Six months ago an old friend of mine was murdered on his doorstep. This week his killer was sentenced to life imprisonment. In both cases, the first I heard of it was when someone I follow on Twitter posted a joke with a link to a news story. Both jokes were whimsical rather than callous — both were, in fact, musing on which Sunday evening television detective would most likely solve the crime — but whimsy in these circumstances feels like callousness. The tweets made me very angry.
I read the reports of the trial. The murderer had made a spreadsheet of his potential victims, for robbery or kidnap, with their names in one column, planned modus in another and ‘reason’ in a third. The reasons varied — often it was ‘Tory’, at other times ‘scum Tory’. But while many reports noted that his only other attack was against a well-known Conservative donor whose wife raised the alarm before he was able to force entry, this detail, that the murderer considered being ‘scum Tory’ a reason for premeditated violence, was only mentioned in one report. This, too, made me angry.
Andrew Watts discusses the murder of his friend on the podcast
Just imagine that someone had been killed by a right-winger. A murderer who thought that socialists — or Remainers, perhaps — were scum, or that being on the other side of a divisive political issue made them a legitimate target for violence, and had put this in writing. It does not take much imagination, actually, because this is exactly what has happened in this country.
I was at a dinner party last week, and one of the other guests announced that he was so fed up with the toxic political climate after Brexit, and racism becoming mainstream within political discourse, that he was moving to France. France. And I am quite sure that he genuinely believed that he would be more comfortable in a country where the Front National is polling around 28 per cent; in other cases, the panic seems less innocent.
Stephen Kinnock spoke in the Commons after another senseless murder of another good person. ‘Rhetoric has consequences,’ he said. ‘When insecurity, fear and anger are used to light a fuse, then an explosion is inevitable.’ And we all knew what he meant, and who he was talking about. Since then, news sources have insisted upon the link between the vote for Brexit and the increase in hate crimes.
But, I would argue, the link between the referendum vote and any rise in hate crime is no stronger — and probably (depending on what you think motivated Brexit voters) a whole lot weaker — than the link between my friend’s death and the people who call Tories ‘scum’. Rhetoric has consequences. So why is one a part of the national political narrative, and the other a passing comment in a single crime report? Why do people who would be (rightly) shunned for joking about a Labour MP’s murder feel that there is nothing problematic in joking about the killing of an Oxford-educated antiques dealer?
There is, at least, an explanation for the jokes — the Chris Rock formula that you must always ‘punch up, never punch down’. By any current system of classification, my white, middle-class, well-educated friend was ‘up’. But ‘punching up’ is, however you romanticise it, still punching. And the question of who is ‘up’ and who is ‘down’ is more complicated than you might think.
The only way in which the white working classes who voted overwhelmingly for Brexit are ‘up’ — and thereby deserving of mockery and opprobrium — is in relation to newly arrived immigrants, which is why Remainers are so keen to insist that immigration was the only possible consideration for voting Leave. (I listened to a friend of mine holding forth about how all Brexit voters ‘hated brown people’, and that was why they had voted as they did. When someone pointed out that ending freedom of movement would only affect the numbers of mainly white, European immigrants, he replied — without missing a beat — ‘Aha! But they’re stupid racists.’)
With Tories, of course, it’s easy — they’re always ‘up’. Toryism is, as we know, standing up for the overdog, and Tories can therefore be ‘punched’ or insulted as much as you like. They can be called words that would be horrible in relation to migrants — scum, for example, or vermin. For the most part it seems like a harmless enough trope — amusing, in fact. My wife went to the Labour conference and bought me (all copies of Poems for Jeremy Corbyn having sold out) a mug printed with Aneurin Bevan’s words ‘Tories are lower than vermin’ and a picture of a rat. It is of such poor quality that a week later it was cracked, split down the middle, and no longer held water. It functions far better as metaphor than as crockery.
This week the trope does not seem quite so harmless to me. It seems mainstream now. Bevan may have used the word ‘vermin’ in 1948, but when he did he was slapped down by our greatest Labour prime minister, who wrote that he should ‘be a bit more careful, in your own interest’ — which, given Attlee’s habitual understatement, is the equivalent of a modern politician ‘destroying’ an opponent. Now those mugs are on sale at fringe meetings of the Labour conference.
I am sure that part of this is due to the echo chamber of social media. I work in the arts, so most of my friends are left-liberal, bien-pensant group-thinkers who post in furious and trenchant agreement with each other. Several of my friends boast of purify-ing their social media of right-wingers or anyone who could possibly interfere with their world view. Usually I am tolerant of my friends dismissing me as scum, or mocking people I know; this week it angered me.
But then I stopped, stepped away from the keyboard, and thought about it. I had to remind myself that my anger was, in fact, anger about a decent, gentle, funny friend of mine being viciously murdered. I had felt that something so meaningless and stupid had to be part of a bigger political narrative. But it isn’t. And letting that anger seep into our political discourse can only increase the ugly polarisation. I know you would rather read an article about how Tories are the real victims here; but there is only one victim. And he deserves better than that.
Which is why I have not written his name in this article, or mentioned any details that would make the case easily Google-able. The only place I have written his name is on the list at the back of my church, where the names are being collected for prayers on All Souls’ Day; which is the only place where it matters now.