Magazine article The Spectator

Murder and Politics

Magazine article The Spectator

Murder and Politics

Article excerpt

Rage, polarisation and the death of a friend

Six months ago an old friend of mine was murdered on his doorstep. This week his killer was sentenced to life imprisonment. In both cases, the first I heard of it was when someone I follow on Twitter posted a joke with a link to a news story. Both jokes were whimsical rather than callous -- both were, in fact, musing on which Sunday evening television detective would most likely solve the crime -- but whimsy in these circumstances feels like callousness. The tweets made me very angry.

I read the reports of the trial. The murderer had made a spreadsheet of his potential victims, for robbery or kidnap, with their names in one column, planned modus in another and 'reason' in a third. The reasons varied -- often it was 'Tory', at other times 'scum Tory'. But while many reports noted that his only other attack was against a well-known Conservative donor whose wife raised the alarm before he was able to force entry, this detail, that the murderer considered being 'scum Tory' a reason for premeditated violence, was only mentioned in one report. This, too, made me angry.

Andrew Watts discusses the murder of his friend on the podcast

Just imagine that someone had been killed by a right-winger. A murderer who thought that socialists -- or Remainers, perhaps -- were scum, or that being on the other side of a divisive political issue made them a legitimate target for violence, and had put this in writing. It does not take much imagination, actually, because this is exactly what has happened in this country.

I was at a dinner party last week, and one of the other guests announced that he was so fed up with the toxic political climate after Brexit, and racism becoming mainstream within political discourse, that he was moving to France. France . And I am quite sure that he genuinely believed that he would be more comfortable in a country where the Front National is polling around 28 per cent; in other cases, the panic seems less innocent.

Stephen Kinnock spoke in the Commons after another senseless murder of another good person. 'Rhetoric has consequences,' he said. 'When insecurity, fear and anger are used to light a fuse, then an explosion is inevitable.' And we all knew what he meant, and who he was talking about. Since then, news sources have insisted upon the link between the vote for Brexit and the increase in hate crimes.

But, I would argue, the link between the referendum vote and any rise in hate crime is no stronger -- and probably (depending on what you think motivated Brexit voters) a whole lot weaker -- than the link between my friend's death and the people who call Tories 'scum'. Rhetoric has consequences. So why is one a part of the national political narrative, and the other a passing comment in a single crime report? Why do people who would be (rightly) shunned for joking about a Labour MP's murder feel that there is nothing problematic in joking about the killing of an Oxford-educated antiques dealer?

There is, at least, an explanation for the jokes -- the Chris Rock formula that you must always 'punch up, never punch down'. By any current system of classification, my white, middle-class, well-educated friend was 'up'. But 'punching up' is, however you romanticise it, still punching. …

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