The Prime Minister Theresa May today (6th February 2018) marked the centenary of women’s suffrage with a speech that celebrated the heroism of the suffrage movement which transformed British democracy, and “the enormous strides we have taken as a society” over the past hundred years. She warned that ‘intimidation and aggression’ on social media is coarsening public debate, deterring people from participating in politics and threatening our democracy. But added that, to ensure we continue to build on this progress and protect our democracy, social media must be a force for good in our public life. She also met with female MPs from all parties at the House of Commons.
“Those who fought to establish their right – my right, every woman’s right – to vote in elections, to stand for office and to take their full and rightful place in public life did so in the face of fierce opposition. They persevered in spite of all danger and discouragement because they knew their cause was right.”
The Prime Minister took the opportunity to reflect on the nature of our public life in 2018, saying: “As we remember the heroic campaigners of the past, who fought to include the voices of all citizens in our public debate, we should consider what values and principles guide our conduct of that debate today.”
She said, “for while there is much to celebrate, I worry that our public debate today is coarsening. That for some it is becoming harder to disagree, without also demeaning opposing viewpoints in the process.
“In the face of what is a threat to our democracy, I believe that all of us – individuals, governments, and media old and new – must accept our responsibility to help sustain a genuinely pluralist public debate for the future.”
She warned that the ideal “of a truly plural and open public debate in which everyone can take part is in danger. A tone of bitterness and aggression has entered into our public debate. Participants in local and national public life – from candidates and elected representatives to campaigners, journalists and commentators – have to contend with regular and sustained abuse.”
The Prime Minister noted in her speech that in the centenary year of votes for women, we find that abuse and intimidation is disproportionately targeted at political candidates who are female, black, minority ethnic or LGBT.
Reflecting on the centenary and on the courage and perseverance of the campaigners who fought to make our country a better place, the Prime Minister said, “As the woman at the head of our country’s government, a century after my grandmothers were first given the right to vote, my mission is clear.
“To build that better future for all our people, a country that works for everyone, and a democracy where every voice is heard.”