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Tragedy makes politics more important. So why suspend campaigning?


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Much as I dislike having to say it, I find myself in agreement with Paul Nuttall. UKIP are to resume their general election campaign today, having – and like the rest – suspended it after the attack in Manchester. The Labour Party will not officially recommence their campaign until Friday, and the same is true of the Conservative Party.

Paul Nuttall’s reasoning, though, is sound: at a time when we are constantly told that we will go about our business as normal, that nothing will change, that terrorism will not break us or force us to display aberrant behaviour (except, of course, that we now have soldiers on our streets and must all conform to sickly campaigns for ‘unity’, which is a very un-British concept), it is surely hypocritical to prolong the suspension of political campaigns.

Announcing his decision, Mr Nuttall said: ‘For those who say that nothing must change, but then complain, it is by prolonging the disruption to normality that we allow the terrorists to win… Politics has never been more important, politicians must deal with these issues.’

And he’s right. But there is another reason: to suggest that a campaign has been suspended, and therefore that nothing said by politicians and political advocates during this period is to be considered political, is highly dishonest. The statement ‘you should not politicize a tragedy’ is itself a political statement, as is the suggestion that politics is too divisive to take place at this time.

I wrote on this topic last year for The Salisbury Review, when political campaigns were again ostensibly suspended following the brutal murder of Jo Cox. My contention then, as it is now, was that this prolonged period of mass Purdah was affording implicitly (and often explicitly) political arguments the veneer of apolitical truth and respectability.

As I wrote then: "David Cameron, firmly of the opinion that we should not politicise the tragedy, begins to say all the right things about hope not hate, joy not fear, diversity not intolerance, et cetera, ad nauseam. Never mind that, when not banging on about The Economy, Stupid, in the course of the referendum campaign, he has made those same soundbites and platitudes and niceties his rhetorical tools in service of the Remain faction. But no, not now. Times have changed. He is no longer a politician, he is a human being. He has no opinion on the referendum; how could he following such a tragic event? No, no, he is not politicising the issue at all.

"Others, lacking Mr. Cameron’s experience and gift in the art of trickery, have not been quite so subtle.

"The character of the alleged murderer, who, it has been said by many, was supposedly both mentally ill and had links to far-right and neo-Nazi groups, must say something about the state of politics and of political rhetoric in this country. We must not politicise the issue, but surely the toxic atmosphere of the referendum debate is at least partly responsible for this tragedy?"

What I didn’t say then, but what I will say now, is that there is another facet to this problem. Sure, high-profile government ministers and shadow cabinet members do not presently appear on The Daily Politics to trade crass barbs and accusations, and when they do appear on television they seldom deviate from the ‘apolitical’ line - we’re united, hope not hate, #WeStandTogether, nothing to do with Islam. (The Prime Minister’s decision to deploy soldiers is ‘apolitical’ in the same way, which is to say that it carries significant political capital.) – but the general public are not quite so nuanced in their devotion to this idea.

Already we have seen a supporter of Jeremy Corbyn removed from Downing Street for harassing members of the police and armed forces. They, she said, were defending ‘the biggest terrorist of them all’ – that’s the Prime Minister, who has never to my knowledge detonated an explosive device in a stadium full of young women. ‘Theresa May was losing. She is going to lose. Please use your vote wisely on June the 8th,’ was her other line; and this at a time when politics is officially not allowed!

And The Canary reports that a growing number of people in Manchester are calling for a boycott of The Sun, after the Murdoch rag was insensitive enough to run a piece, on the morning after the attack, featuring an interview with an ex-IRA man. The headline was ‘LABOUR EXCLUSIVE: BLOOD ON HIS HANDS’, with the subheading ‘Ex-IRA killer’s Corbyn Verdict’.

Now, one can take a dim view of The Sun and of this article. One might even suspect, as many aggrieved Mancunians evidently do, that the headline was deliberately designed encourage a conflation. (Though it bears saying that any conflation takes place in the minds of readers; the dog whistle only works when there are dogs around to hear it.) Yet any opinion on this subject must be a political one. If the theorists of conspiracy are correct, The Sun is guilty of nothing more unusual than playing politics. And those calling for a ban on the paper are making a political statement, too.

I could go on and on, citing example after example. ‘Juuuuust [sic] in case anyone was still voting conservative [sic], imagine last night’s heartbreaking [sic] tragedy happening with a privatised NHS. That’s all’, says a Tweet that’s been quite widely shared.

But the point has, I think, been demonstrated. Suspending political campaigns is, at best, an attempt to defy reality, which is that politics never stops. Those who pretend otherwise are either deluded or cynical. Politicians keep up the pretence, but everything they say in this apolitical interlude is political, carries political connotations, and bears political capital. Meanwhile, the general public, even those endorsing the sentiment behind the suspension, stubbornly (or, rather, naturally) refuse to cease their politicking.

And I cannot see why they shouldn’t. There is nothing good about pretending that politics can go, or has gone, away. It can’t and it won’t. Nor is there anything normal about it. Nor is there anything necessarily bad about ‘divisiveness’; politics, after all, is supposed to be divisive; a duel between rival ideas.

So I do wish that we would dispense with this peculiar habit, of acting bizarrely in the name of ‘business as usual’. These issues – terrorism, integration, security, civil liberties – need to be discussed, and we would be far better off if our leaders spent more time talking about them rather than ducking at the first opportunity.

Politics is inevitable and eternal. Let’s accept the fact and get on with it.

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