London’s my home. Our ‘leaders’ making capital out of an attack on it, whether to play tough cop or to berate the West, repels me
London Bridge happens to be my hub station. A good friend of mine lives walking distance away. I’ve got a favourite pub there (Mc & Son’s — it’s a properly good Irish pub, it plays good live Irish music, the Thai food’s not bad). There’s a great Indian nearby (the Mango Indian — not cheap, but good). It’s very much on my day-to-day map.
Most of us tend to get a bit more of a shiver running down our spine when something terrible happens near us. But my reaction wasn’t quite the same on Friday as in 2017, when London Bridge was also attacked. Two years ago, I was shocked as well as saddened: I still had it in me to be shocked. This time, I still felt despairing, but deadened — no longer shocked, because now I’ve come to expect such horrors from time to time. I profoundly wish I hadn’t.
That both the two victims were former students at an event marking a programme which gave students and prisoners a chance to study together to help reduce reoffending — and that while one prisoner was the attacker, another tried to stop the attack — feels particularly heartrending. The decency and principles of both Jack Merritt and Saskia Jones come through. And Mr Merritt’s response shows the kind of principle most of us wonder if we could ever manage to display, were that sort of tragedy ever to crash into our lives.
So there’s something particularly repellent in the sight of Boris Johnson, less than 48 hours after the crime, making hay out of the horror for partisan gain. Politicians have no duty to agree with the policy prescriptions of victims, of course. But sometimes the Prime Minister should act as Prime Minister, not just a party leader. The BBC gave way to Johnson’s demand to be interviewed by Andrew Marr this morning without agreeing to be interviewed by Andrew Neil for that very reason. They deemed it, in a quixotic triumph of hope over expectation, ‘in the public interest’. For all her faults, in Theresa May’s case that might have been true. Her successor makes for a sad contrast.
Johnson took a traditional ‘lock ’em up and hang ’em high’ approach. Would a different sentencing framework have produced a different outcome? Would the attacker have persuaded the Parole Board had that been required? What were the merits of the Court of Appeal’s decision to replace a sentence of detention for public protection with an extended sentence? Does the current sentencing framework (under which the attacker was not sentenced) need reform? My instincts are liberal, but I won’t try to answer here: others will do so and it’s not my point. The point is that the Prime Minister has chosen to inflame and divide, to use a national tragedy and families’ heartbreak for partisan advantage. It insults families, disgraces his office and demeans us all.
The Leader of the Opposition’s speech today was somewhat less blatant. For the avoidance of doubt, I don’t presume to know the foreign policy views of those affected on Friday. Nor do I dispute that foreign policy is a legitimate matter for national argument. But terrorist attacks aren’t an excuse to make that argument. Jeremy Corbyn did, in fairness, say ‘The blame lies with the terrorists, their funders and recruiters.’ But his next sentence was ‘But if we are to protect people we must be honest about what threatens our security.’ And as is so often the case, this was a classic example of being able to discard everything before the ‘but’, implying that in some sense the West brings this on itself.
Corbyn made a longstanding argument against Western foreign policy and intervention in almost any circumstances. Is there some causal connection between Western foreign policy and attacks in the UK, or at least a probabilistic connection? Would an already-existing fundamentalist ideology have kept away from our shores, unlike other countries which didn’t take part in most interventions, had we and the US taken a different foreign policy stance? Where does an ideologically anti-interventionist policy leave the people of Syria, Kosovo or Sierra Leone? My instincts are qualifiedly interventionist, but again, that’s not my point. The point is that the Leader of the Opposition used the immediate aftermath of Friday’s horror as a chance to push anti-Western foreign policy.
There was a time when we could have expected the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition to put partisan politics aside for at least a few days when it came to national tragedies. It wasn’t all that long ago. As I’ve said, Johnson is not May. And while Corbyn has form from 2017, Ed Miliband would have known better. This is a recent debasement.
I expect it will continue. But families have lost loved ones and the city I call home and the country I love have suffered a further attack. I don’t expect any better from either ‘leader’, but I should be able to. Mr Johnson, Mr Corbyn: shame on you both. A plague on both your houses.
This post was originally published on Medium.com on 1 December 2019.