at electoral reform; we tried it but the public did not buy it, and I am not sure that it will happen in the near future. I was moved, as I am sure we all were, by the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, who spoke of the risk of the slippery slope—the drift—if we do not confront extremists. He reminded us how nationalism can get out of control. Yes, we will stand up for the values he described.
While we have been talking about the toxicity in public life, it struck me that the increasing levels of violence that we have mentioned extend beyond the walls of Westminster to the lives of councillors—as the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, mentioned—and to hard-working teachers, nurses, doctors, judges and police and prison officers, who have also been targets and victims of toxicity and, in some cases, the intimidation and violence referred to in our debate today.
I was concerned to read in today’s Times, as I am sure were other noble Lords, that a number of MPs no longer feel secure walking across Westminster Bridge and are increasingly taking taxis. Noble Lords will have seen at times the aggressive behaviour of protesters during the recent Brexit debates. I looked out of the window of the Chief Whip’s Office this morning and saw a large placard saying, “Self-serving liars are destroying our nation”. Security arrangements at the Palace of Westminster are under constant review, and there is an ongoing police operation on the Parliamentary Estate as the debate on Brexit continues. The Metropolitan Police will do its best to balance the legitimate right to peaceful protest, but its members will deal robustly with incidents of harassment and intervene wherever they see or hear breaches of the law.
A number of noble Lords mentioned social media and the online harms White Paper, and talked about the abuse that takes place online and the damage it can do to people’s lives, careers and health. That is why we are taking action through the joint DCMS and Home Office online harms White Paper, which was welcomed by a number of noble Lords. We will establish a new statutory duty of care, as referred to by my noble friend Lady Bottomley, to make companies take more responsibility for the safety of their users and tackle harm caused by content or activity on their services. Compliance with that duty of care will be overseen and enforced by an independent regulator. As we debate these measures, there will be opportunities for noble Lords to add their own thoughts about how the legislation might be improved.
Accountability was a theme mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Prashar. Companies will be held to account for tackling a comprehensive set of online harms, including behaviours that may not be illegal but are none the less highly damaging to individuals or threaten our way of life in the United Kingdom. We expect that to include hate crime. We would also expect the regulator to include in a code of practice guidance to companies to outline what activity and material constitutes hateful content, content that may directly or indirectly cause harm to users—for example, in some cases of bullying or offensive material—and expectations around clear and accessible guidance to users on what constitutes hate crime and how to report it. We are consulting on the most appropriate powers for the regulator.
I thought the noble Baroness, Lady Prashar, made a good point, on the other side of the scales, in accentuating the positive benefits that can come from the intelligent use of information technology.
On fake news and state actors, the noble Lord, Lord Harris, asked why we did not have a toolkit such as the one that they have in Europe to deal with misinformation. In fact, the RESIST toolkit was launched last month to help communicators to spot and respond to disinformation. There is also a rapid response unit in the Cabinet Office to try to address disinformation.
The noble Baroness, Lady Morris, asked what we are doing to educate schoolchildren. We are looking at critical thinking skills in schools and launched a secondary schools resource last year to raise awareness of democracy. However, focusing just on children is not enough; we must do more now, which is why we launched the RESIST toolkit, as well as an awareness campaign targeted at 18 to 24 year-olds to give them the tools that they need. However, all the evidence is that people still look to the news agencies and news websites and give greater credibility to them than news on social media.
I am conscious that I am not going to get through all the issues that have been raised, but I will say a word about hate crime, an issue raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Hussein-Ece. We are clear that hate crime and hate speech are completely unacceptable, that victims should be supported, and that those who commit these hateful attacks should feel the full force of the law. We are committed to upholding free speech, and legislation is in place to protect fundamental rights. However, this freedom cannot be an excuse to harm or to spread hatred. Current UK legislation values free speech and enables people who wish to engage in debate so to do, regardless of whether others agree with the views being expressed. Importantly, the law ensures that people are protected against criminal activity, including threatening, menacing or obscene behaviour, online and offline. In this way, we believe the law strikes the right balance between protecting citizens and protecting their right to expression.
I will say a word about Prime Minister’s Questions, an issue raised by the noble Lord, Lord Winston—this will be a personal view. For many people, the weekly session of PMQs, which now lasts nearly twice as long as Standing Orders provide for, shapes their perception of politics. It is like Marmite. Some people love it—it is good box office, with at times some good one-liners worked up by spads and brisk exchanges on the issues of the day. For others, it is a poor advertisement for our democracy and our elected representatives, which switches many people off a career in public life and downgrades their faith in the democratic process. No one understands more than I do the passions that exist in the other place and the function of Prime Minister’s Questions as a sort of safety valve, but it could be a better advertisement for the political process if the context was less rowdy. I admire the way the Prime Minister handles this bear-pit with dignity, and I suspect it is not how she would prefer to conduct political discourse. I hope at some point it might be reset, retaining it as the forum of political debate but without the concomitant uproar.
Of course, the other place should never be like your Lordships’ House, where herbivores like me prefer our debates without the large decibel count, personal animosity or a binary approach to issues. We need to embody civility—a word raised by many during our debate. I agreed with what the noble Lord, Lord Winston, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Rochester said: this might be a better forum for addressing the issues we have been discussing than the other place. I cannot remember who complained about it, but there are fewer people in the upper House who read out prepared scripts from the Whips’ Office.
I thank all those who have taken part in the debate. We must all work together to protect, respect, and promote our democracy. I will share with ministerial colleagues the helpful suggestions that have been made, and I hope that, working together, we will create a better environment in which our democracy can thrive and in which we can all deliver on our collective responsibilities.
My Lords, it is customary on these occasions to say how grateful you are to everyone who contributed. I suspect that that is sometimes formulaic, but it has been a debate of profound content. Like my noble friend Lady Morris, I have gained something, learned something and been provoked into thinking about something by every single contribution we have heard. I am also grateful to the Minister for a response that at least attempted to cover the enormous breadth of issues raised during our discussion. He did so with his usual urbanity, courtesy and all the values that we have said are so important in our public life.
I want to make it clear that I brought forward this debate not because I think the problems we face are new. I very much take the point from the noble Baroness, Lady Bottomley. The first death threat I received as a public figure was almost 30 years ago. It was scrawled on the front of my house in black paint, and it was quite clear what the intent was. At the time, the police duly took a little note of it. A chief constable saw a photograph of it recently and said, “Oh, we’d take that very seriously these days”. I am sure that is very reassuring. The point is that this is not a new phenomenon, but the consensus from every speaker has been that it has got significantly worse and significantly more serious in recent years.
I think a consensus emerged that we want to see strong leadership—I prefer the word “better”—to confront and deal with these issues. Unfortunately, strong leadership begins to sound like the strong man or the strong woman; that is the antithesis of what we are looking for. But we do want leadership, and people who are prepared to build consensus and confront the unacceptable, rather than pretend it is not there or ignore it. The overwhelming feeling I got from the contributions today was that we cannot allow this to drift, because the drift could lead us to a very unacceptable and frightening place. Given the unanimity that has been expressed today, I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.