The Edelman annual trust barometer published last month makes for pretty depressing reading. As well as revealing continued low levels of trust in UK institutions, the survey shows that 57% of the British people believe honesty and transparency in public life has not improved. To some degree, there is nothing new in this. It confirms what we have known for a while – that public perceptions of standards have been in long-term decline for more than two decades.
Research for this Committee from 2002 until 2012 tracked and compared the year on year changes in public trust and perceptions of standards. Indeed, lower levels of trust might be welcomed as signalling the end of the culture of deference towards the ‘great and good’ and seen as healthy British cynicism at its best. After all, the country scoring highest in the Edelman trust comparator this year was China. But over time, an ever-declining level of trust in public office holders has become a less welcome reality of both British and European political life, and our vigorous and less deferential political culture now includes a growing level of intimidation of people in public office.
The Committee’s 2017 report on Intimidation in Public Life called for a range of action to counter intimidation. There has been progress, but there remains a great deal more to do, and at greater pace – by political parties, the police, social media platforms and others. Indeed, since that report, evidence suggests that the situation has worsened, and the level of intimidation and hatred experienced by many MPs - of all parties - has intensified and become more widespread. The Committee continues to hear evidence of appalling abuse and vitriol directed not only at MPs, but even more unacceptably at their families and children.
The Nolan principles set out standards of conduct for people in public life who take decisions on behalf of the public. But the principles need people who are prepared to undertake such responsibilities. How can we ask ordinary people to step forward and make a commitment to represent a constituency, or apply to become a judge, or contribute their skills to serve on a public body, if what they will get in return is a real likelihood of abuse and threats? Why should those who make the commitment to serve in the public interest have to trade their own welfare and safety or that of their family?
Some people will say that MPs aren’t doing their job or representing them or their views. But that is not how representative democracy works. MPs are elected by their constituents to serve the whole constituency and they are elected to serve us ‘as themselves’, with their own backgrounds, talents and abilities.
MPs must make judgements and decisions based on their own experiences of the issues at hand and on the range of views put before them. The evidence this Committee heard during our inquiry, however, was that intimidation was already changing the way MPs were able to do their jobs and interact with the public.
As our 2017 report showed, the bar for action by the police against intimidatory behaviour is set pretty high. But the damage that is done below that level – by relentless abusive, intimidatory, targeted, personal messages, largely on social media sites, on a daily basis - is equally real and hugely damaging.
This is not about special pleading or protecting ‘snowflakes’ from hard political debate. Intimidation risks undermining the democratic process and civil society. If the decisions MPs make start to be altered as a result of threats and intimidation, that amounts to subversion of the democratic system and would be a dark day for our country.
If the actions of trolls and abusers deter good, decent people from standing for election, or puts off talented people from a range of backgrounds from coming forward to serve the public, we have all lost. Parliament and public bodies will look even less like the population they serve, and decisions taken in our name will not reflect the diverse realities of life in Britain. Intimidation in public life should matter to us all.