Nobody can be surprised that the Equality and Human Rights Commission has published a letter sent to our political leaders expressing serious concern at the post Referendum rise in hate crimes, and the continuing deterioration post-Brexit of public discourse around issues such as immigration, racism, anti-Semitism and homophobia. Acts of violence and words of hate and ridicule against minority groups and those who are deemed to be "other", "different" and "not us" spiked post-Brexit, and are still too frequent.
The Commission is rightly careful to state, "The vast majority of people who voted to leave the European Union did so because they believe it is best for Britain and not because they are intolerant of others." That is undoubtedly true, and I have many friends and acquaintances who voted to leave, very few of whom I would ever think harboured racist views. That said, when public discourse becomes inflamed by claim and counter claim, and language becomes more rigid and confrontational, then opinions are expressed with increasing force and the rhetorical weapons of choice become more and more harmful. Inside all of us are seeds and potentialities that given the right set of circumstances, the fertility of cultural fears, the social excitement of sensitive economic and political differences blown into existential choices, can be propagated and made to grow into attitudes of which we never thought ourselves capable.
But what is more serious, strategic and concerning is the Commission's stark warning to political leaders and all politicians to cease and desist from polarising language. I welcome the implied rebuke, and the genuine and courageous finger-pointing of the letter. The following sentence is freighted with warning: "politicians of all sides should be aware of the effect on national mood of their words and policies, even when they are not enacted". That particular criticism, if not aimed at Amber Rudd, is certainly a reference to our Home Secretary, whose intended policy of requiring employers to declare the proportion of foreign people they employ was first announced at the Conservative Party Conference, then hastily withdrawn in the face of widespread dissent and opposition.
What interests me about this specific debacle is the mindset of the politician who conceived the idea of making being foreign a distinctive that has social, public and political implications which transcend the rights of the individual foreign citizen. To even think of such discrimination, and to require publication of such statistics, at the very least gives comfort to those, however small a minority, for whom anti-immigration is tinged with racism and hostility to the presence amongst us of those who are different; and whose difference is then to be highlighted as a negative datum by such blatantly irresponsible social discrimination.
Our Home Secretary has legal responsibilities to work within the law and the spirit of the law of the Human Rights Convention, a role which requires a wise protection and stewardship of social cohesion and harmony in our communities. It is therefore of major political significance that this letter unmistakably warns politicians of something they should know already, and should have no need to have it pointed out to them. Words matter. Words do things. Speech is not mere words. Spoken words and written words have power to persuade and motivate, to ignite anger or construct peace, to reassure or destabilise, to further understanding or intentionally mislead. Words used wisely help us negotiate towards co-operation, or if used as weapons, they break down bridges and use the bricks to build walls.
When an independent watchdog Body, created to be an early warning system for a deterioration in race relations, racial harmony, community diversity and that mutual respect of each other which lies at the centre of the common good, - when such a Body has to remind politicians that their words have the power to "legitimise hate", and in the same report points to statistical evidence of a spike in hate crime, then two things need thinking about. First, the politicians should take heed, and accept the weighty responsibility conferred on them by their high office, of speaking responsibly, truthfully and with respect and care for those of whom and to whom they speak. Secondly it is a disgrace that the Commission for Equality and Human Rights should have to say this at all, and that those it cites include our Home Secretary, and several of those now to the fore in Government. Some are those whose language during the Referendum was at worst a major contribuition to the problems we now face, and at best condoned by their silence the more extreme expressions of anti-immigration and anti-Eurpoean rhetoric.
I use that word "disgrace", not in its pejorative and vernacular use. I use it in a semi-technical sense, suggesting that our political leaders have disgraced their high office by their use of words that provoke such concern and censure from, of all groups, the Equality and Human Rights Commission. The kind of democracy we enjoy and evolve depends upon the integrity of our discourse, the civility of our language, and a strong ethic and stewardship of words, a standard of discourse that has recently seemed to be beyond the moral imagination and character virtues of elected leaders. That is a disgrace.
The lack of shame, the silence of those same voices in the face of social backlashes in hate crimes, or just as reprehensible, the belated attempt at recovering moral high ground by saying the Government has made more money available to tackle hate crime, these too are a disgrace. Grace as a moral virtue exhibits a cluster of inward impulses including generosity, respect, courtesy, dignity and integrity, and giving these moral cohesion, a valuing of each human being within our communities. Long agao the redoubtable Shirley Williams wrote a book called Politics is for People. Yes it is. And political leaders, and politicians of all parties are there to serve the people not rule them, to unite the people not divide them, to work for social cohesion and co-operation, not conflict and rivalry for the sake of political and narrow ends.
It remains to be seen whether the only response of the Government is to throw money at resources to tackle hate crimes. Unless they suppress their own inflammatory language, money is merely buying bottled water to throw on fires that will go on being ignited by the rhetorical arson of carelessly cynical words used as a hate accelerant.