Another day, another story about Diane Abbott. This time Diane Abbott appeared on Good Morning Britain and had the temerity to quote a word that confronts her every day. People often say they want politicians to be more straight-talking and stop hiding behind soundbites, and yet when one gives us the unvarnished truth, we don’t like it.
The phrase “online abuse” acts as a convenient catch-all for things that we’d rather not think about. It gives us a way out from directly addressing the racism and sexism that infects out public life. If you squint, “online abuse” almost sounds like “criticism,” giving an outlet to claim your free speech is being impinged on.
Abbott is expected to face down a continual and ceaseless torrent of vile comments about her gender and race, never once losing her temper. She faces a level of provocation that may of us would consider intolerable. Yet, if she dares to speak openly and frankly about the abuse she faces, she’s accused of frightening the horses.
Using the n-word, as Diane Abbott did this morning, is the only way of communicating precisely what it’s like to be in her position. If it offends you to hear it once, imagine what it must be like to be Diane Abbott and see it in your Twitter timeline hundreds of times a day, aimed at you.
Those who attack Abbott are very quick to claim that their free speech has been impinged upon when they’re called out. Yet they only seem to value free speech when it’s their own.
Some may have problems with Abbott’s politics which transcend her race or her gender. May I suggest that calling her the n-word is unlikely to make her change her mind.
At the election, Theresa May had the opportunity to put her case directly to the British people. Every vote for me, she said, would make her stronger in the negotiations to come with Europe. That was then, the last we heard about Europe for two months as May toured round the country delivering soundbites and attacking Abbott. Boris Johnson, no-one’s choice for a Foreign Secretary, frothed at the mouth on the Today programme raising the spectre of Abbott as Home Secretary.
The election campaign sowed the seeds for what was to follow. Theresa May’s all too clear failings as a leader were hidden behind venal and vitriolic personal attacks. The Tories tried to make a virtue of Theresa May never putting herself up for debate, as though holding court amongst massed ranks of Tory activists was somehow an improvement. Every tough question came back to a monotonous stock answer.
Diane Abbott, on the other hand, was subjected to an altogether more forensic examination. In an election that was billed as a battle of two competing visions for the country, it suddenly became very important that Abbott knew precisely the costs of increasing police numbers and the contents of the Harris report.
If you think I’m demanding special treatment for Diane Abbott, compare and contrast how David Davis has handled the Brexit negotiations. Davis has set out a general approach for how he’d like negotiations to be handled, and left civil servants in Brussels to handle the finer details. Would Davis fare any better if grilled by the Today programme on the precise costs of individual line items in the EU settlement? Almost certainly not.
Over the last few year, uncomfortable double standards have emerged in British politics. The tech titans are fearful of silencing free speech, but Diane Abbott quoting the contents of her Twitter feed is considered worthy of censure. Women and BAME politicians face abuse and vitriol when they give a poor interview, white middle-class politicians like Jacob Rees-Mogg are lauded as “men of conviction.”
On many levels, we don’t have the political class we deserve in this country, and we certainly don’t have one worthy of the challenges that this country now faces. When I hear Amber Rudd talk about getting the right hashtags in place to deal with cybersecurity, David Davis’ Panglossian outlook on Britain’s trade prospects, or John McDonnell pulling out Mao’s Red Book in his budget response, I cringe a little. People are now seriously proposing Jacob-Rees Mogg as a future Prime Minister, for heavens’ sake.
I don’t expect our political class to be perfect, but I’m thoroughly tired of the double standards, racism and misogyny that infects our public life.