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“They showed themselves weak in trying to frighten us.” My grandfather's words about the Blackshirts, born out of his experience of the conflict of Cable Street, have stayed in my mind. As a young child, I sensed their import, even though I had little understanding of the context or the meaning. I revisited his words with an adult understanding in the light of two occasions of weak and ugly behaviours from UKIP supporters over the last few days.
I don't suggest that all UKIP supporters are fascists. That would be simplistic and inaccurate. But the attempts to bully two men who have challenged their policies and ethos have a profoundly disturbing ring of thuggishness. These actions are certainly anti-democratic and I believe there will be many who are thinking of voting for UKIP next week because they have genuine reason to feel themselves neglected and their experience undervalued by the mainstream parties, who will also feel disturbed.
A democracy depends upon freedom of speech and upon vigorously contested difference. This concept is deeply rooted in the thinking of most British people, however partisan they may be. The treatment meted out to a member of this week's BBC Question Time audience who knocked back Farage's usual insouciance must be challenged. These are the words – delivered with calm courtesy – with which he challenged the UKIP leader: “I'm old enough to have read about McCarthyism, and I'm old enough to have read Enoch Powell's Rivers of Blood speech. I'm also aware of what happens in elections where a climate of fear is caused amongst the electorate by the charismatic, the bombastic and, to me the very dangerous. This has driven Europe to war in the past. I have no time for you, Sir.”
In the days which followed, the speaker was extensively trolled and abused on Twitter by UKIP supporters. His daughter was also attacked. He handled the venom with the same control and calmness he exhibited on Question Time. I note that he has now closed his Twitter account. From what I have observed of this man, I imagine he was not cowed but felt his work was done and he had no need to expose his family to further ignorant malice.
Possibly even more disturbing are the events which befell blogger Michael Abberton.
Mr Abberton, a Green Party member who blogs on science and politics at http://axeofreason.blogspot.co.uk/ had examined the UKIP policies which had been posted on Twitter in the form of a spoof poster entitled '10 great reasons to vote UKIP', to see if these could be verified. In his own words “ I set myself strict rules – nothing second hand, nothing from a newspaper, everything from an official party source as much as possible. Some I could find no basis for, and I highlighted these in bold. The only thing I quoted which did not come from an official party source was the parliamentary voting record.”
On Saturday (10 May) Abberton was visited by two police officers who explained that a complaint had been made “by a certain political party in relation to tweets I had published about them and one tweet in particular which talked about ten reasons to vote for them.”
After discussing the matter and examining the tweets, the police informed Abberton that he had broken no law, there was no case to answer and that “it really wasn't a police matter.”
A Cambridgeshire police spokesman said: "A Ukip councillor came across a tweet which he took exception to. The name of the person on the tweet was identified and that individual was spoken to. We looked at this for offences and there was nothing we could actually identify that required police intervention. Clearly, the councillor was unhappy about the tweets. If every political person was unhappy about what somebody else said about their views, we would have no politics." Indeed.
There are many questions to be answered. Michael Abberton poses several of them: "It wasn't until after they left that I questioned why they had visited me in the first place. A complaint had been made but with no legal basis. Not a police matter. So why did they come to my home in the middle of a Saturday afternoon? Also, seeing as my profile doesn't have my location – how did they know my address, or even the town I live in? … Why would a political party, so close to an election, seek to stop people finding out what their policies are or their past voting record? And is it not a matter for concern that a political party would seek to silence dissent and debate in such a manner?"
Cambridge MP Julian Huppert said he was awaiting a detailed response from the police. "It seems astonishing for the police to get involved, there was nothing abusive or threatening in the tweets so I do want to know why they acted.”
It is as much in the interests of UKIP members and supporters as it is to those of us who oppose them, that all these questions should be addressed. A strong democracy must support non-violent opposition and civilised debate on differing views. The experiences of these two men who have exercised that right to some effect in recent days are a disgrace and a pointer to something sinister emerging in our political discourse.
Nigel Farage has yet to condemn or disown either of these attempts to indimidate. It is unlikely that he will not be troubled, even if only on the grounds of the damage they do to him and to his party. Whether he chooses to respond or to remain silent, he should be in no doubt that the actions display weakness and that democrats will refuse to be frightened.
© Jill Segger is an Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, Reform and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is an active Quaker. See: http://www.journalistdirectory.com/journalist/TQig/Jill-Segger You can follow Jill on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.com/quakerpenTweet