Common caste identity
Eddie Ford says that the killing of rightwing Tory MP David Amess reveals a lot about careerist politicians in general. And not only on the Labour right … there is the official and unofficial Labour ‘left’ too
We now know the alleged killer of Sir David Amess, Tory MP for Leigh-on-Sea: Ali Harbi Ali, a 25-year-old British citizen whose father was a former advisor to the Somali prime minister. Ali senior had reportedly faced death threats from the Somali-based Islamist group, al Shabaab, which is loosely affiliated to al Qa’eda.
While communists cannot, and do not, condone the murder of Amess, we are totally opposed to the bourgeois establishment, not least those who sit as Tory MPs. But that clearly does not apply to Sir Keir Starmer, of course, who, as part of the bourgeois establishment, walked side by side with Boris Johnson to lay a wreath at the Belfairs Methodist church, where the MP was killed. No-one in the working class movement should join in the commemorations for a reactionary Conservative - or decline to stand against the Tories in the forthcoming by-election to elect a replacement MP, as the Labour Party has pledged to do.
Regarding the alleged killer, whatever his exact motivation, it is important to understand that his ‘radicalisation’ was not primarily a product of Somalia - he was born and raised in this country. Rather, he was radicalised by British conditions. Attempting to get into his head is obviously not a science - more an act of imagination. But when he listened to the BBC reporting world politics, discovered what Britain has been doing in northern Africa and the Middle East to his fellow Muslims, he presumably found it obscene. After all, the death of one British or American soldier commands considerable media attention, while, the routine killing of hundreds of Afghanis, Somalis or Iraqis hardly rates a mention.
The assassination of Amess needs to be viewed in that context. It is blowback.
Probably his assassin felt no particular personal animus towards him - he struck out against the British establishment as a whole: Amess was a representative of the hated British parliament, not a hated individual. After all, trying to attack a government minister must be extraordinarily difficult nowadays. They get round-the-clock armed protection. Not ordinary backbench MPs. Well, not at the moment at least. So, if you want revenge, best to strike out against someone lower down the pyramid. You have a much greater chance of success - as demonstrated by Thomas Mair, the fascist loner who in 2016 killed Labour MP Jo Cox.
We have had to endure the official mourning and flags at half-mast, as Amess is turned into a saintly martyr just like Jo Cox before him (whilst his alleged killer is treated as a evil monster). But this is the man who wanted to bring back the death penalty and like many ‘pro-deathers’ he was also ‘pro-life’ - ie, he opposed a woman’s right to abortion, supporting the Prohibition of Abortion (England and Wales) Bill in 2006. After becoming an MP in 1983, he generally voted against bills furthering LGBT rights, including equal age of consent and same-sex marriage. Naturally, he was staunchly pro-Brexit, saying it was “dangerous” and a “huge mistake” to vote ‘remain’.
Moving further afield, Amess was a leading member of Conservative Friends of Israel. In 2011 he accused the BBC of biased reporting over the settler colony, which in his opinion was covered in a “highly disproportionate manner” and showed the Zionist state in a “poor light” - which would be truly dreadful, of course. Amess voted for the Iraq War, even if later he became critical of the Blair government’s failure to find ‘weapons of mass destruction’ - actually believing the ‘dodgy dossier’ and the propaganda lies about the Saddam Hussein regime. Indeed, feeling so betrayed, he was one of the few Tory MPs to support the campaign to impeach Tony Blair!
In the end, however, perhaps he ought really to be remembered most of all for appearing in the 1997 ‘Drugs’ episode of the brilliant spoof current-affairs television programme, Brass Eye.1 In his then capacity as the newly appointed chair of the government’s Psychoactive Substances Bill committee, his ignorance was on full display when he got fooled into filming an elaborate warning against the dangers of a non-existent drug called “cake”. When Brass Eye was repeated and released on DVD, a disclaimer was added to the ‘Drugs’ episode at Amess’s demand, reiterating his disapproval of recreational drug use. Maybe, instead of declaring Southend-on-Sea a city, a more fitting way to remember Sir David Amess would be to buy the Brass Eye boxset.
But the killing of reactionary politicians who vote persistently for war and state mass murder is problematic not so much because it is morally unjustifiable. Rather, it simply does not work and can be used against the left and working class movement. It not only gives the authorities a chance to stress the bipartisan nature of ‘sensible politics’, but, more dangerously, it gives them an alibi to introduce yet more measures of surveillance and oppression.
