On That Point: Safe spaces and politicians

Keir Mather argues that safe spaces cannot be extended to politicians without eroding democratic principles

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At the Oxford Union on Thursday night, the debate raged on the motion of whether “A university must be a safe space.” The august pair of Peters—Hitchens and Tatchell—were the guest speakers for the opposition, and carried the cause to what was a resounding, and, in Hitchens’ case, thoroughly moral, victory. Now, I won’t bore you with my views on this issue—the place of the safe space within education is now forever the preserve of every uninspired Guardian columnist and reactionary Daily Mail scribbler. You, my reader, deserve better than that. So I shall pose a more interesting question: do our politicians deserve a ‘safe space’? Should, for instance, Jeremy Hunt and Boris Johnson be entitled to the same freedom from confrontation and hostility that I can expect as a university student? I doubt they should be, and I challenge you to reach a different conclusion.

It is already clear that our elected representatives do not exist within a safe space. Whether it’s slime for Mandelson or eggs for Prescott and Miliband, if you can imagine it, it has probably been thrown at a politician. These physical projectiles are matched by the verbal, with surprise attacks lurking around the corner even for the Prime Minister herself, who was today confronted by an Oxfordshire woman furious about cuts to disability funding. Ironically, politicians are now also plagued by those same people who extol the virtues of safe spaces within the education system—individuals who are the first to volunteer as moral adjudicator on whether a word is classed as ‘violent’, but who are also the first to shout “f**k Tory scum!” at a protest. It is really these cheerful little paradoxes that give you faith in our political discourse. So today’s politicians seem to exist outside the groups of people whom safe-spacers wish to protect. My argument differs from theirs in that it is not rooted in hypocrisy, but in a need to preserve our democracy and to protect MPs from genuine harm.

It is important to note that the extent to which MPs are abused through new methods such as social media is an endemic issue, and one that should not be taken as lightly as it is in our society. When MPs like Jess Phillips, Diane Abbott and Ruth Smeeth are subjected to vile, misogynistic and racist abuse online every day, it is clear that the law itself does not go far enough in offering them protection from an assorted mix of bigots, imbeciles, and lowlifes. So it is firstly prudent to say that failing to give politicians a safe space does not extend to compromising their physical wellbeing, or being permitted to unleash upon them unrestrained emotional abuse. This uncivilised element of our culture isn’t befitting of our democracy.

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But what I am saying is that politicians, especially ministers of the Crown, do not have a right to be insulated from the public, from the despondent old woman, the frustrated nurse, and the striking teacher. When these often infamous moments occur, such as the time when Tony Blair was barracked by a patient’s family member outside a hospital, or when David Cameron was recently discomforted by the reasoned argument of a teenager lamenting Brexit, it feels as though the democratic kilter has been reset. At that moment, a politician is not in physical danger, but they are undergoing an acutely unpleasant experience. The deference usually directed towards them and their office melts away to nothing. They are brought down to exactly the same level as their fellow countrymen, and they are forced to listen to what angers them. This extends from the individual wishing to speak truth to power to the striking junior doctors in London. When a senior politician is confronted in this way, their cosy reality is shattered and they must defend their actions in the face of those whom they directly affect. It is, in this respect, nothing short of being a necessary component of our democracy.

Now I don’t want anyone to misconstrue my words. I’m not yearning for some dystopian future in which politicians live in perpetual fear, scuttling from meeting to meeting in order to avoid the thousands of angry members of the public legitimised in starting public rows with politicians by my Cherwell blog (after all, digital media spreads fast these days). But I am suggesting that when a politician’s safe space is broken, when they are made to feel uncomfortable about their actions, under pressure to explain themselves, and become aware that people are hostile to their actions, they are almost as accountable as they will ever be to the public. It is for this reason that we cannot allow the rhetoric of safe spaces to be extended to our politicians. There are so many areas in which politicians do desperately need more protection—online, and from physical harm on the streets. But to shield them from what is quite often an old woman shouting at them, would be seen as overkill by the British public and detracts from the fight to protect our representatives where they need it most.

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With Theresa May answering only pre-submitted questions on the campaign trail, and the brief craze during which MPs could be provoked into responses on Twitter coming to an end, I think we shall see a resurgence in this form of street-democracy. One in which ordinary people can, for a few brief minutes at best, roll all of Parliament’s functions into one. They can represent their own views, ensure that a politician is held accountable to an embarrassing degree, and conduct scrutiny so thorough it would make the Commons Select Committee on Standards blush. So let us not restrain what has, for hundreds of years, been a pillar of our democracy. From ministers of the Crown to the Prime Minister herself, let us keep our representatives firmly grounded in reality, and not allow them to hide behind the get-out clause of a safe space. Britain can do it, one angry old lady at a time.