That was the year that was, and let’s hope we never see its like again. So far as political discourse was concerned, 2018 plumbed poisonous new depths of anger and abuse.
It was more than a year to forget. To borrow from a now familiar
How else to describe the 12 months in which our Prime Minister,
As she put it in her Christmas broadcast just a few days ago: ‘Even with the most deeply held differences, treating the other person with respect and as a fellow human being is always a good first step towards greater understanding’
It was a year when Boris Johnson mocked Muslim women who wore burkas for ‘looking like letter boxes’ or ‘bank robbers’.
And there was the sight of Labour MP Luciana Berger arriving at her party’s conference with a police escort for her own protection after being targeted by the sort of vile anti-Semitic abuse we thought had been consigned to history.
The atmosphere inside the Commons Chamber was fetid. MPs were accused of misogynistic insults, with even the saintly Jeremy Corbyn said to have muttered ‘stupid woman’ at Theresa May.
And Jacob Rees-Mogg departed from his habitual politesse to aim a cheap jingoistic jibe at Bank of England Governor Mark Carney, branding him a ‘second-tier Canadian politician’.
How else to describe the 12 months in which our Prime Minister, Theresa May, was told to ‘bring her own noose’ by one Tory MP
Yet what we heard and saw in public is mild compared with what went on behind the scenes – the private abuse our politicians reserved for each other over the past few months and the sort of thing I’ve encountered all-too frequently as a political pundit and broadcaster on television and radio.
Take the time I sat with a Remain-supporting Minister in a TV studio, ahead of broadcast.
As we chatted, he was spitting blood about the ‘f****** lunatic Brexiteers’, saying how he would personally ensure a special place in hell for them.
Minutes later he was serenely explaining to the interviewer that the country must come together, while he and his colleagues were working in tandem to provide a united government.
I recall Lord Chris Patten muttering darkly about fanatical Brexiteers, who he regarded as ‘Maoists’ and ‘rodents’. Charming.
In a recent profile of Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson, I reported him telling a fellow Cabinet Minister that: ‘I think you’re a c***.
Everyone thinks you’re a c***.’ This was apparently his way of persuading the Minister in question to fall in behind the Prime Minister’s plan on Brexit.
Was it ever thus? To a degree, perhaps. But I can’t help feeling that things are getting worse, that the coarsening of public life has taken on a frightening new momentum – and that people can no longer exchange opposing views without questioning their opponent’s parentage.
In replying to a tweet of mine calling for better manners, Tory Deputy Chairman James Cleverly had the temerity to declare that he was ‘genuinely saddened by how rare “please” and “thank you” have become in shops, pubs and restaurants’.
A torrent of abuse then followed from Left-wing tweeters, as if he’d been calling for Jeremy Corbyn to be lynched.
Yes, for all its undoubted benefits, social media is a big part of the problem. A minor disagreement can spiral out of control into a vituperative slanging match within seconds, and frequently does so.
The anonymity, spontaneity and instant nature of social media – especially Twitter – encourages people to say things and behave in a way they wouldn’t dream of doing in normal life. I know. I’ve been guilty of it myself on too many occasions.
As one of my followers put it: ‘On the radio, Iain Dale is nice, nice, nice. On Twitter he can be an absolute beast.’ And I can do nothing except admit that he’s right.
Twitter has become a hateful place, an absolute sewer, and if I didn’t work as a pundit and commentator, I’d happily remove myself from its clutches.
Upset the Cybernats, the Corbynistas or the pro-Europe #FBPE cult and you enter a living Twitter-hell for days on end.
Just look at the response from Corbynites to anyone who was just a tad concerned that anti-Semitism was being tolerated in the Labour Party.
Or imagine the reaction you’ll get from the so-called Cybernats if you dare to criticise Queen Nicola Sturgeon. As the columnist Suzanne Moore tweeted just before Christmas: ‘One thing Twitter has ruined for ever is the fantasy that Left-wing people are nice. What a bunch of b*******, spewing out nastiness…’
That’s not to say things are any better on the Right. They’re not.
Yet social media is not the sole cause of the problem – far from it. The problems are both wider and deeper. Political conversation itself is now, to be frank, debased.
Political debate has become a binary world, with everything in black and white. Shades of grey have been driven out.
What, for example, should we make of those such as Labour’s Laura Pidcock, who proudly declares that she couldn’t possibly be friends with a Conservative?
She, like a growing number of us, appears to live in an echo chamber, determined to reinforce existing views. God forbid that we should question our own side.
If you’re on the Left, you think Channel 4 News is the most balanced news programme on TV.
If you’re on the Right, you probably believe the BBC to be a hotbed of liberal Lefties. Whatever happened to research, to careful questioning, to open-minded debate.
If we’re not willing to engage with people who hold different views, how on earth can we challenge ourselves – or those in power?
I was appalled by an exchange between politicians on Kay Burley’s Sky News show a few days ago. It seemed to sum things up – a perfect illustration of the state we’re in.
Labour MP Anna Turley and Welsh Conservative MP David Davies had been debating the merits of a second Brexit referendum, when Turley decided she’d launch into a finger-jabbing monologue with a sub-theme about how evil Tories are.
This change of direction had nothing to do with the matter in hand. Davies stood there and took it for a while, until he cracked and took out his mobile phone to check his emails.
Burley did nothing to control the situation, of course, no doubt revelling in the great television playing out – an insulting rant met with ostentatious indifference.
Yet it wasn’t great television, it was buttock-clenchingly awful, a spectacle which brought no credit at all on any of the participants.
It’s one of my New Year’s resolutions to play my own small part and aim at a little more civility in political exchanges, whether on Twitter or elsewhere.
Last week I told my 125,000 followers that I would mute or block anyone who insulted me using four-letter words.
It’s not that I’m a snowflake, but that sort of abuse is plain wrong. Most people wouldn’t dream of calling me something obscene to my face, so why should I let them do so on Twitter?
I hope that my own contributions, too, will be a little more measured in the coming weeks and months – but I know my resolve will be tested, especially in this atmosphere.
Even children are now bought up to hate. Hate him, hate her, hate Manchester United, hate the Tories, hate the EU.
How much is the ‘B’ word responsible for this change in climate, for making foul-mouthed rants seem somehow normal? Has Brexit helped unleash and legitimise argument by insult?
It’s clear that the referendum and ongoing argument have opened a Pandora’s Box of anger and rage. Yet that cannot be an excuse for descending into common abuse.
For example, as a Brexiteer, I believe Britain will be better off outside the EU. At the same time I cannot prove it and must acknowledge the fact.
It’s important that people on both sides of the debate have the humility to accept that we might be wrong. So let’s pray for a little more dignity in the months to come.
After all, 2018 has been the most toxic year ever known in terms of public dialogue.
We need a sort of collective New Year’s resolution – on the part of those in power and from the nation in general – to grow up. Yet, somehow, I doubt we’ll get it.
For as savage as the Brexit debate has been so far, I fear it has yet to climax. The rampant hard Brexiteers and the Remainiac referendum result deniers will, between them, see to that.
Many of us are so hopelessly entrenched in our positions that almost any possible outcome, including a No Deal Brexit or a second referendum, would force open the painful divisions once again.
It surely comes to something when it is left to Her Majesty the Queen to ask the nation, politely, to behave with more civility.
As she put it in her Christmas broadcast just a few days ago: ‘Even with the most deeply held differences, treating the other person with respect and as a fellow human being is always a good first step towards greater understanding.’
We can but hope.