It was a pleasantly warm autumn day in 2012, and life pootled on at the West Kent Campaign Centre . I was replying to email, and our office manager, Jon Botten, was opening the morning’s post. A sudden and loud expletive from Jon indicated that all was not right. I looked up with concern, as a few weeks earlier we had received a letter containing razor-blades and was fearful that it had happened again. The reality was worse. Jon was standing, clutching an envelope – out of which was pouring a suspicious white powder.
We laughed, nervously, in that over-confident way that blokes do when they don’t wish to show they’re afraid. “It must be a hoax. Isn’t it?” I asked, trying to sound reassuring, but both of us were clearly conscious of the consequences if it was real. Not wishing to cause an unnecessary fuss (in that frightfully British way) I called my contact in Special Branch. All I wanted him to do was to tell me what Ricin looked like, so that I could confidently reassure myself that the powder spread over Jon’s desk was something else. I got as far as “we have received a letter with white powder in it....” when I was told to close the windows, stay inside the building, but move to another room. “Someone will be with you in ten minutes”.
Almost immediately a police car arrived – within 30 minutes they had sealed-off West Malling, and evacuated the shops, businesses and local residents. Emergency response vehicles filled the Georgian High Street with alien flashing lights; police, fire brigade, ambulances, decontamination units, and even the army. Two men in hazmat suits entered the office. Jon and I had to change into disposable paper-suits, before being led outside for medical assessment. Whilst this happened a robot retrieved the package for testing. More teams went in to clean up the powder and the surrounding areas.
By this time the Press had arrived and news of a “Chemical Attack on a Conservative Party Office” was spreading. A live minute-by-minute account was being posted on the local newspaper’s website, with the story being picked up by regional media.
Fortunately, two hours after Jon had opened the package, the substance was proved to be harmless – it was actually ground, bleached, sand.
Jon and I were conscious of the Press, and their shouted questions from behind the safety barrier. What I didn’t know, however, was the sub-plot developing alongside the official story in the Comments section of the newspaper. Using false names, and with pernicious disregard for truth or accuracy, it was all, apparently “a set-up”. ‘Centurion’ thought it “served [us] right” – ‘Jelly-Belly’ said we “deserved it, as [we] were part of the ruling class”. And when it was announced that the powder was harmless, then, according to ‘Vanguard’, it was “clearly a hoax to try to gain publicity”. This comment, however, was somewhat kinder than that of ‘RageAgainstTheMachine’, who expressed regret that “Kent wouldn’t be rid of two evil Tories”.
As far I as I know none of these people knew either Jon or me. None of them were there to see what was really happening. And none of them cared about our wellbeing, or that of the local traders who lost an afternoons’ business, or the anxiety of local residents as they were evacuated, or to our families who heard of a “suspected Ricin attack” at the Conservative Office in West Malling, but were unable to contact us for two hours to see if we were OK.
What concerned me most is how the anonymous lies started to feed the story. Suddenly journalists, writing up the “attack” on West Kent Towers, drew on the “Comments” to add colour to their story. There was a reference to “an attack which many thought could be a publicity stunt”, and in one case, “Residents are asking if this was done to garner sympathy for the Conservative Party.” News spread around the town that we had “brought it on ourselves”. An accusatory letter was pinned to the front door, and even the kindly lady in the newsagents asked me if it was true.
The writers of such poison clearly have a political agenda of their own and are quite willing to say, and repeat, whatever suits their purpose with scant regard for the facts, just as we saw last week when those sympathetic to Remain tried to exploit the tragic death of Jo Cox in order to further their cause. As they say, “a lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.”
This begs the question “Why are people so willing to think and believe the worst about those of us who work in politics?”
No doubt a degree of impropriety over expenses, and one or two bad apples, have not helped. But no-one thinks that every doctor is a murderer because of the actions of Harold Shipman, any more than they believe that every businessman is corrupt because of the history of Robert Maxwell. Yet in the court of public opinion all politicians are now fair game. Councillors are all “on the make”, MPs are all “on the fiddle”, those of us who work in political support roles “deserve what we get” – after all, we are “all as bad as each other”.
From this irrational hatred comes irrational anger. “Fathers for Justice” think it’s acceptable to throw condoms filled with talcum powder at the Prime Minister in Parliament. As a consequence, a screen is erected to keep our politicians safe (and who came blame them?). In West Kent, instead of an open-door, welcoming visitors and passers-by, we now have CCTV and an entry phone (and who can blame us?). After being followed around by a stranger one night in Sainsburys, Tweeting the contents of her shopping trolley, one Kent MP now drives outside the constituency to shop (and who can blame her?). And, after the appalling events in West Yorkshire last week, many MPs will be under pressure to change the way they interact with their constituents (and who can blame them?).
Yet, as our politicians understandably retreat to safety – so this will feed the anger of the mob, who will claim that they are becoming increasingly remote. This anger will feed more anger, until we all descend into another self-fulfilling layer of hell. What these “haters” fail to appreciate, is that their anger, their vitriol, and their loathing is part of the problem, not the solution.
For around a decade we have heard the cry that “better people” should be entering politics. But this coincides with the same period when our Members of Parliament have had their remuneration frozen, their private lives exposed, their personal frailties ridiculed, their honour denigrated and their motives questioned. Is it any wonder that many of the people we need in Parliament decide it simply is not worth the sacrifice?
I never believed, for one moment, that the majority of people thought that Jon and I were responsible for the attack on our office – but, as so often happens (whether through fear or ignorance), the majority stayed silent and allowed the debate to be shaped by the angry mob.
Since the death of Jo Cox almost every politician I know has received emails and calls of support as people hopefully start to appreciate the good work they do. It is a tragedy that it has taken the death of such a promising politician for us to reach what I hope is a turning point.