British Politicians Face More Threats Than Ever Before

Why you should care

Threats against members of Parliament are at “unprecedented” levels.

West Midlands police recently announced they had opened an investigation into rape threats made against Labour MP Jess Phillips by a U.K. Independence Party candidate for the European elections. Carl Benjamin, who is running in the South West England constituency, sent a Twitter message to Phillips three years ago saying, “I wouldn’t even rape you.” He recently added in a video: “With enough pressure, I might cave.”

Not all abusers are so prominent themselves. But Phillips isn’t alone in receiving such harassment. Reports of threats and abuse against members of Parliament have risen to “unprecedented” levels, according to Metropolitan Police Commissioner Cressida Dick, who blames the increase on Britain’s growing polarization.

Threats and abuse reported against Members of Parliament between January and April rose 90 percent from the same period in 2018.

And it could get worse. Neil Basu, the head of U.K. counterterror policing, estimates that if current trends continue, there will be 450 crimes reported by the end of 2019. So far, there have been 152. The number of offenses reported by MPs in 2018 increased 126 percent on the previous year, to 342.

Dick admits that an “extraordinary set of circumstances,” including the murder in 2016 of Labour MP Jo Cox and the Westminster Bridge terrorist attack a year later, have combined to engender a climate in which members of Parliament are being targeted for abuse more than at any other time in her policing career.

Gettyimages 1132397864

Labour MP Jess Phillips attends a rally in Parliament Square.

Source Wiktor Szymanowicz/Barcroft Media via Getty

“We do believe the current context [of abuse] is, in our policing time … unprecedented,” she’s told Parliament’s human rights committee.

When asked to explain the threat, she says that female MPs and those from ethnic minorities are being “disproportionately targeted.” About 10 MPs accounted for 29 percent of the reports.

 

The commissioner adds that the “very considerable rise” in threats made against MPs comes at the same time that “polarized opinions are having a big impact on the nature and scale of protest activity.”

Basu runs Operation Bridger, a U.K.-wide security operation to safeguard MPs, set up after the murder of Cox by a right-wing extremist during the 2016 Brexit referendum campaign. He says that Brexit “has been a huge driver” of the threats against MPs, with abuse against Leave and Remain supporters “evenly split.”

The senior officers admit that they have previously been “too passive” in dealing with protesters who deride MPs, such as when Anna Soubry was heckled as she tried to enter Parliament. As a result, the force has now stepped up its operations, and on an average day there are 60 officers dedicated to policing protests around Westminster.

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By Helen Warrell

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