A few years prior to the attack, Ali had been referred to Prevent and the Channel programme. A home office factsheet describes the latter as a multi-agency scheme providing “tailored support for a person vulnerable to being drawn into terrorism”.2 Ali is believed not to have spent long in the programme and apparently was never formally a “subject of interest” to MI5. Ironically, if anything, it is quite possible that being referred to the Prevent scheme acted as another stage in the process of his ‘radicalisation’.
Now the government is talking, of course, about recruiting yet more intelligence operatives and fast-tracking people in terms of the overall Prevent and Channel strategy. At the beginning of the week, government sources said that they hoped the long-awaited review of the programme led by Sir William Shawcross would “be published as quickly as possible”, with the aim of making it “more organised and more security-focused”. One proposal under consideration in the review is to allow the policing element to become “more significant” in local-authority Channel panels, which could easily end up making disillusioned people more likely to be drawn towards acts of individual terrorism, not less.
Boris Johnson is also facing calls to enact “David’s law” to crack down on social media abuse of public figures and end online anonymity. Mark Francois, a swivel-eyed member of the European Research Group, has vowed to dedicate his time in parliament to overhauling the rules governing social media. He wants MPs to “radically toughen up” the pending Online Safety Bill to prevent trolls and other abusers “hiding behind pseudonyms”. The bill intends to introduce new obligations on social media companies to regulate “illegal and harmful” material, but unsurprisingly there has been significant controversy over how such “illegal and harmful” material should be defined.
This putative bill clearly presents a clear danger to basic democratic rights. Not only for the obvious reason that ending online anonymity could put whistle-blowers and pro-democracy campaigners against particularly authoritarian regimes at risk, but also because people should have the right to use any name they like or use ways to stop their boss from spying on them. For instance, most - if not virtually all - prominent members of the Russian communist movement were “hiding behind pseudonyms”: Lenin, Stalin, Trotsky, Zinoviev, Kamenev, Martov, etc.
Showing the irrational and anti-democratic nature of the reaction to Amess’s death, there are demands that Keir Starmer disavows Angela Rayner, Labour’s deputy leader, because of her use of the term, “Tory scum”. Former army intelligence colonel Philip Ingram told Rayner that “you need to modify your hate language”, as “the calling of colleagues on the other team ‘scum’ stimulates these sorts of attacks”. So “hold your head in shame”, Rayner. It is easy to see how strongly worded phrases of condemnation can be viewed as “hate language” that becomes an alibi for terrorism. Please keep your mouth shut.
Following the Amess killing, the speaker of the House, Lindsay Hoyle, demanded an “end to hatred” against MPs and talked about the “parliamentary community”. This was not a wrong choice of words: it actually reflects a reality about our professional politicians: Labour, Tory, Lib Dems, SNP, Greens, etc - including the Labour left with maybe a few exceptions. They all fundamentally view themselves as a special class who have common interests. Whatever their background, a caste who dedicate themselves to themselves and their ladder-climbing career. Salaries, in bourgeois terms, are pretty meagre. Yet there is job satisfaction, connections and the prospect, with the right moves, of considerable wealth (eg, the multi-millionaire, Tony Blair).
In that sense, they are like professional footballers. For 90 minutes a week they will tackle and professionally foul fellow players in the other team, shout insults and abuse across the field, but are well aware that next week they could be playing for that very team. This is the spectacle we see every week in parliament.
In other words, Philip Ingram’s comments about the “other team” are significant. True, there is no ‘transfer market’ in professional politicians - well, apart from the likes of Reg Prentice and John Mann. Leaving aside the possibility of a seat in the House of Lords, what do they get? Well, apart from lucrative appointments and sinecures, it is the comforting belief that they have stayed true to their careerist origins (after all they have arrived).
Professional politicians, including on the Labour left, therefore have a lot more in common with other professional politicians than they do the great British public, not least in the way that professional footballers regard their fans.
Of course, there are those on the official left who want to join them. That is why Momentum, the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy, the Chatham House left and the other such outfits exist. And then there are the fan clubs, such as the Labour Representation Committee, who excuse, or simply ignore, their heroes’ dropping of one bothersome principle after another as if they were mere ballast. After all, is not politics all about elevating ‘good leftwingers’ into the (pro-capitalist) Labour shadow cabinet and then, through the next Labour government, into the stratospheric heights of the (pro-capitalist) cabinet itself? A perspective defended in the, now near defunct, Labour Left Alliance by Socialist Appeal’s Daniel Platts.
The rots run deep.