Well, who would have believed it? The British bulldog has finally mutated into a new, growling, ugly creature henceforth to be known as the British bully.

Not that the former was ever what you’d call cuddly, nor even pretty for that matter. He did tend to give the impression that he could, one day, turn into something a tad unpleasant, given half a chance.

But he was supposed to stand for strength in fairness, justice, tolerance and the virtue of knowing when to accommodate honestly held principles. Even when he didn’t agree with them. Or so I was led to believe.

Now he’s morphed into a thoroughly nasty piece of work. A cowardly one too, as bullies always have been.

Utter a word to which he takes exception and he growls alarmingly, threatening attack from the safety of that dark corner he believes to be populated by a protective crowd of the like-minded – which, of course, it is.

Anne Pickles Ask Gary Lineker. He knows. He expressed an opinion and the bullies went for him big time. Some national tabloids called on the BBC to sack him for his sinful behaviour and for everyone else to vilify him unreservedly for having the temerity to open his mouth.

The former footballer and Match of the Day presenter had voiced a view which was at odds with a manipulated wave of racist hysteria surrounding Britain’s acceptance of refugees.

To his credit, he has stood his ground against those who would silence him and have him lose his job. But it can’t have been easy to maintain dignity in the face of mindless venom.

“Getting a bit of a spanking today,” he posted on Twitter. “But things could be worse. Imagine, just for a second, being a refugee having to flee from your home.”

It barely matters what was at the core of the original argument that landed Lineker in scalding soup… though the bullies will no doubt yelp that it does. What matters is that we, whatever we believe, have so quickly lost the freedom to talk about it without fear of reprisal.

A quiet life without aggro requires keeping schtum for fear of unleashing the big mutated dog. That’s what bullies want. It’s what they do. They shut down their opposition with fear. And we’re in danger of allowing them to win.

I can’t imagine for a moment that any BBC executive will be reconsidering Gary Lineker’s future because one of the corporation’s stars dared to express a bit of compassion on social media. But we’d be foolishly misguided if we didn’t realise that things will get worse before they get better.

Quite what happened to encourage a strong, tolerant, fair country to hand over its representative voice to the petty, small-minded and hate-fuelled is anybody’s guess. And some guesses will be closer to the mark than others.

But it’s not looking good. Bullies are loudly claiming the upper hand and the bulldog that was once a symbol of pride, is cowering.

A friend who dared to express his opinion on the way he feared we were changing was bitterly rounded on by an old mate of his own, who called him a weirdo.

“Move to Brussels… do us all a favour. And renounce your UK citizenship when you go,” he snapped.

Needless to say, they’re no longer bosom buddies.

That’s called bullying – and there’s a lot of it about.