“Yesterday the House did itself no credit. There was an atmosphere in the Chamber worse than any I’ve known in my 22 years in the House. On both sides, passions were inflamed, angry words were uttered, the culture was toxic… It ought to be possible to disagree agreeably. This is something of concern across the House. This is not a party-political matter [and] should not be in any way at any time to any degree a matter of partisan point scoring.“
Last Wednesday evening was one of the more tempestuous parliamentary sessions that John Bercow had presided over as Speaker. Following the High Court Ruling, Parliament re-opened its doors to MPs keen to express their indignation at a man found guilty of illegally suspending it. After suffering an 11-0 defeat, Boris Johnson resorted to Plan B: stoke civil unrest.
“We will not betray the people who sent us here; we will not. That is what the Opposition want to do.” Having made repeated references to “The Surrender Act,” The Prime Minister was condemned by countless MPs for his “offensive, dangerous or inflammatory language about legislation that [he does] not like.” Paula Sherriff made her complaint with particular ferocity. Referencing Jo Cox, she pleaded with him to desist using the same language that undergirded the motivation of Jo’s killer, a far-right terrorist who went by the name of “Death to Traitors.”
Dismissing Paula’s plea as mere “humbug,” it was clear that Boris Johnson was not going to accept any connection between his language of betrayal and Jo Cox’s murder. Instead, he decided to give a whole new meaning to the term ‘doubling-down.’ Standing at the Despatch Box, the Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland declared that the best way to honour the memory of the remain-campaigner was “to get Brexit done.” I wouldn’t be surprised if next week he cites some of the last words Jo heard before she was killed: “Keep Britain Independent.” Not only were those who voted to avoid a no-deal Brexit betraying the British people, according to Boris Johnson, they were also betraying the memory of an MP who spent her career campaigning against any form of Brexit at all.
Outrage from the opposition benches ensued; calls for his resignation intensified. Yet, when John Bercow made his statement to MPs the following morning, it became depressingly apparent that the Prime Minister would evade accountability once more. Bercow and others had swallowed the idea that, instead of Boris Johnson breaking any Prime Ministerial codes, it was politics itself that was broken.
Bercow’s statement, as cited at the beginning, served two purposes. The first was to depoliticise the evening. By cautioning against “partisan point scoring,” Bercow wanted to remove the session’s content from the political terrain. The second was to disseminate responsibility across the House, rather than assigning it to a given individual or party. Whether it was Boris Johnson accusing the opposition of national betrayal, or Paula Sherriff passionately denouncing it, both were reduced to the lowest common denominator: incivility.
The fact is, though, this wasn’t about civility at all. In the days following Boris Johnson’s attempts to equivalate MPs to enemies of the state, Brendan O’Neill called for riots on the streets. Nigel Farage pledged to “take the knife” the Whitehall. Yet the lazy narrative of incivility sought to remove the Prime Minister’s comments from this very patent political context: the inducement of far-right violence.
Not only, then, is depoliticising Parliament nonsensical – one of Parliament’s very functions is to communicate to the public what each party represents – it is highly irresponsible. That’s because it disempowers the Left from challenging the kind of far-right rhetoric that emboldened 28 terrorist attacks across Western Europe in 2017. By putting this rhetoric in the same box as language that fiercely castigates it, the Left are forced to share the blame for a political strategy orchestrated by the Right, instead of being given the means to resist it. Above all, it dispossesses us of one of the most important tools that we have: anger.
This tactic has been employed on countless occasions. David Cameron telling Angela Eagle to “calm down, dear” over hospital waiting times. Sajid Javid condemning David Lammy’s “tone” after being chastised for failing the victims of the Windrush Scandal. The Liberal Democrats reproved the Labour Party for “attacking” Jo Swinson’s cruel voting record.
It’s not enough for the Right to control a system where 12 Windrush victims die before receiving an apology and 120,000 people die from austerity. They also need to control the terms and conditions over whether our anger at this system is permitted. As Sara Ahmed says, “When you expose a problem, you pose a problem. It might then be assumed that the problem would go away if you would just stop talking about or if you went away.”
Anger poses a problem, because it is intended to make somebody acknowledge that they’ve done something wrong. It’s no wonder that people like Boris Johnson want to climb to higher moral ground by clothing themselves in the virtues of calmness and agreeability; on Sunday he called himself the “model of restraint.”
After all, liberal discourse protects the public realm as a revered temple of diplomatic deliberation. But what if you represent those who are systematically excluded from the fruits of such deliberation? If you are forced to inhabit a structure that denies you any power, then anger is not something you should apologise for. It’s something you should unleash.
As Amia Srinivasan explains, for many people, anger is often “the only way of recovering a lost sense of agency” and of “registering the full injustice of the world.” That’s why, in fact, those who represent these people have a duty to be angry on their behalf; MPs on Wednesday were rightly furious that their constituents had been illegally denied a voice for the past 2 weeks. And when those like James Cleverly insist that anger is “counter-productive,” make no mistake of their motive: to obfuscate the causes of such anger as a means of preserving the status-quo.
I acknowledge that there is a tension here. Brexiteers are angry, precisely because they feel silenced by a parliament that has not yet enacted the one thing they voted for. If Boris Johnson is merely a representative of this anger, isn’t his language justified too? The short answer is no. The longer answer is twofold.
Firstly, there is a distinction between the supporters who are angry at a divided Parliament and a Prime Minister who is enjoying dividing it. Any anger that Boris Johnson feels likely stems from his inability to hang onto the most powerful position in the country. This is very different from the kind of anger that fuels activists, workers, campaigners, allies and representatives on the Left. This is anger articulated by those who experience violent oppression – or empathise with their oppressive experience – in a society that Boris Johnson himself has helped to shape.
Secondly, and following from this, it’s important to recognise that anger can be misdirected. I’m thinking of those who blame immigrants for low wages, rather than a globally extractive economy that crushes labour rights in its quest to find the most exploitable workforce. Or those who blame anti-no-deal MPs for our delayed exit from the EU, rather than the people who promised them an illusionary “clean break” in the first place.
The following question arises though: how do we deal with anger that is misdirected, or for that matter, anger that isn’t? For starters, “civility” cannot help us, as it is unwilling to even recognise any such distinction. Or, more importantly, those who talk about civility are often the ones misdirecting people’s anger from the outset.
Instead, we should talk about productive anger. Only then can we try to connect the source of people’s anger to real solutions that can address it. Meanwhile, this will enable us to identify those actors who are misdirecting people’s anger, because their solutions will do absolutely nothing to reduce the real source of their grievance. For example, Boris Johnson’s attempt to shut down Parliament hardly addresses Brexiteer’s concerns of a democratic deficit.
By contrast, the policies that emerged from the Labour Party Conference are productively angry. These policies were achieved by people on the ground campaigning angrily, often against sections of the Labour Party itself. Our anger at a growth-driven economic system generated the Green New Deal. Our anger at grotesque inequality generated radical redistribution of educational resources. Our anger at the neglect of dependents generated a National Care Service. Our anger at children not being able to access life-saving medicines generated compulsory licensing. Our anger at the Hostile Environment generated a commitment to freedom of movement.
This is how we will beat Boris Johnson. We will not defeat his incitement of violence by watching our tone. If we want to take ownership of the means of production, we must first take ownership of our right to be angry.
* For those who have not read Karl Marx, the title of this piece is a play on a famous slogan: “Workers of the World Unite! You Have Nothing To Lose But Your Chains.” This phrase calls for global unity against the exploitative capitalist system, a system that attacks workers’ liberty to such an extent that there is no other system in which they are worse off.