After the horrors of the recent terrorist attacks in France, it is clear that a governmental review of Britain’s defence strategy is required. This is also a priority for the Labour opposition, which announced that Ken Livingstone would co-convene its defence review alongside fellow MP Maria Eagle. This drew criticism from Eagle who had been led to believe that she alone would lead the review. Many of her supporters also decried Livingstone’s appointment, with Kevan Jones, the shadow defence minister, objecting due to Livingstone’s opposition to the Trident missile defence system. But it was Livingstone’s response to Jones that has caused the most outrage.
Livingstone told the Daily Mirror that he thought that Jones ‘might need some psychiatric help. He’s obviously very depressed and disturbed. He should pop off and see his GP before he makes these offensive comments.’ It is a crude tactic to label your opponents as mentally unstable and irrational, the implication being that their views need not be taken seriously. However, what made these remarks personal was that Jones has suffered from depression in the past and still has some difficulties in the present.
Livingstone’s remarks provoked much criticism. Jones himself said, ‘I find these comments gravely offensive not just personally, but also to the many thousands who suffer from mental illness. This is why Ken Livingstone can’t be taken seriously in defence or any other policy issues.’ Jones urged Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn to ‘seriously consider whether Ken Livingstone is fit to represent the party if he’s prepared to insult tens of thousands of the electorate who suffer from mental illness’. Luciana Berger, the shadow mental health minister, said the comments were unacceptable, appalling and ‘should be treated as seriously as racism or sexism’.
Livingstone’s comments were indeed insensitive – but, then again, politics has never been about sensitivity. Instead, it was the response to his comments that was far more concerning; such a shrill overreaction casts a light on the sad state of political and public life today. While there was undoubtedly a political motive behind the attacks on Livingstone, with Jones and others hoping he would be removed from the defence review, the developments also followed a wearily familiar path.
First, there is the pronouncement of ‘offence’. This works as a silencer, a rebuke, a moral claim similar to that of accusing someone of being ‘mentally ill’. In the latter, my opponent is mentally suspect, in the former, they are morally questionable. In both cases, the implication is that we should treat their views with suspicion.