Terror, Tragedy and the Political

In British society, war is presented as a ‘pragmatic’ matter; this depoliticisation of war has created a politics that revolves almost entirely around it.

It is difficult to write about tragedy. Events such as terrorist attacks not only shatter the sense of security that many of us in the imperial core are accustomed to; they also shatter the language with which one might attempt to speak of it. The vast proliferation of stock phrases such as ‘Pray for X’ or ‘Je Suis X’ is not only the result of the brevity demanded of social media, but also provides an acceptable response when no response seems adequate. The language of condolences can sometimes seem cliché or insincere, but to say more that this can be difficult.

This difficulty has been highlighted all too sharply by the terrorist attacks in Manchester and London in the past month. In particular, the question of what is permissible for a politician to say in the wake of such events, especially in the middle of a general election, has become a central issue. Some commentators have seen Jeremy Corbyn’s remarks, criticising British foreign policy and our relations with repressive regimes in the Middle East, as politicising the death of innocents for his own ends. Even if these conversations are important and necessary, they should not be inserted into a time of tragedy and crisis, particularly since, at least after Manchester, all parties had temporarily suspended campaigning.

However, the choice to politicise these events or not to politicise them is not within our control. Whilst tragedy may shatter language, the institutions of the state will usually remain stable. Though some even on the left have presented the response of these institutions to the attacks in Manchester and London as ‘apolitical’, we would be naïve to accept this assessment of the escalation of police power at the command of the executive branch. Whatever her intentions, the show of strength in the increased presence of armed police on our streets reinforces May’s self-presentation as a stable leader in times of crisis (an image that was otherwise rapidly disintegrating). A similar impression is created by the pronouncement of a ten-step counter-terrorism programme from the steps of Downing Street. We cannot pretend the ability to address the nation as Prime Minister in the midst of an election for that role would not have an impact on the results.

In his 1957 essay entitled ‘Photography and Electoral Appeal’, Roland Barthes wrote about how photography was increasingly being utilised in electoral campaigns as an appeal to voters in itself, in which the visual impression of the candidate – ‘a physical climate, a set of daily choices expressed in a morphology, a way of dressing, a posture’ – replaces a way of understanding and responding to political events.1 These features are retained, even intensified in the television appearance outside 10 Downing Street. This strategy places the candidate outside the realm of the political; rhetoric and policy depend upon a form of rationality for their appeal because they exist in language, and can thus be debated and responded to, but an image relies entirely on authority. (There is no qualitative difference in this strategy as deployed by liberals who would entrust politics to a technocratic elite and openly authoritarian reactionaries.) In the shattering of language after tragedy, it is even easier to displace attempted analysis of the situation, such as Corbyn’s, with this kind of political theatre. Alongside the constant refrain of ‘Strong and Stable Leadership’ to the staged campaign events, May’s response to Manchester and London is just one example of the authoritarianism that has been so determinative for the Conservative campaign.

We also have to understand May’s response in the context of the wider expansion of police powers since the millennium. As part of the War on Terror, national security has been guaranteed by the increased surveillance of Black and Minority Ethnic communities through stop-and-search powers and legislation such as Prevent, which CAGE have referred to as “a cradle to a grave police state”, that explicitly targets such communities as threats to society. The security such measures offer is deeply racialised, and it would be dishonest to pretend that there is no link between these actions of the state and the steady growth of hate crimes by civilians against such communities.

As such, that it was Corbyn who is presented as having illegitimately ‘politicised’ these events rather than May is deeply revealing as to how politics and the political sphere is conceived. In British society, war is presented as a merely ‘pragmatic’ matter rather than a political decision, and ironically, this depoliticisation of war has created a politics that revolves almost entirely around it. This has long roots, going back at least as far as government propaganda during the Second World War (a recent example of this can be found in the opening paragraphs of this piece in the Mail Online), and behind that, to the legacy of colonialism much admired by many in the Conservative Party. The colonial link highlights that to see Britain’s wars in the 21st century as apolitical requires one to see Middle Eastern casualties, if they are even acknowledged, as merely necessary losses for the sake of British security. We also cannot pretend that there is no connection between these ‘interventionary’ wars – including the ‘clash of civilisations’ narrative that fuels it – and the increase in hate crimes against Muslims in Britain itself. The false exclusion of war from the political realm is costing lives both here and abroad, and this violence is highly racialised.

This depoliticisation is also part of why many have denied the obvious relationship between recent terrorist attacks and British foreign policy. The suffering we have caused has helped to confirm the narrative of ‘East vs West’ that groups like ISIS appeal to, and the chaos we have created in Syria and Libya is the perfect space for these organisations to thrive in. This is before one even takes into account that many of the figures that form these groups are using British weapons and were trained in the West. None of this is new. Figures from across the political spectrum have commented on it, and Corbyn’s speeches refer to acknowledgements by security services to this effect. However, previously, this analysis was only in the abstract, and its political impact was minimal. To apply it directly to policy, as Corbyn proposes, is therefore presented as an illegitimate politicisation, simply for treating war as a political matter at all.

Bringing Britain’s imperialist adventurism in the Middle East and North Africa to a close would not only be an unequivocally good decision for security and foreign policy, but in the context of wider Labour policy – such as its emphasis on diplomacy and commitment to end arms exports to nations where they may be used in violation of international law – it would be a landmark event in contemporary British politics. And yet, this is not to praise Corbyn without qualification. The “War on Terror” and the accompanying growth in police power began under a Labour government, even if this has been built upon by Conservative (and Coalition) imperialist interventions and further extensions of police powers. The Labour manifesto promises 10,000 more police officers and 1,000 more border guards, and in a speech following the attacks in London, Corbyn promised “full authority to the police to use whatever force is necessary to protect and save life”. One person dies in police custody or following police contact in England and Wales every six days, according to Inquest, and a disproportionate number of these people are from Black and Minority Ethnic communities. In this context, handing security services whatever powers they request no longer appears like an obvious pragmatic step, but rather a capitulation to the depoliticisation of militarisation such as Corbyn rightly condemned in our foreign policy.

It would be easy in a time when the stakes seem so high, and when so much of the left seems to be mobilising behind Corbyn, to offer uncritical support for the Labour platform. However, elections decide who will manage the nation-state, and as such, usually leave the foundations and organs of this state unchallenged. Such events are of temporary urgency, but they cannot be allowed to fully determine how we perceive the political realm. The Labour Left is not immune from a naivety around the state and its repressive apparatus, treating it as apolitical or at least as politically neutral, and in this regard, it can sometimes prove difficult to distinguish the Labour Left’s, albeit sometimes fraught, acceptance of the categories of parliamentarianism and with it this naivety towards the state from an opportunistic electoralism.2 A sense of new possibility, after decades of neoliberalism, is part of what makes Corbyn so popular. We must not be afraid to bring this sense of new possibility, this reimagination of the political, not only to foreign policy, but to security, migration, and anti-racism.

  1. Roland Barthes, ‘Photography and Electoral Appeal’ in Mythologies, London, Vintage, 2009, p. 91. 

  2. Ralph Miliband, Parliamentary Socialism: A Study in the Politics of Labour, London, Merlin.