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‘Us and Them’ Politics Puts Us All in Danger

The more we are wound up through a divisive politics of polarisation, the less safe we all ultimately are, says Hardeep Matharu

Sir David Amess MP in Leigh on Sea in September 2019. Photo: Penelope Barritt/Alamy

‘Us and Them’ Politics Puts Us All in Danger

The more we are wound up through a divisive politics of polarisation, the less safe we all ultimately are, says Hardeep Matharu

Sir David Amess is the second MP in five years to be killed doing the job he loved: meeting people in his local constituency and wanting to improve their lives.

Both Sir David and Jo Cox were much loved across the political spectrum and known for their caring natures and kindness. 

Following the news that Sir David – the Conservative MP for Southend West and one of the country’s longest-serving parliamentarians – had been stabbed to death while holding a constituency surgery, the Prime Minister said that his murder was so shocking because “above all, he was one of the kindest, nicest, more gentle people in politics”.

Labour MP Jo Cox, who was murdered by a far-right terrorist during the 2016 EU Referendum campaign – who shouted “Britain first, keep Britain independent, Britain will always come first” – was also known for her compassion. Shot and stabbed on the street where she was to hold a constituency surgery, her legacy has become her life’s message: “We are far more united and have far more in common than that which divides us.”

Sir David had written of Jo Cox’s “barbaric” death. “While it is often said that good can come out of someone’s death, it is difficult to see what good can come from this senseless murder,” he observed.

In an age in which politicians are disparaged as a class out of touch with ordinary people and focused only on their own advancancement, both of these MPs emphasised the importance of prioritising, not only the people who voted for them, but those who did not: all those in the areas they represented who needed help. As the Home Secretary has said of Sir David: “He was a man of the people… absolutely there for everyone.”

Sir David wrote last year that “the British tradition has always been that members of Parliament regularly made themselves available to constituents to meet them face-to-face at their surgeries” and that “these increasing attacks have rather spoiled… people openly meeting their elected politicians”.

While the full circumstances around his murder are not yet known – a 25-year-old man has been arrested on suspicion of murder and police have said that no one else is being sought in connection with his death, which is being treated as a terrorist incident – the questions raised about the political and social climate being fostered in Britain today following Sir David’s killing are important ones.

It is easy for division, anger, resentment and hatred to become normalised when nothing louder is there to counteract it. Particularly when the likes of social media enables us to too easily retreat into the dark crevices inside ourselves, while simultaneously spreading our anger and fears.  

In recent years, division has come to characterise the business of politics. Brexit, the Coronavirus crisis, inequality, race, history – all have been weaponised by those wishing to sow separation. The rhetoric, language and policies flowing from such discourse has become part and parcel of the very process of politics itself. In this way, the water we all swim in has been polluted with polarisation, dogma and ideological purism.

In such an environment, there is an almost inevitable politicisation which follows shocking events like the murder of Sir David Amess. This can happen in overt and subtle ways – through speculation about the background of an alleged perpetrator, or what those in positions of power choose to say or not to say. 

While both Boris Johnson and Priti Patel have paid tribute to their colleague and friend – and rightly condemned the attack on democracy which his murder represents – there has been no message from either of them about the need to remember that division, hatred, polarisation and marginalisation of all kinds is dangerous; that we do all have more in common than that which divides us; and that we choose not to focus on our shared humanity over our differences at our own risk. 

The lack of such sentiments from those leading the country is all the more concerning given the Government’s main approach has been to amplify divisions, through its deeds and words.

Boris Johnson’s Government is steeped in divisive and provocative rhetoric and hardline policies inculcating an ‘us and them’ mentality. It is focused on reclaiming “our history”; has insisted on the hardest of Brexits; and, despite a vague commitment to “levelling up” the country, there is very little in the way of this being a government for everybody. Instead, everything is a mythic battle to be fought and won against ‘others’; while traitors and enemies without (from the EU and elsewhere) have made way for “enemies of the people” within (‘woke’ academics, historians, lawyers and social justice campaigners).

Weeks before the 2019 General Election, Jack Merritt and Saskia Jones were killed in London Bridge by Usman Khan, a released prisoner who was attending a rehabilitative event hosted by an organisation Jack and Saskia worked for in which criminal justice students help rehabilitate prisoners. Having served half of his sentence for terrorism offences, Jack collected Khan from the train station on the day of his murder.

In the days afterwards, the murders were used by the Conservative Party to advance its ‘tough on crime’ agenda. It was a message reinforced by sensationalist headlines in the right-wing press, which spoke of ‘The Angels Stolen by Pure Evil’. Infuriated, Jack’s father David Merritt posted a message on Twitter: “Don’t use my son’s death and his and his colleague’s photos to promote your vile propaganda. Jack stood against everything you stand for – hatred, division, ignorance.” 

When I spoke to him two months later, David Merritt said he had been warned by the Metropolitan Police not to use social media as it would identify his family, but he is glad he did as he knew what his son’s response to the politicisation of his killing would have been. 

“I just thought ‘I’m not going to have this’,” David said. “I’m not going to have the narrative being set as let’s be ‘tough on crime’. It was such a crude response. There was no nuance in it, it was all about ‘we’ve got an opportunity here’ – that’s what Johnson saw, an opportunity to score some points and he did.”

David is happy his intervention “worked”. “It helped to shape that narrative,” he said. “As far as I can tell, there’s not really been much in the way of anti-Muslim sentiment off the back of this and that’s really good. I am really pleased about that… [because] all these things, when politicians make these sorts of comments, have real world consequences – people get punched in the street, have their hijabs ripped off, are spat at and abused.”

It seems to me that those leading the country could learn a lot from Jack Merritt’s life and his father’s approach to his death. For the more we are wound up through divisions – real or otherwise – the less safe we all ultimately are. 

Until those in positions of power start leading by example, aim to bring the majority of people together, and stop contributing to the creation of an environment in which divisive self interest is seen as an acceptable response to disagreement and difference, the risk of paying the ultimate price will continue to be a real and present danger for us all.

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