We hear a lot today about the divide in our media and politics. Many of those who talk about the need to ‘mend’ that divide are treated with a warranted degree of suspicion. Warranted because so many of them want to mend all divides through the short-cut of getting everybody to agree with them.
Since the day will never come when we all agree on everything, a better approach is to try to at least encourage empathy between political opposites: ‘You may agree with me or not, but can you at least understand why I have arrived at these conclusions?’
Especially after the relative polling success of Jeremy Corbyn, this question becomes ever more pertinent in Britain. Personally, I can understand why a young person looking up at the unreachable lowest-rungs of the property ladder might choose to give their vote to the Labour leader. But what I cannot understand is their lack of interest in, or callous attitude towards, a major aspect of the Labour leader’s past.
Over recent months I have spoken to many people, mainly younger than me (I am in my late thirties), who find criticism of Corbyn’s role during the 30-year conflict in Northern Ireland hard to understand. It is not that they lack empathy or intelligence, but it was all before their time and they don’t seem especially keen to go back into what was – by any estimate – a complex, murky and more than usually ugly conflict. All of which throws up a significant moral question. Much of the hard business of politics is about finding an appropriate place between forgetfulness and slavishness towards historical memory. It is a question which Northern Ireland, with its especially long-held hatreds, throws up constantly. When is it right to ‘move on’ from events, and can you do it for other people?
To the extent that younger Corbyn supporters know about the issue of the Troubles, they appear to believe that criticism of his behaviour during that period is either an invention of the right-wing media or that what Corbyn was actually engaged in during his decades of advocacy for hardline Republican groups was simply part of his work as the secret advance guard of the Good Friday Agreement. When such claims are refuted – as they very easily are – then we get on to the response which I am most interested in here: ‘Can’t we just move on?’
This is a genuinely fascinating challenge. So allow me a thought experiment to illustrate the problem it puts some of us in. I direct it as a sincere question to supporters of Jeremy Corbyn.
Imagine that tomorrow a new paramilitary group was founded in Britain, with a plausible enough cause built on some widely felt political grievance. Imagine that MPs in several political parties already found common cause with the group’s beliefs and desired a political solution to the problem this paramilitary group sought to address by violence. However, for this small paramilitary group (relying on a much larger circle of civilian support) peaceful, democratic politics couldn’t achieve their goals fast enough.
Imagine furthermore that one of the groups apparently standing in the way of this group’s goals and tactics was the present leadership of the Labour party. As a result the paramilitary group decides to target Jeremy Corbyn and his Shadow Cabinet. This year’s annual party conference in Brighton is chosen for the attack.
Next month this new paramilitary group successfully places a massive explosive device on a timer at the conference hotel at which the Labour party leadership are staying. The bomb goes off – as planned – in the middle of the night. It narrowly fails to kill the party leader. However a Labour MP is killed by the blast, as are a number of other conference delegates. A member of the Shadow Cabinet is carried out on a stretcher before the world’s cameras. He recovers, but his wife is so badly injured that she must spend the rest of her days in a wheelchair.
Whatever party you supported, or whatever your own politics, who would not join in condemnation of someone stepping outside the political process in such a way? Whatever their party affiliation, who would not see this as an outrage not just against Jeremy Corbyn and his colleagues, but against every principle of the democratic Parliamentary process? What support could such an outrage possibly find? Let alone in the very system that has been attacked? Strangely enough, some support is found.
Within days of the blast, as the injured are still in hospital and before the victims are all buried, an obscure and rebellious backbench Conservative invites the leaders of the paramilitary group who attempted to kill Jeremy Corbyn to the House of Commons. The MP is known to have supported their cause in the past. He takes tea with the leaders of the movement that just bombed the Labour party conference and gives them his ongoing political support.
Would this be decent? Would this cause anger? One would think so. And what if – whenever he was asked to condemn acts such as the attempt to kill Corbyn and the shadow cabinet this MP consistently reverted to strange circumlocutions, such as a refusal to condemn the guilty group and an insistence that like anyone they condemned ‘all violence’. Unwilling to condemn the atrocity, what if – whenever the question of the Labour conference Brighton bomb of 2017 arose – he began to get irritated, (as though the victims were a sort of irritant)?
The scenario begs a follow-on question. Would the Corbynista, who fumed and doubtless demonstrated against the Conservative MP who took such a stance, forgive them after a week, a year or ten years? What if after thirty years that very MP swiftly rose from obscurity and relative ignominy to the leadership of the Conservative party? And that all the while the victims of the blast remained in their wheelchairs, he maintained his refusal to single out those responsible for criticism?
I would understand the Corbyn supporter who felt that there should be no statute of limitations on such an atrocity and no possible forgiveness for anyone who gave the slightest support to the people who would carry out such an act. Yet such a stance of political solidarity which can occur one way cannot, it appears, occur in the other. What some of us have with Jeremy Corbyn then is not just a disagreement over politics or over policies, but a disagreement over whether there can be any ambiguity over the use of terror in a democratic society.
Those of us who hold onto our not-very-ancient political memories may be derided. But can any decent political opponent wonder at our dismay that such a pass has been reached? And not in some counter-factual reality, but in the only reality that any of us have.