Belfast Telegraph

Fionola Meredith: People must be free to protest, but they have no right to bully politicians like Anna Soubry

Crude insults are commonplace, says Fionola Meredith, but there's no place for physical intimidation

I'm not surprised Anna Soubry, the Conservative MP, objects to being called a Nazi. It's not very pleasant, but it's hardly a shock - use of the word 'Nazi' or 'fascist' has become commonplace in the debased arena of thuggish tribalism that passes for politics these days.

We're all Nazis now, in someone else's eyes. Simply to disagree with a particular point of view automatically means you're lacing up the jackboots and getting ready to goose-step. What a farce - and what an unconscionable trivialization of true Nazi atrocities.

The far left bandy the N-word about all the time, directing it at anyone to the right of their own ultra-enlightened selves - which basically means the vast majority of us.

The far right also love the term, bizarrely, and it was oafish right-wing protesters who had it in for Anna Soubry this week.

The unapologetic Remainer was being interviewed by the BBC outside Westminster when she was barracked by a group of chunky men who were shouting from behind some bushes. They wanted Brexit, they yelled, like a bunch of big angry babies, and they wanted it now. Waaah! Not fair! Me want Brexit now!

Then they launched into a loud, charmless chorus of "Soubry is a Nazi". The MP interrupted her own interview to lament the tactics, causing the presenter to look rather flustered and apologise if anyone watching was offended.

I am a free speech advocate. I believe in the right to protest, to be free to make your point in a public manner, as vociferously as you like. There is no right not to be offended.

True, I thought that shouting stupid insults at Soubry from behind the bushes outside the Commons was ignorant and disgusting, but it's not a criminal action to insult a politician, and nor should it be. And I wasn't too bothered that a BBC interview was disrupted.

This, whether we like it or not, is the price we pay for an open society. It is a price worth paying if we value our democratic freedom.

To my mind, the really unacceptable part of the whole debacle was when the men pursued Soubry along the street, yelling abuse at her and getting up close in her face.

Watch the video footage. This "threatening and intimidating behaviour", as Soubry herself described it, this is what is indefensible. This is where the police should have got involved - and didn't.

The words themselves were nasty - 'Nazi', 'scum', the usual unimaginative insults, but the specific words aren't actually the point here.

The physical threat of being surrounded by a group of angry men haranguing you, using their own bodies as a weapon of intimidation - that's the real outrage.

It reminded me of the self-proclaimed paedophile hunters who menacingly surrounded BBC investigative reporter Kevin Magee in a Belfast coffee shop, then followed him along the street, aggressively accosting him. One of the men involved actually admitted that he wanted to "inject fear" into the journalist.

Again, it wasn't the words these self-important would-be vigilantes used, it was how they behaved. It was primitive pack behaviour, designed to isolate and terrify the target. And it worked. Magee said afterwards that the incident was frightening and he felt very intimidated. Several of those involved were subsequently charged.

Does it make a difference that Soubry is a woman? Yes, I think it does. Of course, the politician's gender is nothing to do with her ability to do her job as an MP or otherwise. But while it is highly disturbing to be set upon, hounded and barracked by a mob of raging men, whatever your sex, it carries an extra layer of threat when it is a woman who is the target of that rage.

Purely in a physical sense, a woman is at a greater disadvantage in such a situation. Equality is a wonderful leveller, but the one thing it can't do is erase the physiological difference between the sexes. Men tend to be bigger and burlier, and so the implicit threat of physical force is greater, which makes the on-street mobbing of Anna Soubry all the more reprehensible.

Too many people are missing the point. This is not an issue of free speech at all. It's an issue of free action - the freedom to walk along the street without being impeded, jostled or harangued by people who disagree with you and who want to intimidate you into submission.

This freedom must be upheld and protected by any society which considers itself civilised.

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