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by Chris Marshall
15 February 2021
A growing threat: is the rising tide of intimidation towards our politicians harming democracy?

Holyrood's survey found many female MSPs have received threats Image: Aimee Wachtel

A growing threat: is the rising tide of intimidation towards our politicians harming democracy?

“I’ve known for most of my adult life that most women, at some point, experience some form of men’s violence. I’m now utterly dismayed to say that a sizeable number of females I work with have received credible death threats – I know of three in just the last couple of weeks.”

Those are the words of a female MSP, elected to represent her constituents at Holyrood but living in constant fear for her safety. She is by no means alone. 

Holyrood sent a survey to all MSPs amid anecdotal evidence that the level of abuse directed at our elected officials is not only growing but becoming more violent in nature. 

Earlier this month, a man was arrested and charged following alleged threats, including one of sexual violence, made to the SNP MP Joanna Cherry.

And similarly, almost a third of the female MSPs who responded to the Holyrood poll said they had received a threat of sexual violence. 

More than half (67) of all those elected to the Scottish Parliament responded to the poll conducted between 4 and 9 February and of those, 70 per cent said they had feared for their safety since becoming an MSP, rising to 87 per cent among the female MSPs.

Nearly a third of those who responded said they had received a death threat. 

“It’s oppressive, exhausting and recent events give me absolutely no comfort that the situation of women in the public eye is understood, let alone going to get any better,” the female MSP said.

Another MSP said she had been contacted by a senior police officer last year to warn of a “specific and credible” threat to her home. 

“They put the house under observation for 48 hours, followed by drive-bys every shift for the next two to three weeks,” she said.

One male MSP said he had been spat at and shouted at in the street and had received homophobic abuse.

“Someone once followed me home from work, banged on my door and the police gave me a panic alarm to carry around,” he said. 

“My regional office was fitted with extra security and had panic buttons installed.

“I don’t care two hoots if people disagree with my politics, but normalising personality attacks sets a sad precedent, especially online where vulnerable young people read it.”

Another male MSP told us the level of abuse was now “out of control”, while a third described it as “vile and appalling”.

“I think my female colleagues and friends get it worse than me and my male colleagues do, and it is often more vicious and gender based towards them,” he said.

“It worries me – how on earth can we encourage more women to take up this vital role if they are just exposing themselves to such obscene attacks?”

It’s an increasingly important question for all of us. 

Following her sacking from the SNP’s frontbench at Westminster, Joanna Cherry said she had received a threat of rape on social media.

A man was later arrested and charged with a communications offence and a report submitted to the procurator fiscal.

Cherry, widely seen as one of the SNP’s most able politicians at Westminster, later said in an interview with Holyrood magazine’s ‘Politically Speaking’ podcast that she would have decided against a career in frontline politics had she known of the level of abuse and intimidation she would be subjected to.

That sentiment is a real concern for democracies across the world, according to Mona Lena Krook, a US academic who has studied political violence directed towards women.

“There is this idea that hostility is just normal in politics,” she said. “That people are aggressive and there’s conflict. That just normalises it.

“There’s a growing awareness that this isn’t normal. It’s harming democracy and it’s harming democratic discourse.”

Krook, a professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey, said there was growing evidence that politicians are shying away from discussing controversial subjects, knowing there will be a backlash.

“It’s also stopping other people from wanting to run for political office. It reminds me of a study I read about mafia violence in Italy. They found that in the places with more mafia attacks against politicians, it decreased the quality of people willing to run for office.”

It’s oppressive, exhausting and recent events give me absolutely no comfort that the situation of women in the public eye is understood, let alone going to get any better

In answer to our poll, 69 per cent of those surveyed said they had contacted the police following a threat to themselves or to their staff or families. The figure rose to 75 per cent for female MSPs.

And one in five of those polled said they had been forced to seek police protection because of threats, rising to nearly one in three for female MSPs.

Following the murder of the MP Jo Cox in 2016, there was much wringing of hands and a general acceptance that things had to change, with an onus on politicians and the media to tone down the rhetoric.

Shot and stabbed in the street a week before the EU referendum, Cox’s murder stunned the nation and was described as an act of “terrorism” by prosecutors. 

But while there has been nothing as high-profile or heinous in the UK since, the general level of abuse towards both politicians and public officials has, arguably, got worse, with threats and personal attacks now commonplace on social media.

According to Krook, the growth in the number of misogynistic attacks is a reaction to the growing participation of women in politics. 

“The discussion about violence against women in politics is occurring at a moment where we’ve never had so many women active in politics,” she said. 

“The resistance used to be that women couldn’t enter those spaces, but now they have, so it’s about trying to chase them out.”

When US politician Gabrielle Giffords, an outspoken gun control advocate, was injured in a shooting in Arizona in 2011, it shocked a country already sadly inured to violence.

Yet in the decade since, US politics has become nastier and more violent, culminating in the deaths of five people at the Capitol building following an attempted insurrection in January.

Much of it is driven by social media, where anonymous users can threaten and attack while having their abhorrent views amplified by other like-minded malcontents.

While long overdue for regulation, it does now seem that the social media companies are themselves beginning to take the issue seriously.

Still no doubt stinging from the criticism they received following the 2016 presidential election, Facebook took a series of steps this time around to stop the spread of disinformation on its platform. 

Most famously of all, Twitter began attaching health warnings to President Trump’s tweets, before banning him from the platform altogether.

In Scotland, it tends to be the politicians themselves who need to screen social media.
Susan Aitken, the leader of Glasgow City Council, said she takes steps to limit the number of interactions she sees online.

Aitken knows, more than most, about the dangers of being in public life.

Late last year, a woman who had stalked the SNP councillor was given a six-month custodial sentence for defying an order banning her from contacting the politician.

Asked about abuse on social media, she said: “I take steps to make sure I don’t see it – as much as possible. My mentions are quite strictly policed and I’m liberal with muting. 

“I know what’s out there, I know how unpleasant it is and I don’t need to see it on a day-to-day basis.

“There’s clearly an issue. Everybody seems to think it’s getting worse, particularly for women and for people from minorities. 

“Everything tells us that we have become a more tolerant society and people are much more open-minded about a whole number of things. By nature, I prefer to be optimistic and believe we are making progress.”

But Aitken admitted there are issues which remain particularly polarising. 

Asked whether she expected a spike in levels of aggression in the event of a second independence referendum, she said: “I think I’d probably take a look at my social media settings again and make sure they’re as tight as they can possibly be around that period. But I don’t like to think it’s inevitable.”

While by no means an inevitable fact of life, it seems likely that the menace in our politics is here to stay without some concerted action to tackle it. 

Just what that action looks like, however, no one seems to know.

But it’s clear this is not just a problem for our politicians – it affects society as a whole.

In the months leading up to the election, and with the prospect of a second independence referendum continuing to divide the country, it is incumbent on us all to show civility and kindness.

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