Some protesters wrap themselves in the flag of the European Union and noisily interrupt politicians’ television appearances. Others yell “Nazi” and “traitor”. Britain’s lawmakers are split on how to handle Brexit but they agree that the atmosphere in the public spaces outside parliament – often populated with angry demonstrators – has become ugly and intimidatory.
This increasingly raucous brand of street activism has raised questions about what has happened to British politics in recent years, and where the boundaries of free speech now lie.
On Tuesday, members of parliament called on police to do more to tackle intimidation of politicians and journalists outside parliament after protesters yelled abuse at a prominent Conservative lawmaker.
More than 2-1/2 years since Britain voted by 52 to 48 percent to leave the European Union, the country remains divided. Demonstrators who back Brexit and others who want to stay in the European Union have become a fixture in the gardens opposite parliament.
The area is also used by media for interviews and while protests have generally been peaceful, politicians and journalists say the atmosphere has turned increasingly nasty in recent weeks.
On Monday, Conservative lawmaker Anna Soubry, a pro-European who has called for a second referendum on Brexit, faced chants of “Soubry is a Nazi” and “liar” as she was interviewed live on television.
“I do object to being called a Nazi,” Soubry said. “This is what has happened to our country.”
The abuse continued as she walked back to parliament after the interview, with mobile phone footage on Twitter showing her surrounded by men, some in yellow vests similar to those worn by protesters in Paris, shouting “liar”, “fascist” and “scum”.
Sky News journalist Kay Burley, one of the broadcasters whose interview with Soubry was overshadowed by the protests, has also faced abuse and says she now has security protection.
She said demonstrators who disliked Soubry monitored TV channels so they could turn up and hurl abuse at her.
In a letter to the London police chief Cressida Dick, a group of more than 60 lawmakers said they were concerned about the “deteriorating public order and security situation” around parliament.
“An ugly element of individuals with strong far right and extreme right connections … have increasingly engaged in intimidatory and potentially criminal acts,” the lawmakers, both pro-EU and pro-Brexit and from all political parties, wrote.
House of Commons Speaker John Bercow said he too had written to police asking for a review of their policy.
Monday’s fracas was a symptom of a growing malaise in British politics, according to Rob Ford, professor of political science at the University of Manchester.
It followed street scuffles during Scotland’s independence referendum in 2014 and activists draping a banner from a bridge in Manchester during the Conservative Party’s annual conference in 2017 saying “Hang the Tories”.
“I think Brexit certainly deepened it … this trend towards intensifying distrust of politics and politicians, representative institutions, the media,” Ford said. “That distrust has now become much more visible because it is now becoming a serious obstacle to addressing complex issues.”
Politicians on all sides of the Brexit debate had encouraged this kind of thinking, Ford said, adding: “I fear that the beast that they have unleashed has now turned on all of them.”
Ian Lavery, the Labour Party chairman, said Monday’s events outside parliament were an attempt to silence political debate.
“They were incarnations of a campaign of hatred that has been brought from the darkest reaches of the internet to the doors of our democracy.”
“UNLEASHING SUCH UGLINESS”
The Metropolitan Police’s Deputy Assistant Commissioner for operations Laurence Taylor said police were assessing whether crimes had been committed and promised to “deal robustly with incidents of harassment and abuse”.
Labour lawmaker Stephen Doughty, who organised the letter, told BBC TV that there could be a repeat of the murder of Labour lawmaker Jo Cox, killed in a frenzied street attack a week before the 2016 Brexit vote by a man obsessed with Nazis and extreme right-wing ideology.
Last year, a man accused of being a member of a far-right group pleaded guilty to plotting to kill another female Labour lawmaker who, like Cox, was targeted because she was perceived as supporting immigration.
Brexit minister Stephen Barclay told BBC Radio the “appalling scenes” outside parliament on Monday showed how divisive the Brexit process had become.
Tim Montgomerie, a prominent pro-Brexit Conservative activist and political commentator, said on Twitter that while the abuse of Soubry was unacceptable, “a parliamentarian who advocates overturning a referendum result she promised to respect should not be surprised at unleashing such ugliness”.
Abuse has taken place across the political divide, with left-wing author and Labour supporter Owen Jones posting a video on Twitter of protesters shouting “traitor” at him as he walked outside parliament.
While many of those facing abuse are supporters of remaining in the EU, pro-Brexit lawmakers have also been targeted.
In September, Conservative lawmaker Jacob Rees-Mogg, a prominent campaigner for Brexit, was confronted outside his home by activists who told his children “your daddy is a horrible person” and “lots of people hate him”.