Brendan O’Neill

Free speech didn’t kill David Amess

There's no evidence that heated rhetoric caused the MP's death

Free speech didn’t kill David Amess
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Every decent person was horrified by the senseless slaying of David Amess. And everyone will want to know what can be done to prevent similar atrocities from occurring in the future. But I fear that in the haze of anger and concern that has descended on the country following Amess’s death, we are coming to some questionable conclusions about the causes of such violence, and coming up with some iffy ideas for how to ensure that such a horrific attack on a public servant never happens again.

Right now, the finger of blame is primarily pointed at the shouty, divisive nature of political discourse in the 21st century. The horror visited upon Amess is what happens, apparently, when political rhetoric is so heated and public life so polarised. The Speaker of the House, Lindsay Hoyle, says the way we discuss politics ‘has to change’. ‘The conversation has to be kinder and based on respect’, he said over the weekend.

Others claim the hotheaded anti-Toryism of the modern left may have played a role in the targeting of Amess. Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner is getting a load of flak for her recent description of Tories as ‘scum’.

We need to hit the pause button on this discussion. It is true, of course, that political discourse right now leaves a lot to be desired. Anyone who has witnessed the harassment and hounding of gender-critical feminists, or the relentless demonisation of Brexit voters as ‘low-information’ xenophobes, or the branding of Tory MPs as ‘social murderers’ simply because they voted for trims here and there to the welfare state, will know that bile and spite frequently bubble to the surface of political discussion.

There is no doubting that Tory-bashing, in particular, has become an unhinged pastime. Many radical leftists view Tories not simply as their political opponents but as evil creatures, as people who get a kick from punishing the poor and oppressing minorities. Millennial pseudo-socialists utter the words ‘Tory scum’ with gay abandon. They insist they could never date a Tory, or hang out with one, or even be in the same room as one.

The trend for dehumanising one’s opponents — where feminists become ‘Terfs’, critics of mass immigration become ‘fascists’, and Tories become ‘scum’ — is unquestionably bad. It is hateful and philistine and utterly unconducive to serious political debate. We should think hard about how to challenge such low rhetoric and how to boost the standards of political exchange.

However, we must keep our concerns about the morally depleted nature of political debate separate from the awful attack on David Amess for two reasons. First, because we simply do not know if the nastiness of Westminster discourse or the namecalling that masquerades as radical politics had any influence whatsoever on the killing of Amess. Perhaps I’ll be proven wrong, but it seems unlikely to me that this killing was motivated by a speech Angela Rayner gave at a fringe conference event or by the Tory-bashing of the trustafarians in the very online Corbyn set.

Indeed, right now the police suspect that the killing may have been motivated by the Islamist ideology. The suspect had previously been referred to Prevent, the deradicalisation programme, and he is currently being held under the Terrorism Act. All the hand-wringing over the general problem of bitchy, dumbed-down political discourse looks to me like a distraction from what may well prove to be the specific problem in this dreadful crime — radical Islam. We need to look at the facts of this terrible case as they emerge rather than using this case to bang the drum about political problems we were already concerned about.

And secondly, it is incredibly important that we do not allow our fury and sadness over the killing of Amess to chill and censor political discussion. The right must not be tempted to behave in the same way the left does after every act of far-right violence. Whether it’s the killings carried out by vile incel Jake Davison in Plymouth earlier this year or the racist barbarism unleashed on Muslims in two mosques in New Zealand in 2019, the left’s opportunistic response is always the same. This violence proves, they say, that the right-wing media is stirring up hatred, that right-wing political discourse has become toxic, and that we need more controls on what can be thought and said.

The cynicism of these left demands for more social authoritarianism in the wake of hard-right horrors never ceases to amaze me. These people criticised — rightly — the illiberalism of the Bush and Blair years when Islamist terror was cited as a justification for clampdowns on freedom of movement and freedom of speech. And yet they call for the very same thing whenever a far-right loon does something evil. Curb the media! Silence opinions we don’t like! It's the same faulty thinking.

We must all resist this temptation. To imply, without evidence, that hard-left anti-Tory hatred played a role in the Amess atrocity is no better than when the left blames Daily Mail columnists for acts of racist violence. To problematise heated, provocative political discourse on the back of this awful act of violence is not that different to when censorious leftists insist that criticism of immigration in tabloid editorials causes far-right violence. The specifics of the act of violence are glossed over and instead we rush to enforce a general, self-serving form of political censure.

I know this is a problematic, difficult thing to say right now, given what has happened, but we must defend the right to hate Tories. Anti-Toryism is not big or clever or useful, but it is speech — and speech must always be defended from punishment. We must get to the bottom of what motivated the killer of David Amess and we must insist that whoever is convicted is punished with the utmost severity. But let’s not demonise controversial ideas and heated speech, and let’s not intensify the already febrile urge to punish ideas we find offensive. A good, much-loved democrat has been horribly attacked — our response should not be to attack freedom even further.