We have a simple test for the Prime Minister’s use of the term “Surrender Act” as a shorthand for the Benn Act in the Commons. Would we deploy the phrase in a comparable way? The answer is that we wouldn’t.
This isn’t because the description is unfair. Parts of the EU seem to believe that the UK must be made an example of in the Brexit negotiations – décourager les autres. And the Benn Act gives it considerable power over the terms of extension. The Prime Minister’s use of “Surrender Act” as a figure of speech is fair enough in itself.
Nor is it because the phrase somehow legitimises violence. Alison McGovern and Paula Sherrif were foolish to suggest otherwise – and to raise the murder of Jo Cox. Responsibility for murder lies with those who commit it. If those Labour MPs deplore violent language in politics, they should be even-handed about it. Remember: no less senior a Parliamentarian than John McDonnell has said of Esther McVey: “Why aren’t we lynching the bitch?’”
No: the reason we wouldn’t use “Surrender Act” as a synonym for the Benn Act in our editorials is simply a matter of taste. “The Surrender Bill” is not the Bill’s real title. These courtesies in the setting of an editorial matter: for the same reason, we don’t usually refer to Remainers as Remoaners. It is not just a matter of accuracy, but of keeping the discussion civil.
Which isn’t to say that we don’t use images and language that some will find offensive – such as describing John Bercow as “this Gollum of a Speaker” today. Debate should be robust. If a guest writer or a columnist wanted substitute “Surrender Act” for the Benn Act on this site, that would be fine. In the same way, would be one thing for a Minister to do the same from a party political platform, but is quite another to so from the Commons’ despatch box.
If that sounds stuffy – well, so be it. For conservatism isn’t about conserving the good – including good manners – then what is it about? “Just as ‘surrender’ & ‘betrayal’ is inflammatory language, so is ‘coup’ and ‘fascist’”, Brendan Cox tweeted yesterday evening. “Let’s all play our part in dialing it down.”
He’s got a point, which Boris Johnson should take no more or less than anyone else. The vileness of Twitter trolls, the bullying social media mobs, the threats to families: these are driving good people out of politics and keeping others away.
Not to mention poisoning the cultural air which we must all breathe. All this is quite bad enough without invoking the spectre of murder.