As children we are told that words, unlike sticks and stones, can never harm us. But every week words seem to damage our democracy a little more insidiously. The evidence lies strewn, like corpses of truth, all over austerity Britain.

Oops. Is that last simile a little too strong? Is the language too dramatic for a sensible newspaper? Apparently not.

In reality swathes of our public debate is conducted in heated metaphors and assertions that take little regard of uncomfortable things like facts, evidence or just basic civility.

Take the High Court judges who ruled Parliament must be consulted before the Government could trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, which would start the UK’s formal process of EU withdrawal. The Daily Mail stuck large photographs of these worthies on the front page above the headline “Enemies of the People”.

My concern here is with language. “Enemies”? Really? How can that be when 63 per cent of Britons did not endorse Brexit by either voting Remain or by not voting at all.

Such rhetoric is inherently dangerous, fuelling divisions in our already divided country that span regions, social classes, generations, religions and political loyalties. Because what people do with “enemies” is cease to debate or listen. They fight “enemies” at the expense of compromise or consensus.

It’s not just the newspapers who are up to it, of course. Recently the Conservative MP, Ben Bradley, tweeted that Jeremy Corbyn was a fully paid up agent of the Czech secret police during the Cold War. So outrageous was this lie that he was forced to write a grovelling apology and pay undisclosed damages to a charity to avoid libel action.

And what about Jacob Rees-Mogg MP, who thought it okay to tell a lie on TV that Corbyn had voted against the Good Friday Agreement. He, too, was forced to retract his words.

Phew, you might think, lesson learned. But no, just last week former Prime Minister John Major delivered a speech in which he argued MPs should have a free vote on whether to implement any final Brexit deal. In response Tory MP Nadine Dorries wrote a tweet referring to him as “traitor Major”.

“Traitor”? Are you sure? My understanding of the word is that traitors try to betray their country to foreign powers rather than suggest elected representatives in a democratic assembly decide on major questions of policy.

Again the language is divisive and dangerous. According to British law “high treason” should result in life imprisonment. Is that really what someone who holds different political views to oneself deserves?

George Orwell wrote that “When the atmosphere is bad, language must suffer.” And I’m sure many would agree that the atmosphere in austerity Britain is getting very bad indeed.

Take the language used to justify austerity itself. Since 2010 this policy has seen £billions removed from once-thriving public services and life-changing cuts to welfare benefits for the most vulnerable. The main image used to justify austerity is that the British economy is like a bucket full of cash that is now empty. Therefore there have to be sacrifices. We all have to “cut back” because we are (according to ex-Etonian millionaire David Cameron) “all in it together”.

Again this kind of simplistic language is misleading. For far too long it has been used to stifle creative thinking about the long term benefits of investment and renationalisation in rebuilding our shattered public services and ailing economy. It also completely ignores factors that cannot be measured by money like protecting the environment and the quality of people’s lives.

Of course many other examples could be cited of language stirring an atmosphere of hate.

Perhaps the solution must start with our own everyday conversations and comments in social media. If we as ordinary citizens can reject intolerance and hateful stupidity in our own language, perhaps our politicians and newspaper proprietors will be forced to follow suit.

Complex problems in society require honest, rational debate not lurid smears and catcalling.